Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 26 Mar 2001 Article by Stephan TEMPL
Translation by Marion Koebner
Prague, in March
"Central Europe" is a fiction which, thanks to confusion, is becoming
reality. Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer is an irritation long after his death. The
polyglot sugar industrialist, born in Jungbunzlau, who commuted between his
palace in Vienna and his Bohemian castle, was more than just one of those
aristocrats who outlived the collapse of the Danube Monarchy. He remained
true to Judaism out of conviction. In 1918, much to the annoyance of
Ringstrasse society who remained loyal to the Kaiser, he chose the
nationality of the modern industrial state, so full of promise,
Czechoslovakia. His wife Adele, immortalised by Gustav Klimt, made it
possible for him to have a genuine and deep confrontation with the
philosophy and representatives of Social Democracy (Julius Tandler,
Renner). He was aware of the fiction of his existence and of the irritation
caused by the smaller Central European states.
In 1938 and 1940 respectively, his fortune, including his famous Viennese
art collection, was confiscated. He spent the last seven years of his life
in a Zurich hotel room, while his castle (Schloss Jungfern) to the north of
Prague became Reinhard Heydrich's residence. The German State Railway
Authority occupied the Vienna Residenz situated immediately opposite the
Academy of Visual Arts.
When Bloch-Bauer died in 1945, his only bequest to his heirs was a crystal
clear draft restitution claim. 56 years of democracy in Austria have
hardly altered this - very little was restored to his family.
In Prague they were just reinforcing the 1953 Stalinist decrees: the heirs
were not Czechs, but rather Germans. The attached declaration proves it:
All three heirs were born in Vienna. Maria Altmann is an American citizen,
Robert Bentley is Canadian and Louise Gattin is Yugoslav.
They have remained true to this logic. When it comes to restitution of real
property, Czech nationality is a prerequisite. This is not the case for
the transfer of works of art expropriated between September 1938 and April
1945. Retention of the looted property is assured by different methods:
Only direct descendants are entitled to claim. So last autumn, the Prague
National Gallery bypassed the heirs of the childless Emil Freund who was
murdered in Lodz - by restoring the collection (Signac, Derain, Utrillo and
many other leading works of modern art) to the original expropriator, the
Nazi-Treuhandstelle (Trust) which had handed over the collection to the
Prague Jewish Museum in 1944. The current curator of this Institution,
Michaela Hajkova, is fully aware of the dubiousness of this transaction, as
well as of the considerable doubt surrounding other parts of its
collection. Because a large proportion of the highly valuable exhibits in
the Museum were stolen from the Jewish communities of Moravia, Bohemia and
Silesia during the Second World War and brought to Prague.
The Museum agrees with the concept of restitution. Tomas Haas had to
litigate for years in his attempt to have restored to him the paintings his
father Friedrich Taussig - known by his artist's nom de plume as Fritta -
created in Theresienstadt. Tomas, who experienced the liberation of the
concentration camp as a four year old, knew about the works of his father
hidden in the walls of the fortification.
Most claimants would however be referred the lists of assets created by the
Nazis. The Czech authorities keep these under lock and key because they
contain too much explosive information. There, apart from real property and
works of art, are listed bank and savings accounts and insurance policies.
In this way, the Culture Ministry can speak confidently about 7000 looted
works of art (including those by Rembrandt, Klimt, Kokoschka and Mucha) in
Czech museums. In part they are listed on the Internet
(www.restitution-art.cz) with confusing dimensions, without specifying the
original owner. No one has so far started a search for the heirs.
Everything points to the fact that once again the Central European
application of restitution practice is coming to the fore. The only ones
with any chance of success are those who are aware of the existence of the
looted works of art and who can afford the legal fees required to litigate
at length. Otherwise they need to be able to conduct their own cases as has
Uri Peled, the heir of the Brno lawyer and art collector Arthur Feldmann,
who undertook his own investigations over many years and maintained
Arthur Federer, heir and descendant of the well-known industrialist and art
collector Oskar Federer, has been attempting to do just this for the last
decade. His collection today forms the core of the Ostrau Gallery of
Visual Arts. What chances does this claimant think he has? He is only too
aware of the statement - by no means devoid of antisemitic prejudice - by
the then Czech President Edvard Benes, made in 1944 in London to the
representatives of the Czechoslovak Jews: "After all this we could not
possibly restitute the entire Main Street of Moravia-Ostrau."