Fight to preserve ‘Holocaust way station’ as memorial to the dead

Villa Buth in north Germany, which housed hundreds of Jews, faces demolition


A fierce battle is under way, pitting those seeking to protect a precious piece of Jewish heritage against the owner intent on its demolition.

The historic Villa Buth building in Jülich, North Rhine-Westphalia, housed hundreds of Jews during the war, many of whom were sent on to die in the concentration camps.

Expropriated by the Nazis in 1938 it was subsequently repurposed as part of a broader effort to declare the Jülich district “free of Jews”. 

It has been a listed structure for more than 30 years but is now in a state of extreme disrepair.

It stands at the centre of a fierce controversy that has galvanised the local historical association, the Jülich Society Against Forgetting and for Tolerance, into action. It says it is committed to preserving the memories of the Jewish people who lived there.

But its owner is now set on demolishing it, saying he cannot afford to restore it.

The German Foundation for Monument Protection (DSD) has expressed a readiness to offer financial support to save it from demolition. It said: “The villa is an important memorial and memorial site for the crimes committed against the Jewish population.

"The listed villa and the important memorial site are currently in danger. The owner wants to have the building demolished for reasons of economic unreasonableness.

"The Office for Monument Preservation in the Rhineland (LVR) has already stated in a statement that demolition is not justified for the reasons presented."

Though now in a sad state, with boarded-up windows and overgrown surroundings, the villa holds deep emotional significance for many.

Among them is Friederike Goertz, who, as a nine-year-old girl, found herself among approximately 150 other Jews temporarily residing in the villa during 1941 and 1942.

Despite the dark historical backdrop, she says she cherishes her memories of Villa Buth, where she played Cinderella on its steps, guided by her uncle, who tragically met his fate within the villa's walls.

But an expert report estimates that restoring the villa to a usable state would require an investment of about 9.5 million euros.

This has sparked the question of whether the owner can reasonably be expected to bear the massive financial burden of maintaining this historic structure.

Monument protection, as defined by the town authorities, primarily recognises the villa’s significance in the context of the local paper industry.

For decades, it served as the residence of the Eichhorn family, renowned paper manufacturers. After the fall of Nazism, it housed workers from the paper mill.

A pivotal decision on the Villa Buth is anticipated in February.

So far the Jülich town authorities have not officially approved the demolition application. Instead, they say they are engaged in discussions with the owner to explore alternative uses for the villa.

Proposals on the table include the preservation of specific segments of the building, the establishment of a memorial site, or the creation of a memorial centre.

For the Jülich Society Against Forgetting and for Tolerance, it says there is still a glimmer of hope that their work can succeed in securing a place that pays tribute to 1,700 years of Jewish life and the suffering endured during the Second World War.

The German Foundation for Monument Protection (DSD) lent its support to a memorial march organised by the citizens' initiative “Villa Buth, against decay for life”  on Holocaust Memorial Day. 

Villa Buth's history, as a "way station to the Holocaust", was previously explored in a school project at Heilig-Geist-Gymnasium Würselen under the DSDs “denkmal aktiv” (active memorial) school programme.

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