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Rags to Rubbers

Jane PaulickMarch 12, 2007

In Germany, the name Fromm is to condoms what Hoover is to vacuum cleaners. But it's only now that the story of the man behind the brand has come to light with a new book on Jewish entrepreneur Julius Fromm.

Hard at work making condoms at Fromm's factory in 1935Image: S.Fischer Verlag

They've been called French letters and English raincoats, but in fact, the world's oldest branded condom came from Germany. Launched by a Jewish entrepreneur in Berlin shortly after the First World War, "Fromms" are still No. 2 on the German condom market -- but until now, their inventor had been languishing in obscurity.

Now in a new book, "Fromms -- How Julius F. Fell Prey to German Robbers," authors Götz Aly and Michael Sontheimer set the record straight by exploring the life and times of a man who changed German sexual habits for good.

Tapping into the zeitgeist

Julius Fromm, Mitte der Zwanzigerjahre
Julius FrommImage: S.Fischer Verlag

Julius Fromm was born in 1883 in Konin, in what was then Russia. When he was 10 years old, his family left the poverty of the shtetl and moved to Berlin in search of a better life. His parents died young, and he and his six siblings were left to fend for themselves.

Along with many other East European Jews in turn-of-the-century Berlin, the Fromm family initially earned their living by rolling cigarettes. But as manual cigarette production was gradually ousted by mechanization, the entrepreneurial Julius busied himself with evening classes in chemistry.

Like every inspired businessman, Julius Fromm had what one might be tempted to describe as a natural feel for the zeitgeist, and as the First World War raged across Europe, Germany experienced a perceptible shift in sexual values.

"Germany in some ways had the most liberal sexual culture in the world in the early 20th century," said City University of New York's Dagmar Herzog, author of "Sex After Fascism."

"(This was thanks to) a combination of earthy, uncomplicated popular attitudes at the grassroots level, and courageous activism on the part of medical professionals in a wider context which included the disinhibiting impact of the war."

The latex revolution

Germany became more sexually liberal in the 1920s

So the times were a changing, and more liberal approaches to morals were eroding the traditional link between sexuality and reproduction. Julius Fromm seized the moment and decided the future was latex -- an odorless, seamless, transparent natural rubber, and a lot smoother than pig gut.

After centuries of makeshift contraception involving animal intestines and even lambskin and tortoise shells, the first modern condom had been invented in the mid-19th century by Charles Goodyear. Made of re-usable vulcanized rubber, it resembled a bicycle tire with bulky seams, so, perhaps not surprisingly, it never quite took off. But the rapid spread of sexually transmitted diseases during the war had made condoms an indispensable accessory -- while the uncertain times left governments reluctantly agreeable to approving a new way of containing the birth rate.

In 1916, Julius Fromm patented the titillatingly titled Fromm's Act. His manufacturing technique involved dipping glass molds into a raw rubber solution, enabling the production of thinner condoms with no seams. He did a roaring trade, with every packet containing a folded slip of paper on which was printed: "Please discreetly hand me a packet of three Fromm's Act," to be silently presented to the salesperson.

Packshot Fromms Kondome
Fromms condoms have come a long wayImage: fromms

Mass production began in 1922, and amid the sexual licentiousness of the Weimar Republic, Fromm was soon doing well enough to open international branches from Antwerp to Auckland. By 1930, he had commissioned a flagship factory from the avant-garde Jewish architects Arthur Korn and Siegfried Weitzman in the Berlin suburb of Köpenick -- a boxy building in the "Neue Sachlichkeit" style that was as progressive as Fromm's product.

But unlike the product, the bubble soon burst. It wasn't long before the Nazis' Aryanization policy was in full swing. In 1938, on the grounds that his supplies of rubber were needed for the war effort, Fromm was forced to sell his business at a fraction of its value to Baroness Elisabeth von Epenstein, none other than Hermann Göring's godmother. In return, Hitler's luxury-loving second-in-command was able to add to his collection of Teutonic kitsch two castles, Burg Mautendorf in Austria and Burg Veldenstein, where Göring had grown up.

A year later, Fromm emigrated to London, where he died on May 12, 1945, four days after the Allied victory over Germany.

Fate unknown

Deutsche boykottieren jüdische Geschäfte
Jewish business was plundered in the Third ReichImage: AP

As an example of the social mobility of Jewish immigrants in the early 20th century, Fromm's story is a typical one, though until now an unknown one. That's not surprising, according to Christoph Kreutzmüller, who oversees the research project "Exclusion and Survival Strategies: Small and Medium-Sized Jewish Businesses in Berlin 1930 to 1940" at Berlin's Humboldt University. The fate of most Jewish businesses remains largely unknown, he explained.

"There is maybe some dim recollection of the Aryanization of the large companies and stereotypical branches such as tailoring, banking and department stores," he said, citing the example of the Wertheim department store and the private bank Mendelssohn and Co. "But there is no information whatsoever about the small industries, or the pharmacies -- the majority of those in Berlin being owned by Jews -- let alone the Jewish egg-trade, even though 98 percent of all egg-traders were Jewish prior to 1935."

In recent years, many of Germany's big-name companies have commissioned investigations into their Nazi past, including media giant Bertelsmann, Deutsche Bank and Degussa, to name but a few. While their findings go some way to establishing the full extent of Hitler's plundering of Germany's Jewish community, these investigations ultimately uncover just the tip of the iceberg.

"No Jewish enterprise was left unharmed. They were all liquidated or taken over by non-Jews," stressed Kreutzmüller. "However, we don't even know how many Jewish enterprises there were in Berlin in 1933 -- but probably at least 20,000 medium-sized companies, and thousands more doing small trading on markets or streets which we will never know of."