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An era’s end

     Everything changed for Maria and her family when German soldiers marched into Austria on March 12, 1938. In what became known as the “Anschluss,” the anti-Semitism that had simmered beneath Austrian society bubbled to the surface and overflowed.  One day, the Gestapo came to their apartment, looking for the Rothschilds’ Stradivarius cello. Maria used to joke that the cello was the family’s sixth child; her father, Gustav, guarded it so closely that whenever the family would go on summer vacation, he would lock the instrument in a vault.

     When the Gestapo took the cello away, just like that, Maria says, “the thread of life was cut.” About a month later, after watching friends commit suicide rather than fall prey to the Nazis, Gustav got sick and died. “Thank God, he died a natural death,” Maria says. With the Nazis around, “he was totally lost, because he was such a man of justice, and that word didn’t exist anymore.”

     Maria, then 21, had gotten married a few months earlier. As a wedding gift, Maria’s uncle, Ferdinand, had given her a diamond necklace and earrings that had belonged to her aunt, Adele. Now, the Gestapo took her necklace for the wife of Hitler’s right-hand man, Hermann Göring. Nazis arrested Maria’s husband, an aspiring opera singer, Fritz Altmann, and sent him to Dachau. They kept him in an effort to force Fritz’s brother, Bernard, to surrender his sweater business to them. When the Nazis released Fritz several months later, he and Maria knew it was time to leave.


After the war, the Allies discovered stockpiles of looted art, stored in churches and salt mines. Mines at Alt Aussee, southeast of Salzburg, housed a cache of 6,500 works.

     Maria had a valid passport and visas for entry into France and England, but Fritz had nothing. “Like a biblical heroine,” Fritz’s brother, Bernard, would later say, “she stayed faithfully by the side of her husband.” In a carefully planned escape orchestrated by Bernard, the couple made their way to the Dutch border, where, in the dead of night, a farmer led them across a brook and over a barbed wire fence to Holland, where they chartered a plane to Liverpool, England.

     The Nazis pounced on the fleeing Jews’ property, including fine art. The Nazis stole masterpieces whenever they could get their hands on them, looting artwork from Austria, Germany, France, the Netherlands and Eastern Europe. Hitler and Göring kept many pieces for their private collections. Other paintings, the Nazis put aside for a museum Hitler was planning to build in his childhood home of Lintz, Austria. Hitler and his men were primarily interested in old-master paintings. They considered modern art “degenerate” and auctioned or sold it to museums and collectors as far away as Switzerland, England, South America and the United States.

     When Maria’s uncle, Ferdinand, fled, making his way to Zurich, a group of Nazi and museum officials converged on his mansion to divide the spoils. They auctioned off his porcelain, selling many of the pieces to museums. Hitler and Göring each took some paintings for their own collections. The Nazis kept other artwork for the planned museum in Lintz.

     Erich Fuhrer, the lawyer who liquidated the estate, kept several paintings for himself, including “Adele Bloch-Bauer II.” He sold one Klimt painting to the Museum of the City of Vienna and three to the Gallery Belvedere. The glistening gold portrait arrived at the gallery in 1941 with a letter from Fuhrer signed “Heil Hitler.”


     After the war, the Allies discovered stockpiles of looted art, stored in churches and salt mines, like the mines at Alt Aussee, southeast of Salzburg, Austria, which housed a cache of 6,500 works of art. A monastery at Mauerbach, near Vienna, stored thousands more objects. The Allies took this artwork to designated holding points, where they sorted through them and, after determining their countries of origin, returned the works to the countries from which they came, with the stipulation that the countries seek to restore the pieces to their rightful owners.

     Ferdinand lived to see the end of the war but not the return of his property. In November 1945, he died in Zurich, leaving his estate to his niece, Maria, and her brother, Robert, and sister, Luise.

     Robert decided to see what he could do to recover some of his uncle’s property, including the Klimt paintings. He solicited his close friend in Vienna, the lawyer Gustav Rinesch, to help.

 

 

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