The refurbishment of Britomart’s Kronfeld Building has illuminated the rich and turbulent history of Gustav Kronfeld, the Prussian-born trader who first occupied it. Here, his great-great-granddaughter, Emily Parr, reveals more of the story of Gustav and his Samoan wife Louisa, including his painful internment at the end of World War I. 

Some buildings contain a lot of history. Almost 120 years old, the newly refurbished Kronfeld Building at Britomart is one of them, a former warehouse with a fascinating backstory that takes in Tonga, Samoa, Germany and the First World War.

The building was constructed in 1904, but its story begins long before, when Gustav Kronfeld emigrated Prussia for a new future across the seas. He travelled and lived throughout the South Pacific Islands, charting a course that led him to establish a trading company on Auckland’s waterfront. The lettering G KRONFELD — which could be seen by vessels approaching the port — is still visible on his warehouse today.

Gustav left his home town of Thorn as a teenager, following his siblings to Australia, where he learnt accountancy and merchandising. After seeing an advertisement for a clerical position with a German trading firm in Sāmoa and obtaining the role, he set sail for Āpia in 1876. It was here that Gustav met and fell in love with Louisa Silveira. She was born to a Portuguese sailor and the daughter of High Chief Fiamē of Lotofaga, but orphaned young and raised in a convent by Catholic nuns. There was a small issue: Gustav was Jewish. The nuns, although approving, wouldn’t marry them.

Their mismatched religions and a promotion to a station in Vava'u led Gustav and Louisa to elope to Tonga, where they were married by a sympathetic Wesleyan Minister. 

Seven years and five children later, Gustav and Louisa relocated to Aotearoa, arriving in 1890 to a very different Tāmaki Makaurau to the one we know now. Gustav established himself as a general merchant, and five more children joined the Kronfeld family. Although study towards a bar mitzva began and Louisa attempted to convert to Judaism, the question of the children’s religion was ultimately answered by the acceptance of the Anglican Church – Sundays were spent at St. Paul’s in Symonds Street.

After a decade of shipping produce, copra, and other goods between New Zealand, the Pacific Islands, and Europe, Gustav had the money to build a warehouse and family home. The Kronfeld Building was constructed in 1904 on Customs Street East. With ornate detailing and four storeys, the brick building’s arched windows looked across railway lines and smoke plumes to the Waitematā – the waterfront followed a different route back then. A brief walk uphill would take you to Eden Crescent, where until 1976 a beautiful house with 20-plus rooms, wide balconies and stained-glass windows stood. The house was named ʻOli Ula, in reference to a garland strung with the fragrant red flower of the Sāmoan ʻoli tree. It was the cosmopolitan home of Gustav and Louisa, their 10 children, and many visitors from the islands of Te Moananui-a-Kiwa.

Memories recorded by the Kronfeld children recall bustling pre-war years. In the warehouse, measurements of goods were chalked onto beams in the cellar, while one in the top floor’s ceiling had the initials of Gustav’s sons carved into it (by said sons). At Christmastime, toys, food and other goods were packed into crates and sent to an orphanage connected to the nuns who raised Louisa. Nearby at Wynyard Pier, the younger children learnt to swim from their older brother. They chased each other across floating kauri logs that had been hauled across the harbour. Flounder and mullet were netted by local fisherman, and a few shillings worth of fresh fish fed the large family.

Up at the house, Louisa looked after girls sent from the Islands for schooling and hosted many guests. The hall was full of artefacts that Gustav collected around the moana, and the storeroom always smelled of freshly ground coffee and in-season fruit. Gustav travelled to the Islands several times a year by schooner, and while he was gone the younger children took their mattress down to Louisa’s room: two slept with her and two on the floor.

These prosperous, vibrant days came to an end with the onset of the First World War, when anyone considered German was suddenly suspicious. Throughout 1914-16, the New Zealand Military Police intercepted Gustav’s correspondence and interrogated him in an attempt to prove he was ‘trading with the enemy’. Hoping to protect the business and his children, Gustav gifted his shares to family members and ‘G. Kronfeld Limited’ became the ‘Pacific Trading Company Limited’. Ultimately, despite having been a naturalised British subject for over twenty years – and having renounced German citizenship the moment he emigrated Prussia – Gustav was declared an ‘enemy alien’. The nail in the coffin was meeting with Germans in Victoria Park, for which he was arrested and interned in the prisoner of war camp on Motuihe.

Gustav spent nearly four years interned with German businessmen, where he faced anti-Semitism. The warehouse was sold in 1917 and the company later wound down. Gustav was allowed home for one night to attend the funeral of his and Louisa’s youngest child, Tui, with guards stationed outside their bedroom door. He was finally released on parole more than three months after the war ended. Unlike many of the internees who were forced to return to Europe, Gustav was permitted to remain in New Zealand with his family. He died at ʻOli Ula in 1924.

Louisa lived on until 1939, with the company of her daughters and support of several sons who were still in Auckland. Several months before she passed, Louisa gifted the Kronfeld Collection to the public museum – the taonga and measina that once adorned the walls of ʻOli Ula are now housed by Te Papa Tongarewa.

While ʻOli Ula was demolished in 1976, the brick and timber of the Kronfeld Building holds many other stories of the family that are beyond us now. Many more are alive, still, within the descendants of Gustav and Louisa. In the words of my great-grandfather Samuel Tonga, you can find us all over the universe now.

Written by Gustav and Louisa’s great-great-granddaughter Emily Parr, with the help of notes left by Moe, Tony, Sam and Tui Kronfeld.