By Diane Rufino, March 26, 2018
There are many personal stories throughout history that teach us the depths of tragedies, triumphs, war, innovation, and discovery. We learn about events in history books and but we see them as black and white, without faces and without the human impact. We rarely learn of the human side of history. But the only way we can appreciate these stories and have them touch our lives is if they are recorded, not as simply happening but describing them in detail, in a very human way. That’s why journals and diaries, and letters touch us so deeply. They are personal accounts, describing feeling.
We all know Anne Frank, not simply as one of the millions of victims who perished during the Nazi Holocaust, but as a young girl just trying to live and survive as a teen girl, with teen girl issues, as the Nazis were literally outside her door and all throughout Germany and the territories it occupied scouring for Jews to ship to death camps and eradicate from among their race. We know some of the Civil War soldiers not merely as victims of an unfortunate and unjust war, but as young men, sons, husbands, fathers, brothers who professed their love to those they wrote to and their devotion to their cause, yet sensing their eventual demise.
Every once and awhile, a writer comes along and brings a story to us, in a stunning and brilliant way, and it changes us forever because it sears an event in our brains and imprints feelings on our heart.
This is how we know of the horrors of war and we can appreciate the courage of men and women who enlist to serve during such times. My husband and son are emotionally invested in the Band of Brothers series. Saving Private Ryan, although mainly a work of fiction, is based on the real-life story of the Niland brothers – Edward, Preston, Robert, and Frederick (from Tonawanda, NY) during WWII, and particularly during the invasion of Europe. I know that forever going forward, WWII is not only about strategy and American moralism and might, but it’s the sum of individual human tragedy and heroism. Schindler’s List, another one of my favorites, not only brings the horror of the Polish Ghettos and the concentration camps, but highlights the two extremes of man’s treatment of his fellow man. Oskar Schindler turned out to be an unlikely hero because initially, after joining the Nazi Party, he sought to profit from its subhuman treatment of the Jews before he had a change of heart. The story traces the real-life story of Schindler as he moved to Krakow, Poland, taking advantage of army contacts in order to exploit cheap labor from the Krakow ghetto. He amassed a fortune and lived the high life off the labor of Krakow Jews, condemned to the ghetto there. I’ll never forget the footage, in black and white, of the little girl in the red coat. She, like every other Jew, was dehumanized and degraded in every possible way. When the Krakow ghetto was liquidated and the Jews shipped off to the Plaszow work and death camp, Schindler used his fortune to buy their lives. Among the horror of the Holocaust and the unfathomable human toll, we can take solace in knowing that there were men and women like Oscar Schindler who risked their lives and fortunes to do the right thing.
I recently watched the movie In the Heart of the Sea, with Chris Hemsworth, about the 1830 tale of the New England whaling ship, the Essex, and its crew. The Essex faced a harrowing battle for survival when a great white whale of mammoth size and strength attacked it with force, crippling their ship and killing several men. But the remaining crew members on the badly-damaged vessel weren’t out of danger. The great whale, perhaps in retaliation for their hunting of his kind, stalked them and finished the job, shattering the ship and leaving the remaining men adrift in the ocean. It was their incredible and harrowing tale that inspired Herman Melville to write the classic Moby Dick.
Last night I watched a 2015 movie that initially didn’t seem to peak my interest, Woman in Red, starring Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds. But I’m so glad that I did. The description given of the movie explained that it was “a film about one of the great legal battles in art history.” But so much more than that, the movie was a beautifully touching, often gut-wrenching, story about the horrible and dehumanizing mistreatment of the Jews at the hands of the Nazis during the Third Reich.
Many will not remember, or as I suspect, never ever knew, about the Nuremburg Laws passed in Germany in the years leading up to the Second World War (first ones were passed in 1935). These laws, which had the official title “The Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honour,” were the anti-semitic laws that ultimately enabled the Nazis to root the Jews out of their communities and round them up. Under these laws, which the Nazis enforced aggressively and then enlarged when they consolidated their power in 1935, prohibited marriages and sexual relations between Jews and Germans, prohibited them from working in government jobs, stripped them of property, and finally declared that only those of German or related blood were eligible to be Reich citizens; the remainder were classed as state subjects, without citizenship rights. When This law was effectively a means of stripping Jews, and other “undesirables,” of their legal rights, their means of supporting themselves, and their citizenship.
In the context of this history, we have the story of Maria Altmann, told in Woman in Gold.
Maria Altmann, born Viktoria Bloch-Bauer, was the youngest daughter of Gustav Bloch-Bauer and Therese Bauer. She was born on February 18, 1916, in Vienna, Austria. Her wealthy Jewish family included her uncle Ferdinand, a Czech sugar mogul, his wife Adele. Uncle Ferdinand and Aunt Adele were close friends with many of Vienna’s important artists, including painter Gustav Klimt, as well as composers and musicians, including the famed composer Arnold Schoenberg. They all traveled in the same circles. Adele would often hold court for musicians, artists and writers in the salon of her house, which was near the Wiener Staatsoper (the Vienna State Opera house).
When Adele was 25 years old, Ferdinand commissioned Klimt to paint two portraits of her. The first, and by far the most famous of the two, the magnificent “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer” would later become known as “Woman in Gold,” of which the movie title refers. Klimt depicted her, wearing her favorite diamond-studded choker necklace and diamond earrings (wedding presents from Ferdinand), in a swirling gown within a blaze of pure gold (gold leaf) rectangles, spirals and Egyptian symbols – she became the epitome of Vienna’s Golden Age.
Maria grew up visiting her uncle and aunt’s grand palatial house, which was filled with pictures, tapestries, elegant furniture, and a collection of fine porcelain. A total of five Klimt paintings also hung in the home – the “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer,” which was displayed most prominently, another (a later) painting of Adele, and three others. In 1925, Adele died, childless, of meningitis at the age of 43. Afterward, Maria recalled, the family would meet for regular Sunday brunches at her uncle’s house and the afternoon would always include a viewing of the portraits of Adele.
In 1938, just months before the Germans occupied Austria and then annexed her into Germany (the Anschluss), Ferdinand fled the country for Switzerland. But he remained in Austria long enough to see his niece marry opera singer Frederick (“Fritz”) Altmann. As a wedding gift, her gave her Adele’s diamond earrings and the stunning diamond choker necklace – the ones he had given his young wife as a wedding present. When the Nazis occupied Austria, they looted from the Jews, taking everything of value. They entered the Bloch-Bauer home (now the home of Maria and Fritz, and her parents) and seized Ferdinand’s entire art collection, his porcelain collection, and his sugar refinery. The “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer” was taken, as well as her diamond choker necklace and other pieces of jewelry. The Nazis took Gustav’s beloved Stradivarius cello, which was the possession he prized most of all. Maria recalled: “My father died two weeks after that. He died of a broken heart.” The diamond necklace later turned up in Hermann Göring’s possession; he gave it to his wife as a present.
As the Nazification of Austria continued, Maria and Fritz were forced to flee their homeland. But fleeing wasn’t easy as the Nazis were intent on identifying and rounding up the Jews. The Nazis came for Fritz and took him to the Dachau held concentration camp to pressure his brother, Bernhard Altmann, into allowing them to take over his booming textile factory. Having already fled to London, Bernhard signed over his factory to the Nazis and Fritz was then released. The couple then lived under house arrest until Maria managed to elude the guards by claiming that her husband needed a dentist. The two boarded a plane to Cologne and made their way to the Dutch border, where a peasant guided them across a brook, under barbed wire and into the Netherlands. Fredrick and Maria then fled to America and ultimately settled in California.
While Fritz went to work for aerospace firm Lockheed Martin in California, Bernhard had started a new textile factory in Liverpool, England. He sent Maria a cashmere sweater to see if Americans might like the fine, soft wool. Maria took the sweater to a department store in Beverly Hills, which agreed to sell them. Other stores across the country followed suit, and Maria eventually started opened her own clothing boutique. The couple had three sons and a daughter in America, building a life together in a country that welcomed them.
We learn all these details about Maria’s life and the history of the famous painting through flashbacks, for the movie begins with the Nazi occupation of Austria in 1938 and newlyweds, Maria and Fritz Altmann, fleeing for their lives and leaving her family’s famous artworks behind.
The Klimt paintings, the property of Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, reappeared after the war in the Galerie Belvedere, in Austria.
For many years, Maria supposed that the Klimt paintings had legitimately ended up in the Austrian National Gallery. But in 1998, when she was 82, she learned from the tenacious Austrian investigative journalist, Hubertus Czernin, that the title to the paintings was hers. Uncle Ferdinand, who died, without children and impoverished, in Switzerland at the end of the war, made a will, leaving all of his property to his nephews and nieces. Maria was the only one still alive in 1998. A series of investigative articles in the Austrian press that year, by Czernin, revealed that paintings’ true ownership was with Ferdinand and therefore the bequeath by Adele in her will of the paintings to the Galerie Belvedere, was in invalid. Rightful ownership would therefore pass to Maria. With that astonishing and surprising news, Maria vowed to get them back. She never forgot what the Nazis stole from her family and the “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer” (which, again, became later known as “Woman in Gold”), was a symbol for her of all that the family had lost and all that had been taken from them.
In 1999, she contacted a 32-year-old no-name lawyer (at the time) –E. Randol Schoenberg. He may have had little legal experience or credentials, but what he was was a family friend – someone Maria believed would be motivated by the shared history of their families. E. Randol was – is – the grandson of Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg. His family and hers were good friends, first in Austria and then in California. She asked him if he could review the information she was given to see if the painting rightfully belonged to her.
It would require locating the wills, first Adele’s and then Ferdinand’s, which they finally did when they traveled to Austria. The Galerie Belvedere had kept the paintings, based on Adele’s will in which she made a “kind request,” (merely a “request”) that Ferdinand donate the paintings to the state museum after his death. However, when he passed, in 1945, he did not honor the request and instead, left all of his property to his nephews and nieces, of which Maria was the only one remaining. In other words, by continuing to keep the paintings, the Galerie disregarded the fact that bequest of the paintings contained in the wills legally left his estate to his nieces and nephews. Yet the paintings hung in Vienna’s Austrian Gallery at Belvedere Palace with a placard inscribed: “Adele Bloch-Bauer 1907, bequeathed by Adele and Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer.”
The film – the story – focuses on Maria’s quest, with the help of her attorney, to reclaim the famous Klimt painting from the Austrian government.
In the movie, an elderly Maria is portrayed by Helen Mirren and attorney Schoenberg is portrayed by Ryan Reynolds. Both do an outstanding job in their roles. The movie was produced by Harvey Weinstein.
The movie, based on the 2012 book written by Anne-Marie O’Connor (“The Lady in Gold: The Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Klimt’s Masterpiece, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer”), follows Maria’s surprising legal journey, while also weaving in the haunting memories of an elderly woman stripped of her property, her homeland, and her humanity in Austria at the hand of the Nazis, who were intent on persecuting and eradicating the Jews. Even though the movie ends on a happy note, with the return of the five Klimt paintings (worth US $135 million at the time), including the portrait of her beloved Aunt Adele, the story conveys very well the legacy of utter terror and brutality against the Jews under the Nazi nightmare and the long trail of sorrow and rebuilding that followed.
Her ordeal was beautifully summed up by a remark by attorney Schoenberg to Chief Justice William Rehnquist when her case came before the US Supreme Court: “Maria Altmann came to America to find peace. Let’s give her justice too.”
Mrs. Altmann died in 2011 at the age of 94. Before she passed, she sold her family paintings to American museums. She didn’t want the painting of her aunt or the other Klimts to remain in Austria. She wanted them in the country that gave her a safe home; the place where she had been a citizen for over 50 years – the United States. Jewish philanthropist Ronald Lauder bought the “Woman in Gold” portrait for $135 million to display at his museum, the Neue Galerie in New York. And the other Klimt paintings sold for another $192 million.
Ms. O’Connor brought Maria Altmann’s ordeal to life for us, and the story, masterfully adapted to the big screen, with heartbreaking flashbacks to a life that she – and millions of Jews – enjoyed, impresses on us the inhumanity of that era and the enormity of the indignations suffered by the European Jews.
Personal stories are important. Told properly and conveying the emotions at the time, they are a powerful testament to history and the human condition. They evoke emotions in us which connect us to other human beings. This is why writing and especially creative writing is so important to us as human beings. We should stress writing and articulation to our children and to our students and teach it to them by having them read and read and read and having them write and write and write. None of us knows when we might be a witness to history or to someone whose story should be shared.
I’m glad I learned about Maria Altmann’s story.
Catherine McHugh, “Who Maria Altmann? The Real Story Behind Woman in Gold,” Biography, April 2, 2015. Referenced at: https://www.biography.com/news/woman-in-gold-maria-altmann-biography
For more on the Altmann legal battles and Supreme Court case (Republic of Austria v. Altmann, 2004) – “The Morning Edition” (NPR), April 2, 2015 “After Nazi Plunder, A Quest To Bring Home The ‘Woman In Gold” – Referenced at: https://www.npr.org/2015/04/02/396688350/after-nazi-plunder-a-quest-to-bring-the-woman-in-gold-home