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12.29.09

The Jewish Condom Magnate

A new book tells the story of how Julius Fromm built Germany’s most famous condom brand, which is still around today, and then had it stolen away from him by the Nazis. Benyamin Cohen on the latest twisted Holocaust history.

I thought I had heard all the possible Nazi stories. Nearly 70 years after the fact, it’s pretty hard to come up with new Holocaust tales (although the recent stealing of the Auschwitz sign was a doozy).

There are the obvious stories but then there’s the truly bizarre stories, which, quite frankly, are worthy of their own genre: The whiplash Holocaust story, a contrarian’s tale spun (it seems) for the pure pleasure of rewriting history. In the fictional realm, think Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds with its pugilistic Jews going on a murderous rampage against their tormentors (or the lesser-known, but still bizarre, film this year about zombie Nazis. Yes, zombie Nazis).

The Fromm condom empire, now under a different name, is still the second-highest selling condom brand in Germany.

That’s where this unearthed story comes in about a Jewish condom magnate and the Nazis who stole his company. It’s got all the necessary ingredients for a whiplash Holocaust story, that knee-jerk equivalent of asking of “What the…?” It’s got condoms, sex, Judaism, not to mention scandal, salaciousness, and socialism and it’s all chronicled in the new book Fromms: How Julius Fromm's Condom Empire Fell to the Nazis by Götz Aly and Michael Sontheimer.

Aly, a journalist and historian in Berlin, is no stranger to the whiplash Holocaust genre. He caused a controversy in a 2005 press conference by claiming black soldiers were rapists during World War II and that Mahatma Gandhi palled around with terrorists by being more than just Facebook friends with Hitler. Although, in Gandhi’s defense, Aly is the same historian who called Hitler the “feel good” Fuhrer. Seriously.

books---how-julius-fromms-condom-empire-fell-to-the-nazis
Fromms: How Julius Fromm’s Condom Empire Fell to the Nazis. By Gotz Aly and Michael Sontheimer. Translated by Shelley Frisch. 240 pages. Other Press. $23.95. ()

It’s no surprise that some historians discredit Aly’s work; regardless, it’s hard to deny that Julius Fromm is still a captivating and fascinating footnote in Holocaust history that deserves his own story.

Julius Fromm was the classic archetype of a Jewish entrepreneur. When his father died, leaving the family’s financial future in Julius’ hands, he picked himself up by his bootstraps and got to work. For Fromm, that meant entering the lucrative condom business. His dad had manufactured cigarettes; selling vice ran in the family.

Fromm took courses in rubber chemistry and came up with the idea to apply the knowledge to prophylactics. While he didn’t invent the condom, he did significantly upgrade the technology, employing Charles Goodyear’s rubber vulcanization process and revolutionizing the mass-production of the modern-day condom. Besides an increasing level of automation, today’s condom-production process remains virtually unchanged from Fromm’s innovative method.

Besides using new rubber technology, Fromm came up with clever marketing techniques, including a customer-loyalty program that offered repeat customers a discreet pre-printed note that they could simply pass to a pharmacist to avoid any embarrassment. He was a master promoter, invoking the likes of P.T. Barnum. And, like Barnum, he bestowed his own name onto his product. The condoms were called “Fromms Act” as if his very word embodied the sexual act itself.

With STDs on the rise and German soldiers frequenting what were basically officially sanctioned brothels to help reduce stress, Fromm’s invention couldn’t have come at a more opportune time. By 1931, he was selling 50 million condoms a year.

As World War II got under way and the Nazis began to seize Jewish property, it came as little surprise that they saw tremendous value in Fromm’s profitable condom empire. The Nazis soon stole the company (although they had the “decency” to use intricate legal documents to make it appear as if Fromm had sold it to them). It was state-organized plunder at the highest level. The book’s authors suggest that, in today’s terms, the company was worth nearly $45 million.

The story goes downhill from there. The authors muddy the action with dense academic prose about the architecture of the factory and even a complete accounting of the furniture in Fromm’s villa. The book, already at a scant 170 pages, would have been better served shorter. Although readers can take joy in the strange intermittent mentions of various celebrities tied in some way to the Fromm family: Brigitte Bardot, Sigmund Freud, Charles Goodyear, and Alfred Hitchcock all make brief appearances in the book.

As for Julius Fromm, he managed to escape to England in October 1938 as the Holocaust was getting under way, but died just four days after the Allied victory.

The condom factory’s two long-term directors both committed suicide on the same day after the war, perhaps afraid of retribution from the Jewish community. (Que Quentin.) The Fromm family eventually did get their comeuppance, however belatedly. Throughout the decades, the family has sought and received some reparation from the German government through various legal channels. And the Fromm condom empire, now under a different name, is still the second-highest selling condom brand in Germany.

The book holds on to the reader by off-handedly inserting bizarre information, such as that Julius Fromm’s son Max became an actor and often portrayed Nazis (apparently his blond hair typecast him). I found my own ironies that the authors failed to mention: The name Fromm, for instance, is Yiddish for pious or religious, an odd name for a Jewish condom manufacturer. Moreover, most Orthodox rabbis frown upon condom usage. A conversation about the Jewish relationship to condoms might have offered some much-needed context to this tight-knit tale.

I guess perhaps the most ironic thing of all is, in some twisted way, by manufacturing condoms for Germans, Julius Fromm was actually curbing the growth of the German population—the very same thing they were trying to do to him and the Jewish people.

Plus: Check out Book Beast for more news on hot titles and authors and excerpts from the latest books.

Benyamin Cohen is the author of My Jesus Year: A Rabbi’s Son Wanders the Bible Belt in Search of His Own Faith (HarperOne) and the content director for the Mother Nature Network. He can be found at www.myjesusyear.com.