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In 1940 Paris, there was little time to mourn the loss of art

1998
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1945
The Ottawa Citizen 17 January 2004

It took the Nazi invaders just hours to undo a lifetime of work. Methodically, they crammed the priceless treasures -- Monets, Renoirs and Cezannes -- into crates, labelling them on their dossiers as belonging to "The Jew Alfred Lindenbaum."

Alfred Lindon no longer used his birth name, which had been given to him in a Jewish ghetto nestled in a part of Prussia that is today Poland.

He stopped using Lindenbaum during the First World War because he was living in France and thought it best not to have a German-sounding name.

Most people in Paris knew him simply as Lindon, the wealthy businessman who had made his fortune in precious stones and filled his passion for art with prized paintings.

When the Nazis looted Lindon's vault at the Chase Manhattan Bank in 1940, they stole more than just his collection of 65 valuable paintings -- they took a piece of him that could never be replaced.

By then, Lindon had fled Paris and was spared the heartache of watching his beloved artwork flow out of the country and into German hands.

Between April 1941 and July 1944, a total of 4,174 crates containing at least 22,200 pieces of art stolen from Jewish collections were shipped to Germany. The Nazis also had storage sites in other countries.

As enemy tanks rolled into France, Lindon and his wife, Fernande Citroen, the sister of car manufacturer Andre Citroen, bid adieu to their five adult sons. They fled to England, where they lived briefly before going to the United States.

Their apartment in Paris, filled with tapestries and antiques was locked up and the colourful canvases that adorned its walls disappeared into the darkness of a vault.

When Lindon returned home after the war he set out to recover his collection of French contemporary and impressionist paintings.

With the help of his son, Raymond, who dealt with the pile of paperwork involved in the recovery process, many of the paintings were returned --some soon enough for Lindon to see again before his death in 1948 at the age of 80.

One of the most famous paintings in the collection was Claude Monet's Rue Montorgueil on July 14th. After being retrieved from a German diplomat, it was entered into a 1946 exhibition of stolen art recovered in Germany. The showing was at the Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume, a fitting venue since it was there that the Nazis would drop off the loot taken from Jewish libraries and archives.

Lindon's Monet was selected by organizers for the event's publicity poster.

While he felt tremendous pride at seeing his Monet plastered throughout the streets of Paris, a sense of loss lingered deep within.

"He was very happy because, at one point, he thought he'd lost (his paintings) forever," recalled his grandson, Denis Lindon, 76, in a phone interview from Paris.

"(But) he probably worried more about the few that were missing than the many that had been found," said the retired marketing professor who also founded the SOFRES polling institute, one of France's most influential companies.

One painting Lindon never saw again, which held sentimental value for him because it featured his friend, the playwright Tristan Bernard, was Le Salon de Madame Aron by Edouard Vuillard.

It had been a recent addition to his collection, purchased from a gallery in Paris before the war.

After Lindon's death, Raymond tried until the 1960s to recover his father's lost treasures. But the Vuillard, and a few others, never resurfaced and were eventually forgotten.

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The most remarkable chapter in the Lindon family's history during the war has nothing to do with paintings, but everything to do with survival, says Denis Lindon.

"At that time, we had problems of life and death and had no concern for stolen property," he said.

Some relatives went into hiding or were forced to flee, he said. Others were sent to Auschwitz, never to be seen again.

"We were just so happy to have survived that to have lost some paintings was not important."

When war erupted, 12-year-old Denis was forced to say goodbye to his beloved grandparents. His father, Raymond, was a lawyer who had decided to stay in France.

And with his grandparents gone, he'd no longer have Thursdays to look forward to. It was the day he'd visit them for lunch.

He'd miss sitting at the table with grand-pere Alfred, who loved to eat and had the belly to prove it.

He'd miss his grandfather's sense of humour, his affectionate embraces and most of all, his immeasurable wit.

But beneath his gregarious nature lay uneasiness.

"He was always very anxious -- he was very Jewish in that respect. He was worried about the future, always pessimistic," recalled Denis.

"He'd had a difficult youth and had the Jewish spirit -- he was always thinking that things were going to be difficult. But maybe that saved his life because if he wasn't pessimistic maybe he would've stayed in Paris and ended up in Auschwitz."

Perhaps his wife possessed a bit of that pessimism, too.

Before she and Alfred fled to Britain, she warned Raymond that if the situation in Paris became too volatile he and his wife should escape with their four children into the countryside. She gave him the name of a woman to contact and wished him luck.

Raymond's mysterious benefactor was the daughter of a peasant who had once worked for his mother as a wet nurse.

Fernande had become close friends with the nurse, who lived with the Lindons for two years.

For years, Fernande continued to send the woman and her family money to help them in their struggles.

By the spring of 1943, it had become far too dangerous to stay in Paris, so Raymond fled with his family, hoping to find refuge with the woman his mother had recommended.

And when he finally found her, she was only too eager to repay the debt of gratitude her family owed to the Lindons.

"She was a peasant woman and she was feeding her cows in the courtyard," remembered Denis Lindon of the fateful day his family arrived.

"My father opened the gate and said 'My name is Raymond Lindon' and she dropped her two buckets and ran to him and said 'I've been waiting for you all my life.' "

"She opened her house to my whole family at the risk of her life," he remembered, fighting back tears.

"We were saved from being taken by the Germans by a family of French peasants, who were helpful and generous."

After two years of living in hiding, Denis returned with his family to Paris at the end of the war. Because they had no home, they moved into his grandparents' home. Remarkably, much of it was intact because the Gestapo had set up office there.

The Lindons' 18th-century furniture had survived another war and the tapestries were still there.

It was much like Denis had remembered, except for the bare walls.

Although Raymond Lindon was appointed to the Supreme Court, he found time to continue searching for his father's prized paintings and chronicle their wartime experience in a family journal.

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As Denis lived out the end of the war in hiding with his parents and siblings, his 18-year-old brother, Jerome Lindon, joined the French Resistance in 1943.

After France was liberated in 1944, he joined the army and fought until 1945.

Soon after, his non-conformist and rebellious spirit found its way into literature. His love of unique and innovative writing prompted him to seek work at Editions de Minuit, a small underground press that got its name because the books were printed at night.

Jerome eventually took over the helm in 1948 at the age of 23 and transformed it into a powerhouse of French publishing.

"He's terribly nice this young chap," Samuel Beckett said of him in 1951 after he published the maverick Irishman's first novel, Molloy.

"Especially when I think he's facing bankruptcy because of me."

He was definitely taking a chance on Beckett, who'd been rejected by every major publisher in town.

Nonetheless, Jerome said he was stunned that "people could fail to be dazzled by such a meteor."

The following year, Beckett dazzled all with his masterpiece Waiting for Godot.

Jerome Lindon is credited as being the catalyst for the revolutionary style of writing dubbed the "new novel" or "Nouveau Roman," in which linear narrative is virtually absent, with novels relying on introspection, attention to style and frequent use of allusion.

Commercial success didn't soften his zeal for political controversy. In the 1950s, he attracted notoriety for publishing La Question, a book about the French military's use of torture in Algeria. Despite being fined for inciting military disobedience, he remained faithful to the cause.

In later years, as literary publishers around him sold out to conglomerates, he stayed true to his original vision.

A hail of tributes followed his death in 2001. President Jacques Chirac, a longtime friend, remembered him as "a demanding editor," "a passionate discoverer" and "one of the greatest figures in French publishing."

- - -

The year before his death, Jerome Lindon received an unusual call.

The National Gallery of Canada contacted him with news that one of the paintings it had purchased in 1956 from a Paris gallery, had appeared on a list compiled by the French government in 1947 of Nazi plunder removed from France during the war.

The elusive Vuillard had surfaced once again -- more than half a century after his grandfather Alfred's attempts to recover it.

But so much time had elapsed that he himself had forgotten about it, and his father, who oversaw the recovery of the paintings, had already died.

He asked uncle Jacques, Alfred's last living son, about the oil painting, but the old man denied the family had ever owned it.

Jerome Lindon relayed this information to the gallery in Ottawa and it seemed as though the matter was closed.

But unlike its earlier disappearing act, this time the Vuillard did not fade into oblivion.

In the summer of 2003, Denis Lindon, who was now the family patriarch, was contacted by the French ministry of foreign affairs notifying him that the Vuillard in Ottawa was indeed the one that belonged to his grandfather.

The official confirmation proved what the gallery had earlier suspected: Le Salon de Madame Aron was the first piece of Nazi plunder discovered in Canada.

Denis Lindon wrote to the gallery's director, Pierre Theberge, last fall and request the painting's return.

Currently, the gallery is awaiting legal confirmation that the claimants are the rightful heirs under French law before the Vuillard is returned.

Mr. Theberge admitted it will be bittersweet to part with the "slice of life in Paris." But, he added: "It would be sadder if we could not find who were the owners during the war, knowing there were stolen goods on our walls."

There are eight Lindons who stand to inherit the Vuillard, none of whom have given much thought to what they'll do with it when it's returned, but it's doubtful that any of them will keep it.

Alfred Lindon's original art collection was divvied up among his sons after his death, but fears of theft prompted many to sell. And whatever paintings were passed on to a third generation have since been sold.

When Helene Lindon, 67, received a call from her brother, Denis, about the painting, she was completely surprised and didn't even know it existed.

"It was quite a surprise, a delightful surprise," she said in a phone interview from her home in Provence.

"But what's made the most impression on me is the museum's attitude," she said explaining that galleries are under no legal obligation to return artwork.

"I'm moved that the museum is returning the painting without difficulty."

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