Rob Hardy on books


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A Slight Correction to a Monumental Wrong



Rob Hardy


Simon Goodman loved his father Bernard, but hardly understood him before his unexpected death at age 80 in 1994. The father was a "crushed, taciturn, and damaged man" who didn't talk much about himself, but who traveled all over the world and never explained to his children what he was doing on the trips. A few months after Bernard's death, though, some musty cardboard boxes came from Germany to Simon and his brother, the last bits of their father's meager estate. The documents within were the father's notes, typewritten letters, art catalogues, and visas (some of which were stamped with the official Nazi eagle). As Simon waded through the old documents and photos, he began to understand his father better. He realized that the documents were about the huge art collection that had belonged to his family before the Nazis stole it, and that his father had been on an unsuccessful quest to bring it together again. In The Orpheus Clock: The Search for My Family's Art Treasures Stolen by the Nazis (Scribner), Goodman not only tells what can be known of his father's covert searches, but also about how his family came to have such richness and lost it, and about his own successful search to regain the stolen items. It is thus a story of detective work, a narrative of a minor resolution of Nazi evil, and a poignant family memoir. Not all the mysteries of the lost artworks have been cleared up, but, writes Simon, "I can finally tell the story that my father never told me."



Simon Goodman's family were the Gutmanns, and had founded the Dresdner Bank, a major financial institution in Germany. They prospered after 1871 when Bismarck united Germany, with the author's great-grandfather Eugen becoming one of the "Court Jews" who provided financial services to the princes of the realm. Eugen moved his big bank from Dresden to Berlin and built a palace in Potsdam, filling it with art. He had fine taste, and Eugen's son Friedrich expanded the Gutmann collection, which included ornate Renaissance silver and works by Renoir, Bosch, and many others. Friedrich's son Fritz moved to the Netherlands and was a model Dutch financier in the interwar years. Then the Nazi onslaught began, with the Netherlands falling in 1940. Fritz had formed his own bank in the Netherlands after the Dresdner Bank was "Aryanized," and perhaps Fritz thought he was in no danger. By 1942, Heinrich Himmler himself had promised the Dutch ambassador that Fritz, his house, and his treasures would be exempted from any police measures, but even so, there were pressures.




The author is mystified and saddened by the complacency of his grandfather Fritz. "Ironically, anti-Semites in Germany commonly spouted the most vicious diatribes against Jews in general while assuring their actual Jewish friends and associates, 'Of course, we don't mean you!'" Perhaps Fritz thought that they indeed did not mean him. Any such delusion would have gradually cracked and then shattered. He was forced to part with some of the Gutmann Collection for the sake of continued protection. Bizarrely, the Nazis always insisted on a veneer of legality and paperwork to cover up their extortions, documentation that would come to be handy decades later in proving the thefts. By May 1943, poor Fritz and his wife Louise felt pressured enough that they bought tickets on a train to leave the Netherlands. They thought they were headed to safety in Italy, but the train was actually destined to take them to the concentration camp in Theresienstadt. Fritz refused to sign the documents giving up the entire collection, and he was eventually beaten to death; Louise was gassed in Auschwitz.



Fritz's son Bernard, the author's father, had been born in England when Fritz was taking care of the family business there. He thus had British citizenship, and was in England during World War II. He had sent telegrams to Fritz and Louise imploring them to come to England without effect. He entered the British Army, but early in his service was injured by a German bomb and was discharged. He would have pain from the injuries for the rest of his life, but he was also pained that he had not had actively warred against the Nazis. Once the war was over, he learned of his parents' fate; he had been unable to save them, but perhaps he thought he could make something right by recovering their legacy that had been stolen and dispersed.



That the Nazis looted in such a way is a horrible, but familiar, story; what becomes plain in this book is that afterward the allied governments, museums, lawyers, and private owners continued the theft by resisting the attempt of anyone to seek the stolen properties. Bernard, for all his direct motivation to reclaim the treasures, had little success. The Dutch government, for instance, told him that to reclaim the family estate near Amsterdam, he would have to pay back taxes because the Germans had not paid them for the years of occupation. He would also have to buy back the art the Dutch government now owned. He was repeatedly asked for proof of ownership, when such documentation was only the Nazi records "legalizing" the theft, and such records had been classified and sealed.



That the documents were eventually declassified was one of the reasons the author had more success in tracking the treasures down, but auction houses, museums, and their lawyers were no less stubborn. In returning a Renoir, for instance, the auction house said it could not be given up unless Simon showed that his father himself had really tried to find the painting. It must be said that there are instances where Simon and his brother petitioned for return of the artwork and the current owners were determined to do the right thing and give it back as quickly as they could, but this was far from a universal pattern. The Orpheus Clock, an ornate cylindrical silver table clock which is the emblem for the book, had been buried in Munich. Dug up after the war, it went on the market, was bought in 1962 by a Swiss collector, and bequeathed in 1973 to a state museum. As the author often writes of his efforts, all was going smoothly to regain it, but: "There was just one catch." In this case, it was overcome.



As Simon and his brother regain one treasure after another (they have not finished and continue the pursuit), there can be little doubt that part of the reason for the effort is simply financial. Simon was interested in getting to the members of his family their shares in the lost artworks: "Today's reality dictated that the only way to divide an heirloom among the heirs was through a sale." But he feels the loss and sadness in doing so. His was once a family ensconced in a castle with their treasures, but no longer. "The Gutmanns, or what was left of us, were no longer the wealthy family we once were." Financial restitution hardly rights the human suffering or lives extinguished; it is a slight and overdue correction. The effort, however, enabled the author to "finally begin to understand the strange, tormented, enigmatic man who was my father." In learning the sad stories about a family he hardly knew, and putting the pieces of the family history together, he can proclaim at the last: "I no longer suffer from an isolation of rootlessness."




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