Sunday, April 19, 2015

Guilt and Nazi War Loot

Years ago I went to see the Belvedere Palace in Vienna, an extremely impressive building with beautiful grounds surrounding it.  My only memory of the museum, however, is of one wall with five paintings by Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), the Austrian Symbolist painter who was the most important artist of the Vienna Secession movement.  Little did I know at the time that there was going to be a great deal of contention about the ownership of those pictures.

We went the first day of the showing in Santa Fe of the film, “Woman in Gold”, the story of Maria Altmann (1916-2011) who desired to retrieve her family’s treasures stolen first by the Nazis and then by the Austiran government.  The centerpiece of the wall at the Belvedere was one of the most impressive paintings by the artist representing Altmann’s aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer (1881-1925).  Bloch-Bauer was one of Klimt’s favorites and the only woman of whom he painted two portraits.

Photo Credit: Assieme (1978)

Adele Bloch-Bauer died at the age of 44 of meningitis in Vienna long before Hitler arrived in Austria.  Her will included a request that her husband leave this particular portrait in his will to the Belvedere Palace.  In 1941, however, the Nazis came and seized all the family’s art eventually murdering the mother and father of Maria Altmann and many other friends and members of her family.  Maria, however, managed to escape Austria with her husband and sister.

Helen Mirren convincingly portrays Maria in the movie, that closely follows the actual case, as she  realizes through press reports that attitudes in Austria and Germany were changing during the second half of the 1990’s. An old friend from Austria recommends her son, a young lawyer. who becomes captivated by the case when he realizes how his family was also affected by the holocaust.  His grandfather was the Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg.

Though Maria has sworn never to return to Austria she goes back to Vienna with her lawyer where they meet up with an investigative reporter, Hubertus Czernin, who wants to help them and make up for the sins of his father who was a rabid Nazi.  With his help they find the will of Adele Bauer-Bloch’s husband who died in 1945 leaving everything to his two nieces (in fact a nephew was also included).  The Austrian government had interpreted the request by Adele Bloch Bauer that her husband bequeath the portrait to the museum as her will, but the will’s actual wording left the picture to her husband. Since the Nazi’s had taken the painting from the walls of the Bloch-Bauer home in 1941 before he died, the case was that it should be restituted to his legal heirs.

After the Austrian government restitution commission finds against them they return to the U.S. to pursue the case here.  In a precedent setting decision they win the right in the U.S. Supreme Court to be heard in U.S. courts.  Realizing, however, that they cannot afford court costs either in Austria or in the United States, they make a deal to bring the case back to Vienna for arbitration, where Altmann finally wins back the family’s Klimts.  Today the portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I can be found in the Neue Galerie in New York.

Along the entire process Maria repeatedly hesitates and sometimes wants to put a halt to the venture altogether.  In a final heart-rending scene in the movie Maria finds that winning brings none of the sense of celebration and relief that she expected, but just the guilt of having escaped and left so many behind to die at the hands of the Nazis.  This hit home with me.  My parents got out of Hitler’s Germany shortly after my father was thrown out of University in 1933, the year before he would have received his doctorate.  He never wanted to speak of it and said only, “I knew when I wasn’t wanted”.  He was 22 years old at the time.  Like many of his friends he wanted to enlist in the U.S. Army but to his further upset he was classified 4F, unable to serve.  He could only join the civil defense and never left the U.S.  His guilt feelings were profound and acknowledged more in what he did not say that what he did.  I hadn’t realized what it meant when I was told as a child that my mother went back to Germany in 1937 to get a wedding dress because she could not afford one and money could not be gotten out of Germany by then.  My grandmother only left after the Anschluss in 1938.

I personally have a case with Germany, which was published in the Wall Street Journal on February 24, 2015:


My father would never have agreed to it.  He had a philosophy “Lass die Toten ruhen”  ironically translated “leave the dead in peace”. He was grateful to be out of Germany safe with his family and being able to lead a good life.  For me, however, over the last decade it has become a desire to seek justice for my family.  We have been after works of art taken from the family in Germany and The Netherlands and refused at every turn.  Although, in a political decision, we lost before the advisory restitution committee in Germany, since I have partners in the current venture and lawyers who believe in the case, it Is being pursued.

I am not sure why so many movie critics did not care for the “Woman in Gold” though they admit that Helen Mirren as Maria is superb.  She was so good that I truly believed she could have been one of my parents’ refugee friends. One of the critics I read found Maria’s statement that it was not about the money, disingenuous, but I can tell you that while money, of course, is part of the package it is about so much more.  I have learned where my parents really came from and it has opened my eyes to the horror that already started in 1933.  Those who lived through it wish and need to forget, but those that come after must always remember!

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