The first car that I bought was a Volkswagen “Beetle.” It was 1965, and I was recently married and living in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City. I decided to purchase it because parking spaces were scarce in Manhattan, and I felt that the Volkswagen was an automobile that would allow me to save time by parking in small parking spaces. I would not have to continually go around the block looking for vacant spots.
I enjoyed this time-saving aspect of owning this iconic German car until, stopped for a traffic light, a driver in the lane next to me called out, “why are driving this Nazi tuna fish can?”
I had not really thought much about the Holocaust. I had not gone to Jewish day schools and had no contact with survivors. Hearing the question from the other driver compelled me to realize that I lived in a Jewish neighborhood where many survivors lived, and the Volkswagen that I drove was a vivid reminder of the atrocities they experienced under the German Nazi regime.
I reflected on that incident as I watched The Last Vermeer, a thriller about a soldier and officer in the Dutch Resistance, Joseph Piller, investigating flamboyant Dutch artist Han van Meegeren. Meegeren was accused of collaboration with the Nazis. The damning charge was that Meegeren sold a rare work of Johannes Vermeer to Herman Goring, Hitler’s second-in-command.
The film opens in 1945, at the close of World War II, when cohorts of allies are searching for artwork stolen by the Nazis. Their goal: to return these art masterpieces to their rightful owners. Their search leads them to Han Van Meegeren, a Dutch painter and art salesman who appears to have been a Nazi sympathizer.
During the investigation, the question of the authenticity of a particular painting arises. Is the Vermeer we are now viewing a real Vermeer, or is it a forgery? Did Meegeren sell an original to Goring or did he swindle Goring and other Nazis by selling them forgeries? The truth is revealed when the case goes to trial.
The question publicly debated is whether Meegeren was a master art forger who tricked the Nazis into losing millions or was he, in truth, a Nazi collaborator? Ironically, Meegeren’s staunchest defender turns out to be his first accuser, Joseph Piller.
The issue of benefiting from the purchase of German products was a lively topic in Holocaust circles during my college days in the 1960s. Many people did not buy German products to demonstrate their moral outrage at the conduct of German citizens during the Holocaust. In their opinion, standing on the side and allowing friends and neighbors to be taken away to concentration camps in the middle of the night made them complicit in Nazi crimes.
Although some still feel that way in the 21st century, for others the passage of time mitigates the outrage. The reality is that Germans born today did not take part of the genocidal policy of their country. Moreover, there is no place in Jewish law where Jews are instructed not to purchase German products. Nowadays, the issue is mostly emotional.
For survivors and their families, buying a German car may be a traumatic experience offending the very memory of a loved one; for others, not so. The thrust of halachic opinion is simply to be sensitive and consider how one’s actions might affect others.
In truth, we can never judge someone who buys a German product. We do not know all the circumstances, the motives, and the pressures that influence personal decision-making. The Last Vermeer reminds us that we can never know the inner thoughts that motivate people to do what they do. Perhaps Meegeren was a Nazi collaborator. Perhaps he was the greatest art forger of all time who duped unsuspecting Nazis and stole their wealth. Perhaps he was a hero.