Sandra Rottenberg and Hella Rottenberg

Isay Rottenberg’s Cigar Factory

A man who refused to give in to the Nazi regime and a small town that needed a factory

In mid-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. Told from the perspective of his two granddaughters who carefully reconstructed their grandfather’s story and set against the backdrop of the Nazi takeover of a small German town, the narrative takes the form of the unravelling of a hidden family history and a quest.

Isay Rottenberg was born into a large Jewish family in Russian Poland in 1889 and grew up in Lodz. He moved to Berlin at the age of eighteen to escape military service. In 1917, after a successful period in trade, he married his cousin Lena, who lived in Amsterdam. A few months after the wedding, he joined her there. While his Amsterdam business ran into difficulties after the Wall Street crash of 1929, Isay looked for new opportunities. In 1932, he left his wife and children behind in Amsterdam and moved to Döbeln (near Dresden) to take over a bankrupt cigar factory. With newfangled American technology, it was the most modern in Germany at the time. The energetic and ambitious Rottenberg was certain he could bring it back to life and, having spent ten years in Germany already, he knew the ropes. Once he’d hired a staff of 670 workers, the cigar factory was back on a roll.

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. Isay employed more than six hundred qualified machine workers and engineers. They 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, and 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.

Written in an accessible and personal manner, the book shows how an ordinary German town responded to the early years of national socialism and the Nazi take over, and how keeping a Jewish business alive involved a complicated sparring match with unions, competitors, local, provincial and national authorities, Deutsche Bank and NSDAP bigwigs. The authors have a keen eye for the context in which the drama took place: not just the economic and political circumstances but also the background and motive of the various players.

‘The characters are people of flesh and blood. But the most original aspect of this family history is the way the authors include their own perspectives. They make it quite clear that their relationships with their grand- father were very different: Hella adored her grandfather […] but Sandra never felt truly at ease with him.’

NRC Handelsblad


Sandra Rottenberg

Sandra Rottenberg, a producer, and her cousin Hella Rottenberg, a writer and a journalist, started investigating their grandfather’s life when a Jewish-Dutch newspaper advertised a €50 million compensation fund for Jews robbed of their property in the former GDR. Isay Rottenberg’s name was on…

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Hella Rottenberg

Hella Rottenberg, a writer and a journalist, and her cousin Sandra Rottenberg, a producer, started investigating their grandfather’s life when a Jewish-Dutch newspaper advertised a €50 million compensa- tion fund for Jews robbed of their property in the former GDR. Isay Rottenberg’s name was…

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De sigarenfabriek van Isay Rottenberg (2017). Non-fiction, 272 pages.

English sample available

Themes: WWII


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