The Cigar Factory of Isay Rottenberg

The Hidden History of a Jewish Entrepreneur in Nazi Germany

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Pub Date 11 Jan 2022 | Archive Date 31 Mar 2022


In 1932, Isay Rottenberg, a Jewish paper merchant, bought a cigar factory in Germany: Deutsche Zigarren-Werke. When his competitors, supported by Nazi authorities, tried to shut it down, the headstrong entrepreneur refused to give up the fight.

Isay Rottenberg was born into a large Jewish family in Russian Poland in 1889 and grew up in Lodz. He left for Berlin at the age of eighteen to escape military service, moving again in 1917 to Amsterdam on the occasion of his marriage. In 1932 he moved to Germany to take over a bankrupt cigar factory. With newfangled American technology, it was the most modern at the time. The energetic and ambitious Rottenberg was certain he could bring it back to life, and with newly hired staff of 670 workers, the cigar factory was soon back in business.

Six months later, Hitler came to power and the Nazi government forbade the use of machines in the cigar industry so that traditional hand-rollers could be re-employed. That was when the real struggle began. More than six hundred qualified machine workers and engineers would lose their jobs if the factory had to close down. Supported by the local authorities he managed to keep the factory going, but in 1935 he was imprisoned following accusations of fraud. The factory was expropriated by the Deutsche Bank. When he was released six months later thanks to the efforts of the Dutch consul, he brought a lawsuit of his own. His fight for rehabilitation and restitution of his property would continue until Kristallnacht in 1938.

The Cigar Factory of Isay Rottenberg is written by two of Rottenberg’s granddaughters, who knew little of their grandfather’s past growing up in Amsterdam until a call for claims for stolen or confiscated property started them on a journey of discovery. It includes a foreword by Robert Rotenberg, criminal defense lawyer and author of bestselling legal thrillers.

In 1932, Isay Rottenberg, a Jewish paper merchant, bought a cigar factory in Germany: Deutsche Zigarren-Werke. When his competitors, supported by Nazi authorities, tried to shut it down, the...

Advance Praise

“The Cigar Factory of Isay Rottenberg is a fascinating story of resilience and survival. Much as their ancestor fought his fight, the Rottenbergs have left no stone unturned to preserve his story. Thank God they did! They write the way you should smoke a cigar—savouring every moment without ever letting the flame go out!” – Mark Critch, performer, and author of Son of a Critch

“This is a powerful and riveting account of a family suddenly discovering their heroic ancestor's past, a story that reminds us all of the power of an individual to resist the brutal killing machine of the Nazis. In the overwhelming deluge of fatal statistics from the Holocaust, this book is another example of particular lives impacted, the human stories of families and people that all too often get lost. There is another face of fascist resistance and the agony of the genocide—added to the millions already— but now the world can see the brave and unstinting face of Isay Rottenberg. ” – Evan Solomon, columnist, political journalist, and radio host

“Who wouldn’t like to wake up one day to discover a previously unknown family history that illuminates the world events of its day? This is precisely what happened to the highly regarded Rotenberg family of Toronto when the revealing story of their ancestor, Isay Rottenberg, unexpectedly came to light in 2017. Isay’s struggle to retain his successful cigar factory in Germany in the early days of the Hitler regime is a detailed and historically valuable microcosm of how quickly violence overwhelmed German society in the early 1930s. The Cigar Factory of Isay Rottenberg is also the poignant story of newly discovered ties with living European relatives. And the cherished continuities that bind families together. ” – Erna Paris, author of Long Shadows: Truth, Lies and History

“Two journalist cousins retrieve their grandfather from the silenced history of a factory stolen and a family saved. An enthralling quest. ” – Nessa Rapoport, author of Evening: A Novel

“Two granddaughters go in search of the hidden history of their Jewish grandfather, and they uncover an amazing story: how he bought a cigar factory near Dresden as the Nazis came to power in Germany, and how he fought defiantly to keep it operating, at the risk of his life. An astonishing portrait of what life was truly like for a Jewish businessman in Nazi Germany, and an exemplary example of how two determined women stripped aside family mythologies and arrived at the surprising truth about the family patriarch. ” – Michael Ignatieff, author of On Consolation

“A remarkable window into the life of a Jewish family, just one among the millions who endured so much, who struggled so valiantly to maintain human dignity in those shadow years of the early 1930s when even the cruelest heart could not imagine a time when murder and industrial slaughter would become the German national pastime. A story of redemption, courage, and honour that leaves one shuddering in awe. ” – Wade Davis, ethnographer, photographer, filmmaker, author of Magdalena, River of Dreams

“The extraordinary story of a determined, inventive man in lethally dangerous times and the legacy of bravery, tenacity, and endurance shared by his widespread family. ” – Anna Porter, author of The Appraisal and Deceptions

“The Cigar Factory of Isay Rottenberg is a fascinating story of resilience and survival. Much as their ancestor fought his fight, the Rottenbergs have left no stone unturned to preserve his story...

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Featured Reviews

The Cigar Factory of Isay Rottenberg by Hella Rottenberg and Sandra Rottenberg is a very well-researched look at the life of one extraordinary man and, through that lens, of life for Jewish people and business owners in particular under Nazi rule.

As a story this book is compelling as we learn about the many steps from a seemingly safe existence to one fraught with danger. The reader will feel invested in these lives. Yet that is just part of the appeal of the book. As a history book it serves to illustrate how a society can move gradually toward accepting evil as normal. That history speaks to our current world as well as we seem intent on moving toward hatred today just as Nazi Germany did then.

I would recommend this to readers who like reading specific accounts of how individuals were affected during the Nazi regime. I would also recommend it to those whose interest is more broadly in how societal shifts are made and how they impact those being othered.

Reviewed from a copy made available by the publisher via NetGalley.

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I was fascinated to learn of a Jewish man who had a factory in Germany during WW2. Though much is written about wartime in Europe, this is a unique story tracked down by the grandchildren of Isay Rottenberg. They did a superb job of researching and tracking down each and every clue, since that were never told that he had this factory. That was the generation that did not tell secrets to children and grandchildren so they were left with a mystery to solve. The book includes their extensive research and their fears and relief as they considered their grandfather's personality and just why he would have such an attachment to Germany. And of course we read this book with the advantage of hindsight so the reader must try and imagine what it was like to be in this situation. Issay Rottenberg was a tough guy who seemed determined to push through everything. At what cost to his family, one cannot say, but he was a man out to succeed. Much admiration for the authors of this book for putting it all together. There are a lot of names, places, events, that will be unfamiliar to the American reader, but the back matter is helpful and the reader could go as deep as they wanted or simply read it on a more surface level for the story.

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Sandra and Hella Rottenberg have written a comprehensive memoir about their grandfather Isay Rottenberg, who for a short time, (1932-1934), was the owner of Deutsche Zigarren-Werke, the only mechanized cigar factory in Germany. Unfortunately for Isay, he lost the factory with the rise of the Nazis.

Amsterdam was actually home for Isay when he bought the factory, and it would always be home for the Rottenbergs, Isay,his wife Lena, and his children, Alfred, Edwin and Toni. They survived the war, and Isay went into a new business, manufacturing straws. Isay never spoke of the cigar factory after the war.

When Sandra and Hella, cousins, and Isay’s granddaughters, were informed that perhaps, they were entitled to reparations for losses their grandfather may have incurred at the hands of the Nazis, they decided to investigate the details of Isay’s life before the war. They recalled hearing talk of a cigar factory in Germany, so they decided to do some research. They found a part of their grandfather’s life they knew nothing about: he owned a cigar factory in Dobëin Germany!

Dobëln, was the center of cigar manufacturing Germany. Isay’s factory employed 670 people, had American made machines, and was capable of pumping out more than 60 million cigars per year. This seems like a huge number of cigars, and, I personally was shocked by this number! But it is true.

Although Isay lost his investment in the cigar factory, it was not without a fierce battle Isay tried everything, and the Nazis did not intimidate him. However, in the end, the Nazis would never accept having a Dutch Jew owning the only mechanized cigar manufacturing factory in Germany.

This book is a fascinating read. I knew it would be! Sandra and Hella have done an incredible job. Thank you and for my copy of in return for my honest review. .

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This was a really fascinating look back at a fascinating man; Isay's story is one of great importance, in my opinion, and his grand-daughters do a remarkable job in piecing together Isay's history. This is a story that I hope is seen and read by many.

I am thankful his grand-daughters were moved, collectively, to play detective and piece together this remarkable narrative. 5 stars

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This is an extraordinary story. There are, tragically, all too many stories about the fate of Jews under the Nazis, and all too many stories of Jewish property being expropriated and looted. But this fascinating family tale is a little different for in this one the targeted Jewish entrepreneur Isay Rottenberg actually fought back and for a while at least managed to hold on to his cigar factory in Germany. The family knew very little about this history until they saw a call in Amsterdam for claims for stolen or confiscated property and realised that their grandfather’s factory was on the list. Two of his granddaughters immediately set out to research the factory and uncovered an amazing tale of determination and fortitude on the part of their grandfather – something he never talked about. A powerful and inspiring family memoir.

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