The Museum of Fine Arts in Berne, Switzerland, recently announced it would accept a vast trove of over 1,000 priceless works of art looted from Jewish owners during World War II. The collection—containing works by Renoir, Matisse and other masters—was found during a routine tax inspection by German tax authorities in 2012. Shocked inspectors found a collection of over 1,200 paintings when they raided the apartment of a tax-defaulter by the name of Cornelius Gurlitt.It seemed to many like a happy ending
The son of a senior-level Nazi who plundered art from European museums and from individual Jewish families, Gurlitt held on to his father’s collection for decades, never breathing a word about the immense treasure he guarded. Once his hoard was discovered, Gurlitt negotiated an agreement with the German government to turn over his father’s vast fortune to authorities who might track down the paintings’ owners. Gurlitt died in May 2014, and though his son continues to contest the bequest, the Museum of Fine Arts agreed to act on behalf of the German government to restore the stolen paintings to their rightful owners and their heirs.
Germany’s culture minister called the deal a “milestone in coming to terms with our history,” and stressed the museum is committed to returning the stolen art “as soon as possible, with no if’s, and’s or but’s.”
It seemed to many like a happy ending: a museum working to find the paintings’ rightful owners; a German government committed to righting the wrongs of the Nazi era; grateful heirs finally reunited with their plundered property.
Unfortunately, it’s not always easy. When I was growing up, two dark paintings used to grace our living room walls: one depicted a winter scene; the other, autumn. My grandmother explained that before they came to Chicago, they used to hang—next to brighter canvasses showing summer and spring—on the walls of her family’s apartment in Vienna. When the family fled Europe, weeks before the outbreak of World War II, strict rules governed what Jews could bring out: only the clothes they wore and some personal items. My great-grandparents, Kamilla and Alfred Dubsky, packed up their paintings and sent them on to America, knowing there was little chance they’d arrive. Shockingly, the package eventually did arrive, though somewhat lighter than when it set out: “spring” and “summer” had been stolen along the way. But “autumn” and “winter,” miraculously, hung on our walls, a reminder for my grandmother and her parents of the home they’d left behind.
When I first read about the trove of art discovered in Germany, one article mentioned an international firm that specializes in tracking down stolen artwork. On a whim, I e-mailed the company. “I’ve read you’ve successfully tracked down artwork that was stolen during the Holocaust,” I wrote. It felt cathartic to put it into words, to explain that we, like so many Jews, were plundered, our possessions stolen, our relatives murdered. I felt a kinship with other Jews whose families were torn apart and taken from them. In asking to track down my grandmother’s missing paintings, I was aware of trying to restore something more: my family’s history.
A friendly-sounding woman e-mailed back. She walked me through the process. For a nominal fee, her company would scour sales and auction records. If the paintings I described were ever publicly sold, her company would be able to tell me when and by whom. At this point, I told my father what I’d been researching. His eyes widened. “I’ll pay their fee!” he exclaimed. For a moment, he too imagined tracking down his mother’s missing paintings. But I gently broke it to my dad: even if we were able to find the paintings, we could never claim them. My grandmother had no written proof she’d ever owned them; without documents, there was no way to link us to them—mere sentiment and family history counted for nothing in proving provenance. My father’s eyes lost their sparkle. At that moment, it felt like we lost the paintings a second time. We realized they were truly gone, and that my grandmother’s loss was permanent.
It might seem odd, given the importance in my family of these two Austrian paintings, that I never wanted them. After my grandmother died, though, there were other mementos of her life that I identified with her so much more.
There are the names, for instance. Arriving in Chicago in 1939, she and my grandfather had no idea who was still alive back in Europe. They couldn’t name their children for their parents or siblings, because they didn’t know whether anyone in their families was still living. Years later, my grandmother made sure to write a family history, recalling all she could of her and my grandfather’s relatives. Some names were already lost, forgotten and unable to be recalled. It was so important to Grandma that we remember what we could. Years later, I was able to name my son Aron after his great-great-grandfather, who was murdered in Auschwitz, only because of my grandmother’s commitment to never letting us forget the relatives they left behind.
Another legacy my grandmother left us is feeling we’re part of a wider Jewish community. She used to tell us how she and a few relatives were saved only because a distant relation in Chicago spent all his personal savings sponsoring them for American visas. Later, another distant relative helped her family financially. This is simply what Jews do for each other, she taught. When I wanted to visit Israel for the first time during college, Grandma was overjoyed, giving me the name of someone I’d never hear of: an elderly, far-flung relative—a connection that dated to the 1930s in Austria—to look up. I did, and felt viscerally what my grandmother had often spoken of—that all Jews are connected, all responsible for each other.
My grandmother didn’t leave many tangible objects behind.My grandmother didn’t leave many tangible objects behind Those two Austrian oil paintings might have been the most valuable objects she ever owned. But they were dark and dreary, and they only reminded me of the many, many things she’d lost.
Instead, after my grandmother’s death, I inherited a beautiful picture that I felt represented her so much more. It’s a cheap print she bought once in Israel, an artist’s rendering of Jerusalem. I hung it on my dining room wall, and each time I look at it I think of my grandmother—sometimes of what she left behind and mourned, but more often of what she loved and looked forward to, instead.