It’s exactly one hundred years ago, since German-born Auckland businessman Gustav Kronfeld was interned on Motuihe Island as an alien enemy during World War One. Kronfeld’s properties were confiscated, including a substantial warehouse on Auckland’s waterfront, now one of the buildings preserved in Auckland’s historic Britomart Precinct. These days it’s called the Barrington Building but one of Gustav Kronfeld’s great granddaughters is calling for it to be renamed after her forebear.
I’ve taken a walk with Sandy Harrop and her son Joe. The pair arrive bearing a large tome on Gustav, written for the family by cousin Tony Kronfeld. We start at the bottom of Auckland’s CBD , and first stop is the rear of the handsome old warehouse that Gustav built in the 1890’s.
The building now backs on to Takutai Square, behind the Britomart Railway Station. It's painted in a nice shade of blue along this side, but Sandy has told me if you look carefully you can still see her grandfather’s name under the layers.
I have to admit I’m sceptical, but then Joe Kronfeld says
“No it’s there! Look! It’s still there”.
And it’s as if scales have fallen from my eyes.
The original big sign "G Kronfeld" was cast in relief concrete high on the wall. It’s been chipped off sometime in the last one hundred years and then painted over numerous times. But with Joe’s guidance you can see the letters are still there. Hiding in plain sight!
Gustav Kronfeld was born into a Jewish family in the medieval Prussian town of Thorn in 1856. The town is now called Toruń and is part of modern Poland. Gustav left his home town for Australia in 1873. He then went to Tonga, and by the early 1900’s in Auckland he was a naturalised member of the British Empire, and a man of means with a successful import export business. He and his Samoan born wife Louisa had ten children.
They all lived in a very grand house called “Oli Oola” he’d built up on Eden Crescent. There were grand views of the harbour, it was grand part of town where many of the early Auckland merchants had built large houses. Today few of the big houses remain except those taken over by Auckland university. Oli Oola has been replaced by a modern building housing the University’s Law School.
At the outbreak of World War One there were something like 1300 people living in New Zealand who had been born either in Germany or what was then the Austro Hungarian Empire. War was declared on the 28th July 1914, and within a month New Zealand troops had seized German Samoa with little opposition. At the outbreak of war, Samoa was of moderate strategic importance to Germany. The radio transmitter located in the hills above Apia was capable of sending long-range Morse signals to Berlin.
More than 60 Germans were transported from Samoa and interned in New Zealand. Those of a better class were taken to Motuihe Island in Auckland harbour, while the rest went to Matiu/Somes Island in Wellington. Eventually those on Motuihe would be joined by some of the German leading lights in New Zealand society, amongst them Gustav Kronfeld, but not till 1916. He languished on the island till late1919, a good year after the war had ended.
Sandy reckons the authorities took time building up a case against Gustav, and then when it was all over, were not that keen to let him go. Joe thinks there was anti-German and anti-Jewish sentiment involved, and also because Gustav was a tough and successful businessman.
Gustav Kronfeld died in 1924 and Sandy Harrop believes the family got no compensation until after the Second World War.
Today the Kronfeld names appears liberally throughout Te Papa’s collection, much of it Pasifika and Maori artefacts collected by Gustav. They were donated to the National Museum in 1939 in the name of his wife Louisa Kronfeld. I have found three hundred objects looking at Te Papa on line, and that includes a unique finely carved bone paddle that starred in the famed Te Maori exhibit in the 1980’s.