Jewish Tribune 24 January 2012
By Joanne Hill
TORONTO – It is impossible to place a value on a human life but what about material goods that were stolen or sold under duress in times of war? The Nazis’ systematic attempt to destroy everything pertaining to Jewish life was aimed at obliterating all traces of an entire people: their lives, their culture, their history. The damage the Nazis caused to Jewish culture was so extensive, and the loss so great, that survivors and others are still working to rebuild it, one person, one item, one memory at a time.
“Culture is the soul of a people,” Bonnie Czegledi, a Canadian artist and lawyer who specializes in international art and cultural heritage law, told the Jewish Tribune. “It’s very hard to recover when it’s been stolen: the Nazis understood that.”
Czegledi has represented Holocaust victims seeking to reclaim art that was stolen or sold under duress during Germany’s Third Reich. Her book, Crimes Against Art: International Art and Cultural Heritage Law, has sections that address the subject of Nazi-looted art.
Cultural heritage items aren’t limited to paintings or other works of art, Czegledi explained: they include objects used in religious practice such as menorahs, Torah scrolls and tallit. The value of these items to their rightful owners – from individuals to local communities and the entire Jewish people – goes beyond monetary consideration.
“There’s an intangible value to cultural heritage that’s very significant. Cultural heritage represents many things. You can’t put a dollar value on it.... In some ways, [the items are] symbols of a terrible crime that was committed and recovering them has, in part, symbolic value. It’s very important to acknowledge that; it’s very powerful.”
An award-winning scientist in British Columbia is experiencing that powerful significance firsthand as he seeks to understand what his grandparents endured, and lost, during the Holocaust.
Dr. Michael Hayden is the Canada Research Chair in Human Genetics & Molecular Medicine, Centre for Molecular Medicine & Therapeutics, at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. Hayden, like his grandfather and great-grandfather before him, is a serious collector of Judaica. His collection includes 17th and 18th century paper and vellum haggadot (manuscripts) and megilloth (Biblical scrolls), which his grandfather was able to save from the Nazis. It should include, but does not, the 128 silver items his grandfather was forced to hand over to the Nazis in 1939.
Hayden is not a client of Czegledi’s. He spoke to the Tribune in Toronto when he received the Canadian Gairdner Award last fall and again by phone from Vancouver.
Hayden’s grandfather, Max Hahn, was born into a large Orthodox Jewish family in 1880. He was a successful, wealthy businessman and a respected member of the German aristocracy, who served for more than 20 years as the president of his synagogue in Göttingen, Germany. In 1935, Max’s collection was deemed one of the greatest collections of Judaica in the world, ranked with those of the Rothschilds and Sassoons. Some of the pieces had come from the collection of his father, Raphael Hahn.
Max Hahn’s valuable Judaica collection was “deeply documented,” said Hayden, through published articles written by experts, letters between family members, and official forms filed with the Nazi and other governments. It consisted of at least 200 items and featured antique silver pieces made by master craftsmen, including Kiddush cups, menorahs, and 65 exquisite spice boxes, which were “the pride of his collection.”
Hayden is learning more about his grandfather thanks to Lisette Ferera, a museum consultant and author, whom he hired to create a family history book.
Ferera told the Tribune she was amazed when Hayden gave her access to boxes of paperwork he had stored away; she said the archive contains about 4,000 pages. She has hired a historian to translate the documents – most of which were written in German – into English. As each document is translated, studied and put into historical context, more information is brought to light.
One year into the project, there is still a long way to go before the Hahn family history can be written, but when it is, it will be told through the story of Max’s collection.
The Hahn family home in Göttingen was badly damaged in November 1938 during Kristallnacht. Not long afterwards, Max “was put into so-called protective custody for eight and a half months,” said Ferera.
In February 1939, all Jews in Germany were ordered by the government to relinquish their jewelry and precious metals. According to Ferera, they were permitted to keep certain items such as their wedding rings, a watch and one set of cutlery per person.
Documents reveal that 128 items from Max Hahn’s Judaica collection were surrendered to the Göttingen branch of the Deutsche Bank in March 1939 and in October 1940 they were shipped to the central pawn shop in Berlin. All confiscated valuables in Germany were sent to that pawn shop, Ferera said, then divvied up to be either shipped elsewhere, melted down, given to members of the Nazi party, or sold off to support the war effort.
“While [Max Hahn] was in prison, he devised a strategy to try to save his Judaica.”
Thus began a two-year effort in which Hahn wrote letters, filed official forms with the government and tried to obtain foreign currency with which to pay the punitive fees and taxes levied on Jews.
A pittance was deposited to Hahn’s bank account by the Berlin pawn shop in March 1941 but his account had already been frozen. The amount, less than $4,000 in today’s currency, was nowhere near the real value of the collection.
Of course, Hahn’s efforts did not focus solely on his Judaica collection. He and his wife Gertrud (called Trude) were able to get their son Rudolf (Michael Hayden’s father, who changed his name to Roger Hayden after the war), and daughter Hanni to safety in England.
As they continued to try to arrange their own escape from Germany, Max and Trude Hahn shipped six tons of their belongings to Sweden in what were called “lifts.” The lifts included furniture, antiques, a baby grand piano, Max’s stamp collection, his antique haggadot and megilloth, and the treasure trove of documents now being pored over by Ferera.
“A lot of Germans sent things to interim ports not really knowing where they [themselves] were going,” she said.
The Nazi death machine caught up to Max and Trude Hahn before they could find refuge elsewhere. Max was 61 and Trude was 48 when they were taken on the fourth transport from Hamburg to Riga in December 1941 and murdered.
After the war, their children Rudolf and Hanni had the lifts shipped from Sweden to England, but had to sell much of it to cover the shipping costs.
Part of the discovery process has involved trips to Germany. On two separate visits to the Städtische Museum in Göttingen, Hayden has found items that belonged to his family. One priceless family heirloom, Hayden’s great-grandfather Raphael’s mappah, or wimpel, (circumcision cloth) was released to Hayden only after he supplied the museum with a suitable replacement. The museum has promised to return several household items that belonged to Max Hahn once the descendants decide how they will be dispersed.
Ferera, herself the daughter of Holocaust survivors, said that working on this project has taught her, “how little we know about the workings of the [Third] Reich; how they systematically deprived the Jews of everything on all fronts. It was the systematic stripping of everything they held dear.”
With each new piece of information, Hayden said, “we are pulling threads together of this history of people we never knew, and we are trying to tell this story. It’s an incredible legacy of Jewish and cultural life in Europe.” http://www.jewishtribune.ca/TribuneV2/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=5415&Itemid=53