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When the Nazis Stole My Painting

by David Pryce-Jones

And the Austrians didn’t much care

In the final year of the 20th century, my family, or to be precise my aunt Liliane, received notification from authorities in Austria that they would be returning a painting stolen from us by the Nazis. Since the end of the war, it appeared, this picture had been on permanent exhibition in the Belvedere, Johann Lukas von Hildebrandt’s architectural masterpiece that has become a museum in the center of Vienna. Now a change in the law obliged those in possession of such stolen art to restore it to the rightful owners.

Plain sailing, you might think. They knew who we were and how to reach us. In a masterly display of bureaucratic obstruction, though, the Austrian authorities resorted to one delaying tactic after another, succeeding in spinning out their response to this obligation for eleven years. At times, I felt that since they wanted so badly to keep this picture, we should let them have it. But my cousin Elisabeth, Liliane’s daughter, rightly maintained that in principle theft should not be condoned, however much frustration and indignation this might arouse in us.

The picture in question, titled Hungarian Shepherd Boy, is small, a mere eight by ten inches, painted in oils on a piece of board. A barefoot ragamuffin is shown sitting on the ground, intent on eating from a blackened cooking pot that rests on his knees. This may have been a study for some larger work, because the detail of the figure is very full but the background remains unfinished. Living in the Habsburg Empire in the 19th century, the artist, Johann Gualbert Raffalt, tended like many others of that period to idealize his subjects. A slight coating of sentimentality does not detract from the genuine pity Raffalt evidently felt for the poor Hungarian boy. An expert from Christie’s puts a value on the picture today of $3,000; in the light of this estimate, the tenacity shown by the Austrian authorities to retain it is all the more extraordinary. Eleven years of defensive bureaucracy will have cost them many times that amount.

The picture used to hang in Meidling, the house Gustav Springer built in Vienna for his daughter Mitzi, his only child. The reddish stonework, the mock-Renaissance details of roofs and windows, the immense wood-paneled staircase that rises through the center of that house, are a celebration of opulence; visitors would have to make of it what they liked. Born in 1842, Gustav was the kind of character captured in the novels of Balzac, Musil, or Joseph Roth. In surviving photographs he is usually shown wearing formal clothes and a top hat. In old age he was bald, the skull like ivory. The expression on his face is serious but sensitive, as befits a self-made man who became one of the great magnates of the day, an industrialist with railway concessions all over Europe, owner of prize-winning racehorses, someone who earns a worthy mention in the history books. At the entrance to the musical institutions and museums of Vienna are stone tablets recording the principal donors who made their foundation possible, and his name is to be found there as well. Himself descended from an orphan, he built and underwrote what was called the Springer Waisenhaus, the city’s Jewish orphanage.

After Gustav’s death in 1920, Mitzi became responsible for Meidling. The life that she and her four children lived there now has the aura of a fairy tale. My mother, one of her daughters, was born in a room on the first floor of the house. In 1934 she married my father, an Englishman, and in due course I was born in that same first-floor room. Mitzi was by then a widow, and around that time she too married an Englishman. Becoming a British national, Mitzi liked to be known as Mary. Those of us with foreign passports were free to come and go, but by chance everyone in the family was away in March 1938. Meidling stood empty when the German army invaded the country and incorporated it into Hitler’s Reich.

Adolf Eichmann had overall responsibility for the measures put in place to rob and destroy the Jews of Austria, and one of his men had charge of everything to do with Gustav Springer and his descendants. The staff of the Springer Waisenhaus and all the children in their care were deported, first to Theresienstadt, and later to Auschwitz, where they were murdered. The only one who returned was Frau Margoulies, daughter of the director of the orphanage, and a distinguished elderly lady by the time I knew her. The orphanage itself, its building and grounds, were declared abandoned property, and expropriated by the municipality whose blocks of subsidized housing today occupy the site. Years ago I enquired into this, and was told that everything had been done according to the law.

Official documents in my possession bear the stamp of the Nazi eagle at the top of the sheet and the typewritten greeting “Heil Hitler!” above the signature at the bottom, which is often illegible, as though the writer wished to be protected from identification. In a letter dated Dec. 1, 1939, one of these illegible signers describes himself as the Head of State Collections and draws the attention of the authorities to what he calls the “rich inventory” and “outstanding things” to be found at Meidling. In his opening paragraph he makes the all-important point that the owner is a “Jewess with English citizenship.” Six weeks later, on Jan. 14, 1940, the Gestapo duly expropriated the house.

Gustav Springer had conventional tastes when it came to art, and bought what was fashionable in his day but is now of interest mainly to specialists in 19th-century painting. An exception, however, is a Van Dyck of Saint John, one of that artist’s favorite subjects. The Head of State Collections was particularly disappointed that this picture had gone missing. Within 24 hours of moving into Meidling, he was already recommending an investigation into its whereabouts. It is still unaccounted for, and the only plausible explanation is that one of these Nazis had been quick enough to lay hands on it for himself. The Head of State Collections was also eager to have several pictures by Rudolf von Alt, and one of these also could not be found. One memorandum in the correspondence accuses my father of having taken it to England.

A full list of the pictures stolen from Meidling comes to 57, all carefully inventoried by the Gestapo. Someone then made a further selection of 22 and on a separate sheet of paper penciled in values for them. The Raffalt is estimated at 300 Reichsmarks. Scrawled in huge handwriting on yet another sheet of paper is the name of my grandmother Mary née Mitzi, with an exclamation mark after it, and a total value of 33,000 Reichsmarks given for the pictures. In a final document in June 1941, an outside expert confirmed this valuation.

Meidling became a school to train senior Nazi-party officials. At some undetermined point, as defeat approached, the remaining possessions of the house were packed into numbered containers and stored in the Salzburger salt mines of Alt Aussee. The Nazis intended to assemble there some ultimate repository of treasure that would escape the Allies and finance their own comeback. In 1947, an American officer by the name of James A. Garrison authorized the release to my grandmother of her containers. Having escaped to Canada in the war, she was by then living in Paris. A coercive law of the time forced owners to relinquish some of their valuables in order to obtain export permits for others. An official from the Belvedere museum immediately claimed that the Raffalt and two Rudolf von Alts were such outstanding examples of Viennese painting that they could not be sent abroad. Our family registered complaints in January 1949 against this refusal to return the pictures, but the Belvedere staff now claim to be unable to find them. The museum has also claimed that our family made a written promise in March 1949 to donate the Raffalt, but the Belvedere staff cannot find that either. On July 18, 1949, the director of the Belvedere put out a declaration that the Springer family had made a bequest of the Raffalt to the museum; and that is how the theft was regularized. The Belvedere’s inventory stamp in black ink on the back then simply registered the picture as state property.

These subterfuges have to be seen in the context of a decision taken at about that time by the Austrian government. A cabinet meeting on Nov. 9, 1948, had discussed what should be done about restoring stolen Jewish property. Oskar Helmer, then minister of the interior, laid down what became the official position, “Ich bin dafür, die Sache in die Länge zu ziehen,” which translates “I am in favor of dragging out this matter for as long as possible.” He is further on record telling his cabinet colleagues at that meeting, “Ich sehe überall nur jüdische Ausbreitung,” or again in translation, “All I can see are Jews spreading out everywhere.”

 After the matter had been dragged out till the end of the 20th century, a historical commission was set up to examine the state’s role in the expropriation of Jewish assets. By that time, Helmer had died, and death had also whittled down the number of those with a claim. His strategy had been rewarded. My grandmother was dead, and so were three of her four children who had known Meidling in the old days. My aunt Liliane lived long enough to receive the letter that the Raffalt would be returned, but not long enough to see the picture again.

 The Jewish community of Vienna has a Department for Restitution Affairs, and it acts as a go-between with the relevant ministry. The Department for Restitution would pass our documentation to the ministry and, after a lengthy pause, convey back to us the ministry’s dissatisfaction and its further demands. This dual mechanism prolonged obstruction. The heart would sink as every new communication on the computer screen from the Department for Restitution extended the workload for some further unspecified duration. Family members in the several countries where they had come to live had to be briefed to dig through their records and contact lawyers, notaries, and registrars. Death certificates had to be obtained. Legal succession had to be established for all my grandmother’s descendants. This involved wills. The civil servant who had first written to my aunt retired. Nobody now answered letters; correspondence went into abeyance. Switching the focus from the Department of Restitution to the ministry itself, I would telephone to ask how things stood, and what documentation was still required, but the secretary took to hanging up at the sound of my voice.

On one or two occasions my cousin or I got through to the Herr Doktor seemingly in charge of this dossier in the ministry. He was never less than charming, making sure to admit and regret the Kafkaesque delay we were experiencing, and offering to conclude the business by next month. Next month would come and go; he would be away, traveling, on vacation. Then they wanted proof of probate in legal form — the extremely efficient French lawyer who had handled my uncle’s estate had experienced this process of restitution and sardonically wished me the best of luck. Then they raised the question of liability. We had once more to provide documentation of our identity as descendants of my grandmother and provide assurance that in the case of a future dispute over ownership none of us would sue, and further that we accepted responsibility should other heirs or as yet unidentified descendants of my grandmother appear. And so the eleven years passed. 

This whole procedure, I came to understand, has nothing to do with righting a wrong or making amends. Those eleven years served quite a different purpose. Nazism set in place a huge transfer of wealth and the question became how to keep possession and enjoy it. Oskar Helmer’s original determination to play for time implicitly conceded that Austrians were war profiteers and knew it. Psychologically, they could rid their consciences of residual guilt by making themselves out to be deprived of what they convince themselves by now is theirs. The bureaucratic obstacles to restitution have the purpose of making Jews out to be the kind of grasping and vindictive people who will go to the most extreme lengths in pursuit of their property, casting aspersions on others in the process — spreading out everywhere, in Helmer’s disdainful expression.

The same morning that a messenger finally delivered the Raffalt to my house, I received a letter from the present director of the Belvedere museum. She expresses pleasure that what she calls mischiefs are now being rectified “even though it is with a considerable delay.” I cannot expect her or any Austrian to make the connection, as I do, between a Hungarian shepherd boy in an old painting and the children of the Springer orphanage. The Raffalt, she goes on to say as though this were quite natural and would surely bring Mitzi’s descendants to their senses, is an important national masterpiece and she would like to have it back for an exhibition next year. This is how to turn 70 years of illegal possession into a claim for more.

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