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Egon’s story: Schonberger Cabinet

Egon’s story: Schonberger Cabinet

Saturday, 8 September 2012

This blog is part four of the story of 24-year-old Jew Egon Schoenberger and his flight from the Nazi Holocaust of World War II to New Zealand. There will be 24 blogs in total.


Egon's diary 9 August 1939 (translated).

Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira

In the ground of the earth the most precious goods are hidden, like the white and black diamond, the sparkling gold the most valuable radium – all full of secret powers. In the darkness of the earth there also is a place where the most delicious drink is hidden, a drink giving us fresh vital power and increasing the joys of life: there is the cradle of the ‘Prince of the Rhine’, the German Sparkling Wine ‘Schonberger Cabinet’. – Excerpt from Schönberger marketing brochure, 1933

You can almost hear the corks popping in this racy copy celebrating the joys of the Schönberger Cabinet sparkling wine. The 1933 Art Deco-inspired marketing brochure features an illustration of an elegant, rapturously happy young woman clutching a bottle bearing the trademark of two men bearing a cluster of grapes. The wine brand stood for everything that was deluxe, chic and swell.

The premises of the family-owned firm Schönberger Cabinet in Mainz-on-the-Rhine is trumpeted as a “first class architectural curiosity”. The salon de reception, where influential sommeliers, retailers and enthusiasts would sample the wine, gave the feeling of entering Coco Chanel’s luxurious suite at the Paris Ritz. This is the rarefied world in which the Schöenberger family inhabited in pre-war, depression-era Germany. The twentysomething Egon, dashingly handsome and a gifted student, was destined for great things in the family business.

Schönberger Cabinet brochure.

Schoenberger, Egon. Papers 1892-1960s. Auckland War Memorial Museum Library. MS-2002-74.

Egon’s father Arthur was a talented marketer who dreamed up the idea of branding the wine factory a “subterranean town” with fairytale allure. Among oenophiles, his uncle Eugene was regarded as a leading expert in the production of sparkling wine. His mother Johanna and sister Doris enjoyed the lifestyle afforded by an upwardly mobile family.

Eugene had educated his nephew in the singular pleasures and intricacies of ‘Sekt’, the term now adopted for all sparkling wines made in Germany.  Like most sparkling wine manufacturers, the Schönberger Cabinet firm do not grow grapes; they would buy from the individual vineyards and also add imported still wines to the mix in small quantities. Under the tutelage of skilled workers, Egon came to know the secrets of the Flaschengarung method – the same method used in making champagne. Thanks to family friends like Paul Eveque from Champagne Taittinger, Egon was also given rare insights in Europe’s leading producers, vineyards and vintages.

Although Nazism’s anti-Jewish policies meant that Egon spent much of his university life in Switzerland, he was always in contact with his beloved mother and sister. With a doctorate in law, wealth and enviable connections, Egon attracted many female admirers (including one girlfriend who risked her life to help his mother) and Europe was his playground.

But with the onset of war, his privileged life was to come to an abrupt end. Back in Mainz, his Jewish family were being targeted by the Nazis. The factory had been confiscated and his parents were relying on friends in influential places to help them hide some of their prized possessions. Many years later and a world away in New Zealand, the story of the ‘hidden’ family silver would come back to haunt Egon.

Previous blog: The Nazi state steals the family silver

Next blog: Family life and Hitler's rise to power

  • Post by: Greg Meylan

    Greg Meylan is a Geneva-based freelance writer and editor. He spent six years as a part-time writer and editor for Auckland Museum’s Exhibition team, and was previously a journalist for The Irish Times and Sunday Star Times in New Zealand. His special interests are writing for web and mobile devices.