A happy beginning, a less than happy ending


A month or two ago, my wife Sandy and I viewed on Netflix the 2015 movie “Woman in Gold.” The film is based on the true story of Maria Altmann, a World War II Jewish refugee from Vienna who, as an elderly widow living in Los Angeles, decides to sue the government of Austria. 

Altmann demands the return of a Gustav Klimt gilded portrait of her aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer, that had been hanging for 60 or so years in Vienna’s Belvedere Palace, with the title “The Lady in Gold.” This is a painting that many Austrians have prized as their nation’s equivalent to France’s “Mona Lisa,” despite the fact that the Nazis had stolen it from Altmann’s family. 

Over the course of several years, Altmann, brilliantly portrayed by the British actress Helen Mirren, fights what appear to be insuperable legal, financial and physical odds before at last winning title to the portrait of her aunt.

What made “Woman in Gold” so satisfying for the two of us was the rare opportunity to witness the victory of the weak over the powerful, the all too infrequent triumph of justice. 

Imagine Sandy’s dismay, then, as she showed me the following headline on the front page of the Arts section of the July 16 issue of  The New York Times: “Looted by Nazis, and Returned, Art is Back in Wrong Hands.” 

In many ways, the article that follows represents an undoing, a refutation of “Woman in Gold.”  In “Woman in Gold,” stolen art finally winds up in the right hands; in The New York Times story, an immense amount of art stolen by the Nazis is still in the wrong hands.

According to Times reporters Doreen Carvajal and Alison Smale, in 1949, “American officials here [in Munich] entrusted more than 10,000 confiscated artworks to Bavarian authorities to return to the rightful owners, many of them Jews whose property had been plundered.”

Instead, the Bavarian officials engaged in what were termed “return sales,” selling the art “back” at bargain-basement rates to such individuals as Henriette von Schirach, Hitler’s private secretary, and the widow of the notorious Herman Goering, a member of Hitler’s inner circle. 

In the words of John Graykowski, great-grandson of Gottlieb and Mathilde Kraus, some of whose looted art wound up with von Schirach, “They stole from my family, and then they gave it back to the guy who stole it from them.  How does that work?”

The unsavory dealings between some look-the-other-way Bavarian bureaucrats and a number of greedy and unscrupulous art collectors is certainly bad news; the good news is that many private citizens in Germany, as well as local, state and national government officials, have been trying to right this wrong. Thus, the respected German author Ferdinand von Schirach, grandson of Henriette von Schirach, is seeking to determine the true ownership of the works of art collected by his late grandmother. He has argued, “We need to know about the evil. That’s the only way we can live with it.”

It was a daily German newspaper in Munich, the Sueddeutsche Zeitung, that this past June brought to light this sordid tale of “return sales” of stolen art to families with Nazi ties. As a result, Bavarian officials are now demanding an investigation of “the extent of the system to resell art to Nazi families” and asking for “a tally of how many looted works remain in government possession that can be returned to the proper heirs.”

The distressing fact that families with Nazi connections still hold works of art stolen from their rightful Jewish owners should not obscure the enormous efforts that Germans of good will have made to preserve the memory of their murderous past – a past drenched with the blood of 6 million Jews. The city of Berlin, in particular, is filled with memorials to the Holocaust. It seems to me that Germany’s earnest attempt to come to terms with its past, to live responsibly with painful memories, helps to explain the resurgence of its Jewish community, which currently numbers about 150,000 – including native born, a large number of Russian immigrants, and even 35,000 Israelis, the majority of whom have chosen to live in Berlin. 

I applaud Germany’s current efforts to rectify the misappropriation of art stolen from Jews.  Nevertheless, to this very day much of the looted art still remains in the wrong hands.  Until every piece of stolen art is returned to its rightful owner, “Woman in Gold” will remain a movie with a less than happy ending.

JAMES B. ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus of Temple Habonim, in Barrington. Contact him at rabbiemeritus@templehabonim.org.