As the recent discovery of an apartment-full of art in Munich shows, the drama of hunting down property stolen by the Nazis depicted in the new movie, “The Monuments Men,” did not stop at the end of the Second World War. I know this from my own experience in helping my mother reclaim a building, which was just inside East Berlin until the Wall fell in 1989. Mainly a legal slog, our claim also had moments of drama befitting George Clooney.
Although not painted quite like the SS, the soldiers of the Soviet Red Army are depicted as bad guys in “The Monuments Men.” Perhaps, but I am very grateful to an anonymous Communist official who added a memo to the Grundbuch, the land registry document, of my mother’s building, a huge six-storey edifice which stretches back the whole of a city block. My comprehension of German is weak, especially the way it is written in legal correspondence, but the word “judische” caught my eye. In essence, it said that this building had been stolen from Jews and, until its status was clarified, it could not be resold.
I bought a certified copy of the Grundbuch in a dingy apartment block in an outlying suburb from an impoverished lawyer, whose grip on it loosened when he saw hard currency being waved at him. Meeting the lawyer late one afternoon and then escaping in a taxi before he changed his mind was pure John Le Carre.
On an earlier trip, I had gone to the building, which had been seized by the Reichsbahn (German National Railways) in 1937. Boldly stating it belonged to my family, an embarrassed official admitted to me that he had been waiting for someone to claim it but had assumed all had died in the Holocaust.
Some of my relatives had indeed been murdered, transported to death camps by the very same Reichsbahn. But not all of them. Revealingly, German bureaucrats working there still referred to it as the “Wolff building” — it had been built in 1910 by my great-great grandfather, Heimann Wolff, as the headquarters for his high-class fur fashion house — once one of the biggest fur companies in Germany.
The slowness of the German authorities in finding the possible Jewish claimants to the art discovered in Munich has already been reported. I encountered many obstacles while working with my mother on the claim.
In essence, the claim process was to prove one-time ownership and/or show that my mother was a legal inheritor. The onus in German law is on the government to prove the Jewish owners were not forced to sell. The reality was that we had to show evidence that it was a “forced sale.” People hoping to claim any of the Munich art should gird themselves for a long struggle.
Bar finding various wills, and birth and death certificates (that would have had to miraculously survive bombing during the war), the claiming process was by petitioning government agencies tasked with administering German restitution law rather than through actual courts. In our experience, it was a “one step forward, one step back” routine, which went on for years.
Sometimes, officials acknowledged it was a valid claim, other times they said there was not enough money in the restitution budget to pay out for another year or so. One even tried to argue the sale was not forced because the business, which had been transformed into renting office space almost exclusively to Jews, was not making much money. What cheek! As if the economic environment for Jews had been benevolent since 1933 when Hitler came to power, and my mother and her immediate family had fled to the British mandated territory of Palestine.
The German government eventually settled with my mother. She and her siblings had been seeking restitution though, frankly, the last thing they wanted was to find themselves having to administer a piece of prime Berlin real estate, close to Checkpoint Charlie.
So they took the money, the full market value. That choice also enabled the German minister of transport, who had established his office in the building, to stay in situ. (The delicious irony of evicting him and his staff would have been tempting!)
While “The Monuments Men,” focused on art destined for Hitler’s dream gallery (Fuehrermuseum) in his hometown of Linz, Austria, a companion exhibition had already been established in Munich in 1937. Haus der Deutschen Kunst (The House of German Art), the building of which still exists, was created to display proper (at least in Nazi eyes) “German art,” although many people would regard its work as simply fascist and brutish. Another associated gallery nearby showed “degenerate art” – contemporary pieces by Jews and others – so the people of Munich could see the dangers of modernism from which the Nazi Party was saving them.
The businessman who forced the sale of my mother’s building had been a trustee of the Haus der Deutschen Kunst.
My mother’s building was originally designed by a noted architect in 1910. Its flourishes of grandeur have now mostly gone but it has been recognized by the Berlin City government as being of historical architectural significance. On learning this last year, I wrote to Peter Ramsauer, the then German Minister of Transportation, Construction and Urban Development, asking for a commemorative plaque to be placed on it to acknowledge it once belonged to the Wolff family.
To my astonishment, I received an email from one of Dr. Ramsauer’s officials, saying my request had been accepted and a plaque would “be produced and affixed” to the building.
The email arrived the day that Dr. Ramsauer lost his position in the German cabinet. Here’s hoping his successor will honour his decision.