“Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I” by Gustav Klimt, Public Domain
The Holocaust was one of the worst events in human history, and people keep it in their minds so they should never forget. Never forget the infiltrations of Nazis to and evacuations from the ghettos. Never forget the death camps and crematoriums. Never forget the millions who died for being non-Aryans. Never forget the people.
But what about the people’s property? Nazis plundered Jewish families, yet nobody says “never forget the stolen jewelry” or “never forget the family heirlooms.” Unless descendants of Holocaust victims knew of the type of property that their family had prior to the Nazi invasion, no one paid particular attention to belongings. Living beings trump inanimate objects, so it is easy to see why that is the case.
Even if someone realizes that their family had valuables taken away from them, and he or she knows what they were, he or she must go through a difficult process to attempt to retrieve that property. Though there are laws in place that claim to give stolen Nazi property back, they are not necessarily that easy to come by. Maria Altmann knows of this experience firsthand, having tirelessly sued the Austrian government to retrieve her aunt and uncle’s art.
Maria Altmann, née Bloch-Bauer, was the niece of Adele and Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, well-off Jews in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Bloch-Bauers did not have any children, but they put their energy into amassing an enormous art and porcelain collection. They met aspiring avant-garde artist Gustav Klimt and commissioned him for a number of paintings, several of them being portraits of Adele. The most famous portrait of Adele was his gold-leaf painting, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, colloquially called “The Woman in Gold.” When Adele died in 1925 from meningitis, she bequeathed the paintings to go to The Belvedere, an Austrian art gallery, following her husband’s death.
At the time, women were never considered to be property owners; their fathers owned women’s property until they got married, and then their husbands owned their property afterward. In 1926, Gustav Bloch-Bauer, Adele’s relative and lawyer, argued that her will was not binding because she was technically not the property owner, although her husband decided to follow her request regardless. However, in 1937, the Nazis came to Austria, and the remaining Bloch-Bauers had to flee, leaving their homes behind. Ferdinand went to Prague and then to Switzerland, staying through the war until his death in December 1945. In his will, he gave all of his property to his nephew and nieces; his will did not have a single mention of Austrian galleries.
In 1948, after being heavily pressured by the U.S., Austria enacted restitution laws to return stolen property taken by the Nazis. The Bloch-Bauers’ nieces and nephew hired a lawyer to retrieve the stolen paintings; they were able to secure some of them, but not the special Klimt ones. Still, when their lawyer wanted to send the recoverable paintings to his clients, who had moved to North America, the Austrian government refused, citing export restrictions on Jews that do not allow them to take property out of Austria — unless they pay a “donation.” It became apparent that stolen Nazi property was given back to the country of origin, not the individual that the property belonged to.
The Klimt paintings were found in an Austrian gallery. The Austrian government had attained Adele’s non-binding will and Ferdinand’s agreement to follow it and showed it to her relatives’ lawyer, who decided nothing more could be done. They also extorted donations from the export restrictions to allow the family to export the other paintings to North America.
The matter had been closed since 1948. That is, until 50 years later, when Hubertus Czernin, a journalist, wrote an exposé on stolen Austrian artwork that was found in a New York gallery. In 1998, Austria acknowledged that if paintings were not properly returned or paid for by “donations” from export restrictions, they would return the art. Following this news, Maria, who was in her eighties at this time, decided to attempt getting back what was rightfully hers.
Maria hired family-friend attorney E. Randol Schoenberg to represent her. They had difficulty opening a case at first, as the Austrian gallery argued that the will points in their favor, and Maria was not allowed to sue unless she wanted to pay $2 million dollars (a percentage of the contested property) just to open the case in Austria. Schoenberg wanted to sue in America, and after finding some loopholes, was able to proceed. He went through many appellate courts within Austria, leading up to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2004; the final decision was 6-3 just to win the right to sue Austria over the Klimt artwork. They decided to sue for the actual paintings in Austria, as the U.S. was not very supportive because they were afraid of an international incident. A year and a half later, Schoenberg argued his way to getting Klimt’s paintings back. The Austrian court ruled that Adele’s will was a request to her husband, that it was not binding, and that the painting should have been returned to the family but was not because of export permits, in a 3-0 decision.
This was only one instance of property theft by the Nazis from the Jews being rightfully reclaimed. Imagine how many hundreds of thousands of pieces of valuable property go unclaimed, if six million Jews were killed during the course of World War II. It took one person more than 60 years to reclaim a few pieces of art; with all of the restrictions and greed in the world, it was almost impossible to get back what was rightfully hers.
It is important for narratives such as these to come out and be known. Maria’s story was the subject of a guest lecture at UCLA on April 21, given by Randol Schoenberg, the lawyer who won her Klimt paintings back. It coincided with the release of a major motion picture based on their story, titled The Woman in Gold. Anne Schneider, a second-year anthropology major, hosted the speaker event as part of the Pre-Law Society. She said, “I felt it was important that the story gets told… His work inspired me as both a young aspiring lawyer and a young Jewish individual.”
According to Schneider, a woman approached Schoenberg before his talk with a file full of pictures, seeking advice on a similar matter. “I think [this case] implies that there is still hope. Problems come in threes [referring to the three different courts Schoenberg went through for this case], but hope springs eternal. It is a really inspiring message that this case gives because it shows what potential you have if you just don’t take no for an answer.”
According to the Jewish Virtual Library, many countries have put in little to no effort in returning stolen artwork to Jewish families. However, with the releases of The Monuments Men (2014) and The Woman in Gold (2015), these types of Nazi plundering scheme stories are becoming more widely distributed and known. Schneider said, “Especially after seeing the movie, maybe people will start to ask questions.”
Questions are the building blocks to solving problems. By asking questions, people can find out more information and piece things together. The more people who ask questions, the more likely that they will be answered. Answers bring about hope, and as Schneider stated, “hope springs eternal.”
Let Maria’s story be a guide to remembering the lives lost in the Holocaust, to the people who suffered under the hand of the Nazis, and to their voiceless property that remains to be recovered. Never forget.