Privacy Issues with Online Trees

Avotaynu Online has published my recent lecture on Privacy Issues with Online Trees that I gave on July 7, 2015 at the 35th Annual Conference of the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies in Jerusalem.  The summary of my article’s findings are:

  • Deceased individuals do not have a right to privacy, so publication of genealogical data about deceased individuals is unrestricted.
  • There is generally no legal limitation on the publication of genealogical data about living individuals, since that data is neither private nor objectionable to a reasonable person.
  • Living individuals may have a right against public disclosure of private facts that would be offensive or objectionable to a reasonable person of ordinary sensibilities.
  • Online genealogy sites may restrict publication of genealogical data about living individuals, but solely as a result of marketing decisions and not because of any legal requirements or risks of liability or litigation.
  • Subject to the rule against public disclosure of objectionable private facts, genealogists are generally free to publish online family trees, and do not need to accede to privacy requests from individuals named on those trees.

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Stolen Mahler photo offered on ebay for $150,000

A few weeks ago I contacted Cliff Fraser and offered to resolve the issue of the stolen Mahler photo by purchasing it for $20,000.  He countered by demanding $120,000 and I decided not to pursue it further.  There is still no reason to think the photo wasn’t stolen from our home in Brentwood or loaned somewhere by my grandmother and never returned after she died of cancer in 1967.  (Just this year the Edinburgh Festival returned a bunch of photos and a diagram for Gurrelieder that were loaned in 1961.)

Now Cliff has decided to try to the sell the photo on ebay.  It looks like he is being assisted by someone with the listing, because in previous correspondence he has been less than articulate.  The listing was picked up by Norman Lebrecht on Slipped Disc, who then also reported that the photo appears to have been stolen.  If no one purchases it, maybe Cliff will come to his senses and at least accept my generous offer of a reasonable price for the return of the photo.  Unfortunately, to date he has been acting more like the original thief than simply the grandson who found the stolen photo buried in his grandmother’s boiler room.

$_57

The Story of the Escape of Fritz and Maria Altmann From Germany on October 21-22, 1938

What follows is Bernhard Altmann‘s description of the circumstances surrounding the escape of his younger brother Fritz Altmann (1908-1994) and his wife Maria (1916-2011) from Nazi Germany, an event portrayed by Max Irons and Tatyana Maslany in the 2015 film Woman in Gold.  The text was translated by Bernhard’s son Cecil Altmann for Fritz’s 80th birthday in 1988.  Fritz and Maria were married December 9, 1937 in Vienna. Nazi Germany annexed Austria on March 12, 1938. Fritz and Maria’s escape took place on October 21-22, 1938.  For further details, see Fritz Altmann: My Adventures and Escape from Nazi Germany.

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I had taken residence in Paris and was rapidly making my plans for the future.

An expansion of the Paris factory could not be taken into consideration because the French market was not large enough for our products, certainly not to be able to create a subsistence for my large family. It was also clear that I would not be able to get sufficient working permits for the many members of the family.

I thought first of going to the United States and building a factory there. On the 31st of March, I took a visitor’s visa to go to the U.S. That turned out to be very wise because later such visas could be obtained only with great difficulties.

In April, I went to England and started discussions with the government. In May, I was to obtain an answer. When I went to London in May, I was not given a definitive answer. The Scottish knitware manufacturers had objected to the granting of an entry permit for my family and myself to the building of a new factory.

After fourteen days, I decided to follow-up on an offer made by Sir Frederic Marquis and went to Liverpool. I was welcomed there and at a lunch that the Lord Mayor held on June 1, I concluded an oral contract with the key officials. A factory would be built for me, and I would only have to lease it. After three years, I would have the right either to discontinue the lease, to continue it, or to purchase the building at that time. Martin’s Bank offered me a 5 years credit of a minimum of 10,000 pounds (which we have not drawn on to date).

Then I went to Paris and sought means to bring my family out of Vienna.

Max had become a sales representative for the Vienna firm, travelling to France and England. He begged me in the name of the family to forego the new establishment in Liverpool. It seemed to be the main concern of those family members of the family remaining in Vienna not to make any waves. They were concerned about my keeping some of my assets but did not see that everything was lost and there was only one task ahead: finding every possible way to bring the family members out of Vienna.

Instead I had a multitude of wishes, communications and requests not to establish anything. This to avoid reprisals against the remaining family members.

I did not let myself be deterred from my task. Even if certain members of the family would be taken into custody – Fritz at this time had already been taken into the Landesgericht – after their release they could have an entry possibility to England and even a job. Without this, they would come to naught in Vienna and I could not do anything for them.

Max wanted to travel back to Vienna and I kept him from doing this. I had to beg him to stay.

In August, Julius came. When I asked him before his departure not to come to Paris before Trude and Nelly were out of Vienna, he hung up the phone up on me angrily. As he had come without Trude and Nelly, I asked him to stay because each member of the family out of Vienna was for me a relief.

Clara and Liselotte Herlinger had both received passports. I asked Clara to go to Italy immediately. Nothing stood in a way of her departure. However I heard nothing but excuses from her. She could not leave for one or another reason. Her son Gerhard – a marvelous young man, who lived with me in Paris 3 months – was also very upset. I could not give credence to all these excuses.

Despite these difficulties, she finally travelled to Italy. There I could take care of her because there were some Lira in my Italian company.

Shortly thereafter, Titti, the wife of my brother Max, came to London with her daughter.

Thus only Nelly, Trude, Fritz and Maria remained in Vienna. My brothers had made the mistake of picking the wrong Vienna attorney. Our case was given to a man by the name of Hentschel. He was more afraid of the Gestapo than we were. And he obtained nothing. It would have been better had we had no lawyer at all. In September, I decided to send a former administration employee named Robert Luthy to Vienna to help matters along. He did obtain the promise that Nelly and Trude could leave Austria.

I have to say about my wife Nelly and also of Trude that they behaved extremely well. I had not the slightest complaint from them and the letters that Nelly wrote me were heartwarming. She sought to calm me.

In the middle of September, I decided with an attorney from Brunn (Czechoslovakia) to obtain the departure of the four remaining family members to that town. It was all prepared. In Prague, the permission from the government had been obtained for temporary passports. However, this effort failed.

On October 5, I decided to go to Holland. I had heard that the crossing of the border to Germany was relatively easy. I booked a flight from Manchester to Amsterdam. On the 5th of October in the morning, there was a storm in England that caused a dozen or so casualties, hundreds of trees were uprooted. I did not let that get in my way and drove at 6 in the morning to Manchester and took the plane to Amsterdam. We had a tailwind – rather a tailstorm – and landed in the record time of one hour and 17 minutes later in Amsterdam.

I drove to the border, viewed the crossing possibilities and thought those dangerous. Every railroad crossing, every bridge was watched by border guards. When I talked to my Dutch friend C. in Paris a few days later, he advised me differently and counselled me to pursue the Dutch border crossing plan.

On October 12, I was able to receive Nelly and Trude in London. I then decided to bring Fritz out. And went to Paris on October 13.

Now I wish to tell the story of the events that led to the successful escape of my brother Fritz and his wife Maria.

The rules of classic greek drama require unity of time, place and theme. The Schiller drama William Tell is perhaps the best example of this. He follows the rules and his drama is further divided in three sections: the Tell-, Gessler- end the Attinghausen tales. As it happens, the tale of my brother’s flight also follows the classic rules. This drama, – although with a happy ending – also has three parts: the German, the Dutch and the English.

My brother was in contemplation of an escape for several weeks. His first idea was to get a Yugoslav passport. He should have got one on October 20. However the people who should have gotten it for him were arrested and thus this plan came to nothing.

An escape to Luxembourg was also considered and dropped.

Finally, Fritz agreed with my suggestion to go across the Dutch border.

Our correspondence was thru a good a friend of Fritz’s, Nissel. He brought the mail regularly to my brother in his apartment at the factory where he was under house arrest by the Gestapo.

The porter at the factory had the obligation to tell the Gestapo if Fritz were to leave without permission.

I advised Fritz that it would be best to tell the Gestapo agent Landau that he had to have dental treatment. In this way he could arrange regular departures from the factory. He did this. As he wrote me that it would be probable that an SS man would be given him as a guard, without whom he could not leave the factory, I made out [the] following plan: He should go with this man to the old Bristol Hotel and ask him to wait in the hall. Behind the hall there is a bar with an exit to the Mahlerstrasse and there one always finds a taxi with which Fritz could go then either to the railway station or to the airport.

On the 10th of October, Fritz left the factory and we talked on the telephone and finalized all plans. I left Liverpool, flew to Paris and met my cousin Isakower who went with me to Holland. Max Isakower, 28 years old, had gone from Paris to Vienna three times, and this without passport. He went over the French – Belgian border and the Belgian – Dutch border at night, and then over the Dutch – German border. He had some modest amounts of money in Vienna which he wanted to bring out, and he did this in this fashion. I took him with me so that he would fetch Fritz in Cologne and then bring him to the Dutch border.

Early in the morning, we drove out to Le Bourget, had some difficulty there because Air France wanted us to sign a declaration that we understood that we were going to Holland at our own risk. Since there was no need to have a visa, it was at the discretion of the police authorities to permit Austrians to enter or to be turned back. The only time that I had a strong heartbeat during these three days was then because I feared that the Amsterdam police would turn me back. But it was without a problem. And so I got to Amsterdam with Isakower

and agreed that we would go to the border as soon as possible.

Isakower was to cross the border at Keerkrade in the night of October 20. This was the Dutch border town. From there, he would go to the German border post Kohlscheldt and go to Cologne and meet Fritz on October 21 at 3 p.m. at the Dom of Cologne.

To cover contingencies, we agreed with both Fritz and Isakower that in case something were to go wrong that the concierge of the Dom Hotel would be given a message for Mr. Fritz Hooper. This was the cover for any necessary communications.

At eleven o’clock in the morning of October 20th I said goodbye to Isakower.

Now the drama unfolds and I wish to tell the Dutch part first.

I went to my friends C. to get advice from them. Mr. M. C. would give me his full help, wanted to lend me his car so that I might pick Fritz up at the border and drive him to Amsterdam. I thanked him very much and I said “Listen, my dear friend, you are a Dutch Jew; as such I can’t bring you into such an affair which is not permitted under Dutch law. I thank you for your wonderful and humane help. I would be indebted to you if you would only give me a good and reliable attorney.”

And Mr. M. C. then gave me the name of a wonderful man, Dr. X.P., to whom I went immediately after lunch. I told him my story which he understood in its full importance and seriousness.

To my great regret, he had to leave the next morning and was therefore not in a position to take this case on.

     He did however let me know that I would have his full support and that he would be available for me in the evening.

The marvelous thing in all this tale is that at various points, it looked like the whole scheme would fail; as in a tragi-comedy, all the missed opportunities resolve themselves in a happy ending.

So I was in the apartment of this wonderful lawyer Dr. P. and we developed our plan.

One must keep in mind that the southern-most province of Holland called Limburg was at that time in [a] state of alert with regard to all illegal immigrants.

Since hundreds of German Socialists, Jews and Catholics transited there every night, the Dutch Government had reinforced the customs posts. In the little stretch Heerlen – Keerkrade there were at least 50 border policemen.

I then related my plan again in all its details. My brother was to depart on the German Lufthansa flight an October 21, 1938, at 9:45 a.m. He should thus reach Cologne at about 3:30 p.m. In front of the Dom, he was to meet my cousin Isakower and then go with him to Kohlscheidt. There, he was to wait with farmer H. Senior till evening. H. Senior should then bring him to the border under the cover of night. On the Dutch side, the son of H. Senior should then take Fritz to his house in Keerkrade. Where Fritz and his wife were to spend the night.

The wife of my brother Fritz – Maria – said that she wanted go with Fritz although she had a valid passport and visas for entry into France and England. Like a biblical heroine she stayed faithfully by the side of her husband to whom she had sworn her troth ten months earlier.

With Dr. H. I discussed that he would travel to Maastrich on [the] evening of October 21. There he was to spend the night in the Hotel Lievre [???] at Aiglon. In the morning of October 22, my brother was to leave Keerkrade and go with him to Amsterdam. In case something were to happen at the border, Dr. H. should try to make an official intervention.

The border police had the task of hunting down people coming from Germany without an entry permit and then to turn them over to the German authorities without further ado. Such money that the refugees had was given to the border SS. Dr. H. promised in case any tragedy were to befall us that he would arrange for custody for my brother in Holland.

Now it became necessary to provide entry for my brother to England. And I would arrange for the necessary documents.

Dr. H. was to travel with these documents on the 21st of October to Maastrich. I spoke with him at 11 on the 20th of October and sought to give him the documents.

According to the old rule I adopted, that an officer of the general staff should not go to the front, I took my quarters in the Hotel Victoria in Amsterdam and this was a good thing.

I operated from my room and by telephone. I spoke to Fritz as agreed on the 20th of October at 4 p.m. in Vienna and confirmed that everything was in order.

I called my son Hans in Liverpool. And this was our talk:

“Listen, my son, tomorrow Fritz should come to Holland. He would have a false Czech passport with which to come to England. While need creates expedients, it would not be good to start a new life in wonderful England with a lie. Go to see our protector in Liverpool, Sir Frederick Marquis, and tell him the situation. Ask him for a police document whereby Fritz would be let in to England.”

Hans told me that he thought this impossible.

“A lazy servant is a half prophet – says the old Jewish proverb” said I to him, “go and do what I ask of you.”

Hans was to express mail the entry permit for Fritz.

But let us return to the Dutch part of the story. On the morning of October 21, I went to the air company KLM and asked for the rental of a plane for the next day. I was told that only larger planes of the Douglas variety were permitted to fly over the channel. Such a plane – a 14 passenger plane – would cost 1180 Florins for the flight to Liverpool. I did not want a firm rental as something might still go wrong. On the other hand, I wanted to arrange that Fritz end Maria would not spend a minute longer on Dutch soil than would be necessary.

The KLM official asked for a large down payment. According to a principle learned from my mother I did not want to give anything as a down payment. Finally, we agreed on a sum of 50 Florins for which I got a receipt.

In every serious story there is a touch a humour – and I laughed very much when I saw on the corner of the receipt, the words, in Dutch: “EXTRA VLUCHT.” *

*Translator note: the German homophone, Vlucht, means escape.

At one o’clock in the afternoon, a courier from Liverpool should have brought the letter. He brought nothing. The concierge of the Hotel told me that the next mail was only at 7 p.m. But then Dr. H. would already have left. I went to the central post office, and asked the different departments whether they had not found an express letter. And I found the letter in one of the departments.

I thus went to Dr. H. and gave him the English entry permit which had been in the letter, the receipt from KLM and also photos of Fritz and Maria. With best wishes for his travel, I said goodbye to this excellent man.

On Friday afternoon, I did several errands, and went to the hotel to call Liverpool. At this point, let us go back to the English part of this saga.

Hans did go immediately to Sir Frederick’s office and found out that he had left the very morning for South Africa. He then went to Alderman Shannon who heard his story out and declared his willingness to help. He recommended him to the chief of police of Liverpool, who was not in his office. However, his assistant declared to Hans that such a permit was outside the authority vested in him. He would however get in touch with the Home office. He did this immediately over the phone and official there asked what interest the city of Liverpool had in the entry of this man. He answered that we were building a factory in Liverpool and that all the family was reunited in England with the exception of Fritz, and that Fritz had spent some time in a concentration camp. The Home office gave its approval right on the telephone and said that Fritz could enter into England without a passport. That police official immediately gave his assurance that the next afternoon – Saturday – both an official of the Immigration service as well as a Customs official would be advised that Fritz could enter the country without any further formality. This closes the English part of the story.

With some excitement, I awaited the evening. I agreed with Fritz that he would send no messages.

At 8 p.m. I had to be in the hotel because they advised that there would be an air raid alarm. All Amsterdam was made dark and the hotel was candle-lit like a church. The candle light gave the whole picture an additional element of ambiance. It was muggy in the hotel and the hall was not inviting.

I went first to my room, then down to the lobby. It was 9, then 10 p.m. I had to get some air, but I could not leave the lobby because [at] any time there might be a call. At 10:30 p.m. I decided to go on to the street for 5 minutes to catch a breath of air. I was out on the street only for 7 minutes and as I went back the telephone operator told me that there had been a call from Heerlen. Mr. Max Isakower was on the telephone, gave his number and asked for a return call.

I got a connection immediately and within 5 minutes I got Isakower who told me that Fritz had crossed the border successfully but had not been able to spend the night at H. Junior’s place in Keerkrade as planned but was already 7 km from the border at Heerlen where he was the guest of a bicycle dealer. He could not explain this on the telephone. Fritz and Maria could not spend the night there at any cost. What should he do?

I said that Isakower should immediately take a taxi and go to the Hotel Lievre & Aiglon in Maastrich. There he should ask Dr. H. that he should go with him to the town of Heerlen, 27 km away, to fetch Fritz. Under the direction of Dr. H., they should then go back to Maastrich to the hotel. Isakower immediately went off to Maastrich.

Then I Immediately called the hotel in Maastrich to speak to Dr. van H. He had gone out.

I asked for a connection with Heerlen again because in my haste I had forgotten to speak to Fritz. I wanted to give him courage, should he be in bad spirits. I had not told them about the dangers on purpose because I did not want to trouble him needlessly.

He came to the phone and was in full good mood which made me happy. He had just eaten very well and was waiting for Isakower who was supposed to bring him to Amsterdam in some fashion. I was very happy to know him in such good spirits and promised him that we would meet the next morning in Amsterdam. How that could be arranged I did not know at that time. But I had confidence in my lucky star.

A few minutes later, I spoke to Liverpool and to Paris and told Max and Julius that Fritz was in Holland. Their relief was immense. Yet I was not comforted.

It was at 1:15 that I got a call from Maastrich. Isakower was on the phone. He had been stopped 3 times on his way to Meastrich by gendarmes. On the way back to Heerlen, another time. The clever fellow had come up with a good plan at this time. At 12:20 a.m., the last train leaves Heerlen to go to Maastrich. He took a taxi with Fritz, Maria [and] Dr. van H. to the railroad station. They were there at 12:18 a.m. He quickly took tickets and they hopped on the train so that the policeman who was on duty did not have time to ask them anything. And in half an hour, they were in the hotel in Maastrich. Dr. H. was well known there so they did not have to register. Isakower made an arrangement with the concierge that the door be locked because there was a usual round by an inspector of the police at 2 a.m. to check on the guest list. To avoid further complications, not only was the door locked, but the bell was disconnected. As I had this news, I did have a moment of relief because I told myself that not much could happen anymore. If, by any unhappy circumstances, Fritz would have been taken by Dutch authorities, he would be put into their custody and not turned over to the German border police.

I then informed my family by phone of the improved position.

What had happened in the meantime? How come had Fritz not spent the night at H. Junior’s in Keerkrade?

Now I have to return to the German part of the story.

No! First I have to record that Max Isakower never went to Cologne. What had happened in the meantime, I could not know. The border from Holland to Germany could not be crossed that night, for some reason. Max Isakower was to have contacted some German coal-workers who worked in the mines in Keerkrade and daily went back over the border to Kohlscheidt in the evening. He arrived too late and could not go over to Germany anymore. He had however told the father of H. in Kohlscheidt, to pick up Fritz at 3 o’clock at the Dom.

  1. Senior was there. He asked at the Dom Hotel if there had been any message for or from Fritz Hooper. The concierge said, “Yes, a telegram is here.” The old H. took the telegram and its content was “Cannot travel because of illness.” The telegram was directed to a Fritz Leeman but the old farmer who was used to code names thought that could only be for Altmann. Therefore he went back to Kohlscheidt.

Now back to Vienna.

Fritz had left the factory at 9 o’clock, and got to take the 1:45 plane to Frankfurt. He took the ticket in the name of his friend Nissel whose passport he had in his pocket.

A pair of dark glasses and a stern look on his face should have made him resemble the picture on the passport more closely.

Fritz and Maria flew to Frankfurt, changed planes and were soon in Cologne. At the Cologne airport, a stewardess from Lufthansa asked if there were two passengers from Vienna in the group. Fritz and Maria did not answer the call but were unsettled by this query. They arrived in the city and waited a while in front of the Dom – which in our telephone calls we always spoke of as the little church – saw nobody and then asked in the Dom Hotel if there has been a message for Mr. Hooper. Yes, the porter said. The elderly gentleman had taken the message and left.

What a comedy of errors!

Fritz decided immediately to take the next train to Aachen. There, they put their baggage in storage (which would be an important element later) and took a taxi to Kohlscheidt. They gave the chauffeur [the] address of the elder H., who did not know the street. However he drove off rapidly and wanted to go to the border post to inquire of the SS man the directions to the well known smuggler.

Fritz was able to stop just before the border post and paid the taxi off and started off on his own to find the eider H.

He did not find the address immediately and asked a young Catholic priest. This priest brought them there immediately.

It was then 4 o’clock in the afternoon and far too bright to try an illegal crossing of the border. So they waited at the house of the old couple until the start of night.

Because the Gods were so favorable to this undertaking, there was no moon that night and it was very dark when Fritz and Maria were under way under the direction of the old farmer.

They came soon to a barbed wire fence that they climbed over. Then there was a second such barrier which tore not only Maria’s stockings but also her calves. “Do you see the light flickering in the distance?” asked the old farmer. “Those are of the German border guards lighting their pipes – being changed at 9 p.m.” As they crossed the second barrier into Dutch soil, the old farmer indicated a large tree which was just barely visible to Fritz and Maria in the darkness.

“You see the tree there? My son is waiting there for you.”

With these words, the old H. left my people, turned around, because he did not wish to walk on Dutch soil. Even such people have their principles.

So Fritz and Maria left to reach the tree in high spirits – after all they were in Holland and thus felt safe – and found there a young couple. This couple presented themselves as friends of H. Jr., explaining that he could not come and that they were delegated in his stead. What had happened?

  1. Jr. had received word In the morning that a search was being undertaken for custom smugglers and it was necessary to be very careful; therefore Fritz and Maria would not be safe spending the night at his house.

The young couple would bring them into safety at Heerlen but they were not to speak a word of German, letting only the others speak.

It was good that they had no baggage because even the smallest bag would arouse the curiosity of the police. Maria took the arm of the new Dutch girl friend and Fritz walked gaily with the man to the tram from Keerkrade to Heerlen which they reached at 10 p.m. Isakower waited for them and called me. We are thus again in Holland.

I spent the night telephoning and writing and did not realize that it was already 8 a.m. I had agreed with Dr. van H. that my people should not get off the train at the Central station in Amsterdam because the police made random identity checks there. My dearly beloved travelers were therefore to be met by me at the Amsterdam V.S. station (which is about 10 km before the main station) where they were to arrive at 2:18 [?????]p.m.

At about 8 a.m. my brother Julius called from Paris and declared that Mr. Bohme – who was one of the two gentlemen who had taken over the Vienna factory – had called, and he was totally distressed by the fact that hostage Fritz had flown the coop. Julius should now go to Vienna instead

of Fritz, Bohme asked saying that it would be terrible for him because the Gestapo would now arrest him. Julius promised him to inquire with me.

I called Bohme in Vienna then and gave him my word. We had agreed in August that I would turn over the factory without any compensation. I had so agreed because a large part of my family was under the control of the Gestapo. Now this was not the case, but I would keep my word.

I asked him and his companion Bagusat to come to London to sign the contract. This did happen on the 9th of November 1938. I gave them the factory and all the land, material, machines, etc. They agreed to pay me and my family an amount of £400 a month for the next five years. I gave them an amount of £1200 on account of sums received on my London account.  After 3 months, in February, 1939, they stopped the payments. I had never received an additional penny.

At 1 p.m. on the 22th of October, I went with my Amsterdam friend Mr. Alfred C. to the railroad station Amsterdam V.S. where we then received the two refugees who looked marvelous and were in best spirits, getting off the train at 1:18 p.m. At 1:55 p.m., we were at the airport at Schiphol where the Silverbird – a Douglas plane with 14 seats – was ready. At exactly 2 o’clock, as agreed with the KLM the day earlier the airplane took off. Over the Channel I unpacked the provisions I had got them. We drank a cooled bottle of champagne to the health of the newly reborn young couple. At 4:00 p.m., we arrived at Liverpool. There, officials of the police and customs were waiting. A half hour later the happy couple was reunited with its even happier family.

Thus ended my efforts at taking our family out of German custody.

I thus had my hands free to continue with the rebuilding of my business reorganisation and to bring my family back into the production process.

 

N.B.: This translation has been completed on another airflight: Singapore Airlines Inaugural Vienna – Manchester August 23, 1988.

Fritz Altmann: My Adventures and Escape from Nazi Germany

The following speech was prepared by Fritz Altmann (1908-1994) about his escape from Austria with his wife Maria Altmann née Bloch-Bauer (1916-2011).  Fritz is portrayed by Max Irons in the 2015 film Woman in Gold.  For further details, see also the essay of Fritz’s older brother Bernard Altmann.

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Gentlemen,

I am deeply grateful for the interest you show for me and my experiences and it is a pleasure to tell you, the citizens of a free country, of what can happen and has happened in other countries in Europe not at all far from here.

The Austria from 1918 to 1928 had been a free and progressive country – free from hard political feelings. There was a free press and the possibility of free speech for everybody, and a hard-working Parliament.

It is a pity that Austria was not able to follow this line longer than 10 years.

After this period the party of Dolfuss and Dr. Schuschnigg started to curtail the freedom of the people more and more.

At last, some 5 years ago the Parliament was dissolved, the freedom of press and speech was stopped, and citizens who intended to defend their freedom were shot.

Vienna was a battle-field for 2 days, and Dolfuss and Schuschnigg established a new politic, which was the beginning

of the end. I had been living in Vienna, capital of the former Austria, where my eldest brother had a factory with approximately a thousand workers.

A short time before Hitler came into Austria, I married, and this is just a time when one is not too interested to look at newspapers, and so I was rather surprised that one day, almost overnight, the situation had changed; good and well-known citizens were despised only on account of their personal feelings or thoughts or religion if different to the Nazi ideas. Nobody was allowed to have a personal opinion – everybody must think alike.

My brother, the owner of the factory, had not been in Austria at that time, and it was not enough for the Nazis to take his house and all his belongings and the whole factory – without taking the trouble to look into the facts of rights or wrongs – and without trial they took away all the possessions of our family.

The method was very simple. A young boy of 25 years came into the factory one day, showed a badge of the Secret Police and told us that this organisation had taken over the factory and all belonging to it, and another even younger man, without the slightest experience in the class of business, had been detailed to act as commissar. But even this was not enough for the Nazis. A large part of the trade was in export, and they could only take over the bank account in Germany but not the money outstanding against accounts in other countries where right is still right.          They therefore, decided to force my brother to
transfer all foreign accounts to them, and they followed the method – which is the gangster’s method – and took a hostage.

I was taken for the hostage, and was imprisoned for 3 months during which time nobody told me why, for how long, or to what purpose. Not once was I given the opportunity to state my case nor did I see any responsible person to whom I could tell my story.

In the meantime, the new owners of the factory went to Paris to meet my brother, and told him that if he wanted to see me again, he would have to transfer all his foreign possessions including the factory he has in Paris, and he would have to declare that he would not start a new factory anywhere in the world, and further that he would help the export trade of his former Viennese factory.

My brother told them that he would not make any agree­ment before I was released, and a short time later I was sent home.

In order to tell you my experiences I have to state first that I was in a Viennese prison for 3 weeks, and although I have not had experience in a prison in any other country, I think the conditions were at least not worse than those in any other such place, the reason for this being that our guards were Viennese.

The Viennese people are quite civilised and not to be confused with other Austrians, who are Germans. The reason for the difference may well be that in Vienna, capital of the former Austrian Empire, for hundreds of years the citizens have been a mixture of all the nations of the Austrian Empire. There is an old. Viennese proverb which says “Every real Viennese is a Hungarian or Czech.”

One night a couple of hundred prisoners were brought to the Railway station where a special train was waiting to take them to the Concentration camp at DACHAU. I was one of these -prisoners, and I will never forget that journey as long as I live. We were all sitting very close together the whole night in a railway carriage. In every compartment there were one or two young men – only 16 or 17 years of age.– members of the Storm Troopers who were really pleased to torture their unfortunate victims.

We were forced to sit the whole night without the slightest movement, and to look straight at the light in the carriage; each blink of the eyelid was enough to cause a hard blow to the head with the butt of a rifle.     It is almost
impossible to explain what ideas the young boys had for new tortures.  I have only to say that a few of us were contemplating trying to jump through the closed window of the fast moving train, as the sure death seemed preferable to sitting in the carriage.

Among the prisoners were a number of the best known men of the former Austria, including ministers of the State (one being a personal friend of Dr. Schusehnigg), the Managing Director of the Austrian Railways was sitting on the floor of my carriage, his face streaming with blood. Also clergymen and a number of men who were officers during the last war, and had been decorated several times. A Couple of Artistes were in the same transport – top line comedians whose only fault had been to joke about the Nazis in the years before.

After our arrival in the Concentration camp, we were without food or drink for more than 24 hours, sitting upright or standing perfectly straight the whole time.

The start of the life in the Concentration camp seemed to be a relief after the journey.    It was, however, very hard; not for me as I was young and athletic and had always been very fit, but it was terrible to see old men of 60, 70 and nearly 80 years having to do the same hard work from 3:30 a.m. until 9:00 p.m., and the most cruel punishment was inflicted if they rested for a minute, or could not do the work required of them.

As on the journey, the guard at the Concentration camp was composed of boys of 16 or 17 years.

The Concentration Camp at Dachau is a very large ground – a couple of square miles, with a large yard in the middle where the prisoners had to spend a few hours every morning and every evening, standing in line to be counted, to check if anybody had escaped.

One day we had to stand a few hours extra as one man was missing, until the guard found he had forgotten to allow for the fact that a man had died the same morning.

Round the camp was a wide and deep trench, and outside

of this a high barbed wire barrier, which is electrified at night. At each corner is a tower on which guards with machine guns were posted day and night. Every night the whole camp is as bright as day, with search-lights.

We were living in huts, the walls of which were made of a kind of corrugated paper; these huts were very clean and modern, and we slept 50 men to a room. The food was fairly good and it was possible to obtain supplementary rations with money received from home.

The food and living conditions were quite human, the very bad part was the treatment, the kind of work required, and the hard punishments which were continuously being meted out.

It would take a long time to explain all the trouble and the treatment in the Concentration camp, being too bad sometimes even for animals to endure, and in spite of this I have to say that I saw the Concentration camp at its best. It was spring, the weather was nearly always fine, and there were 5,000 men in the camp which was therefore not overcrowded. My poor friends, with few exceptions, had much worse times later as there have been as many as 15,000 and they have had to stand perfectly still hour after hour as there was not room to sleep.    Once, in January they were forced to stand perfectly still the whole night out of doors.

But I should also like to relate one amusing experience. There were among us a few hundred burglars and I must say they were the most interesting people of all. Nobody could tell such humorous and interesting stories as these fellows. One day during working hours I had the luck to be with one of them. After telling him who I was he started to give me a full description of our factory, with all details of our cashroom, and told me exactly when we had been in the habit of sending for money from the bank and when we paid our work-people, at which hours the watchman made his rounds, and the size and breed of his dog.

He was the thief who had entered the factory some 10 years previously, opened the safe and relieved the firm of a considerable sum. He also told me that never in his life before or since had he been so successful and so he would never forget the name of the factory. Half of the sum obtained had been sufficient for his accomplice to drop his profession, go to the United States and establish himself as a respectable citizen.

At that moment I was envious that I was the person from whom he had stolen and not the one safe in the States.

This robber and I became good friends; many of my evening and Sunday hours have been made brighter by this friendship.

One night I was released and I regretted that I could not take my friends with me to freedom. But it was not freedom that was waiting for me. I was brought back to Vienna and confined to my home for 3 more months, because the Nazis were unwilling to let their hostage free until they had taken the last penny from the pocket of my brother.

I, therefore, started planning to escape. Three times I attempted without success, but in spite of the watchfulness of the Gestapo, nobody was aware of these attempts.

The fourth time was luckier. I left my home in the morning having received permission to make one of my trips to town for a few hours. My wife and I went to the aerodrome and boarded a plane.     My wife’s passport was quite in order, but she would not let me try to escape alone. My passport had been taken away from me, which of course, added to my difficulties. In the afternoon we were in Cologne, then travelled by train to Aachen and motor car to the small house of a peasant on the Dutch border. We arrived there at 9 o’clock the same evening; after a few weeks of correspondence directed to a friend of mine, we had an appointment with the peasant, and a few minutes later he was leading us. We were jumping over stepping stones in a little brook, then climbing over barbed wire barriers, to Holland. The night was very black, the moon was not shining, just the stars in the sky.

At the same time the Secret Police were issuing a warrant for my capture to all the border countries.

Our arrival in Holland was one of the happiest moments of my life, but even now we were not sure of safety because the Dutch Police used to send back to the German frontier, all people whose passports were not in order.

My brother, who was in Amsterdam at this time, was careful to send a well known Dutch Lawyer to escort us and the next morning we arrived in Amsterdam. There we boarded an aeroplane and flew straight to Liverpool, where we landed the same afternoon, having received permission from the Home Office to land without a passport, and when I told the Immigration Officer that I had no passport, he smilingly said, “Yes, I know,” and his only question was “Did you get well over the border?”

I am sure that I would not have received the same treatment in any other country in the world.

When I consider the whole matter, I really have the longing to shake the hand of every English man I meet, and to thank him.

I think that the majority of people born and living here do not realise the difference between this and other countries.

When you are tempted to take for granted the blessings of this country, I hope you will think of my today’s talk and appreciate the freedom and happiness which is yours.

Yom HaShoah 2015

Over the past several weeks I have spoken to audiences across the country at screenings of the film Woman in Gold, about the recovery of the Klimt paintings. I have received a barrage of letters and e-mails and messages from people who were so moved by the film and its depictions of the events that occurred in Austria after the Nazi takeover, the Anschluss, of March 1938. Those of you who have seen the film and know the story certainly recognized the scenes reenacted in Vienna from well-known photographs and newsreel films, of crowds cheering as the Nazis paraded into the city, of Jews accosted on the streets and in their homes and businesses, terrorized by the people who had only recently been their peaceful neighbors. Although every film takes liberties, these particular scenes are not fictionalized in the least. The Viennese survivors who have talked to me or written to me tell me that this was exactly what they saw and witnessed with their own eyes. Even the frightening escape of Fritz and Maria Altmann as depicted in the film is not really exaggerated. Indeed, some of the more harrowing parts were left out. The filmmakers were not able to show Fritz being sent to Dachau for two months before being ransomed out by his older brother, or the three prior failed attempts to escape from their house arrest, nor the lucky escape through barbed wire into Holland.

We, the survivors and their descendants who make a point of remembering, know just how quickly things can change, how evil can spring up and engulf an entire population. We are dismayed, but not surprised, by the terror of ISIS in Syria and Iraq. We are disturbed, but not shocked, by the murderous attacks in France, Belgium and across Europe. To quote the old radio program, we know what evil lurks in the hearts of men, because we have seen it visited on our own families.

We support our Museum because we understand how important it is for us to remember, and for the rest of the world to learn about what happened to our families. We come here today to think about the family members who were lost. We understand that for every single story of escape to freedom like Fritz and Maria’s, there were hundreds who did not make it, and who were never seen or heard from again.

There is a very moving scene in the film where Maria says goodbye to her parents. In fact, this particular scene was fictionalized – Maria’s father died in June 1938, a few months before Maria escaped — and so I always looked at it as fiction. But then a woman came up to me and said that she was so moved by the scene because her mother also had to say goodbye to her parents, whom she never saw again. Only then did I realize that of course my own grandfather had done the same thing. He had escaped with my grandmother on the day after Kristallnacht, leaving his parents behind. His mother died of cancer and his father was sent to Theresienstadt and murdered at Treblinka. My grandfather must have had his own terrible farewell that haunted him. I know many of you here with us today had the same experience.

This is of course the power of film. Films allow us to universalize a particular experience, to make one story emblematic of an entire range of experiences belonging to many. I am very proud that the film about Maria Altmann’s story is working this way, as a catalyst for memory, for myself and for so many others.

‘Woman in Gold’ Premieres in Berlin

Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I

Pam and I flew to Berlin for the premiere of the film “Woman in Gold” at the Berlinale, the annual film festival in Berlin, Germany. It is an emotional return for me to the city where I lived for six months in 1987, on a Junior year semester abroad, studying math and German at the Freie Universität Berlin. At that time the Berlin Wall still divided the city. Living in West Berlin was like living on an island, free and yet somehow trapped. The city has changed immensely in the 28 years since that time. But coming back has reawakened the old feelings I had as a young 20-year-old, returning to a city with great historical significance, for my family and for the rest of the world.

Back in 1987, I stayed in a tiny room (actually a former kitchen) in an apartment. This time we’re in the fancy Hotel Adlon Kempinski. The view outside our room (if you look to the left) is the amazing Brandenburg Gate. 10898132_10152711301841270_8378927042572570770_n

 

 

 

 

The first time I was here, you couldn’t even get close to the Brandenburg Gate, since it was surrounded on both sides by the Wall and armed guards.  Here’s a picture with my Berlin friend Sebastian Jacobs (next to two random girls and a guy we can’t even remember).

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Just hours after arriving, Pam and I were invited to the Berlinale Dining Club for a dinner with other folks from “Woman in Gold.”  On the way there, we ran into Helen Mirren at the elevator. She was super nice, just as she was when I met her in July in Vienna.  She didn’t go to the dinner, but director Simon Curtis was there and sat next to Pam.  I was very excited to meet some of the German actors from the film, especially Justus von Dohnanyi.  His father, the conductor Christoph von Dohnanyi is a wonderful interpreter of the music of my grandfather Arnold Schoenberg.  When I was at Princeton, I met him once in New York, after a performance of Erwartung.  Christoph’s father Hans and his mother’s brother Dietrich Bonhoeffer, were important members of the anti-Nazi resistance, who were executed just before the war ended.  Anyway, Justus is a terrifically nice guy and his performance in the film was probably my favorite, because he plays the Austrian attorney who opposed me in the Klimt case in just the way I experienced him.  Pam took a nice photo of the two of us that I quickly uploaded to Facebook for my friends to see.10317688_10152712875656270_5493097546868236675_o

 

 

 

 

 

On Monday, I went to the Weinstein Co. offices to pick up our tickets for the premiere. On the way, I walked through Peter Eisenman’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. It feels like a maze where you cannot see who is around every corner.  Most times you see no one else. But as you walk through and look to the side, you see lots of other people walking through, or taking photos. It obviously works well as an attraction, and perhaps some people do think about the intended meaning as they are meandering through it. The concrete blocks do feel like giant tombstones, as if you are shrinking as you walk deeper into the field of stones. At the Weinstein offices in the Berlin Hyatt, I met a few of the publicity staff who had been sending me e-mails about the arrangements for the past few months. Simon Curtis, Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds were giving press interviews at the hotel, but I only saw Simon there when I checked in on him. Pam and I went out and visited the street where I lived back in 1987. I couldn’t remember exactly which concrete apartment building was mine, but the church at the end of the street and restaurant were familiar. Here’s what Schmiljanstrasse looks like today.

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Back at the hotel I ran into Anne Webber of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe. Anne is an old friend and colleague. She really knows her stuff, and has managed to help recover hundreds of artworks over the years. The Weinstein Co. had invited her to attend the press briefing as an expert. Afterwards I saw Simon, who was waiting for my old friend Matt Weiner, the Mad Men creator, who was serving on the jury at the festival.  We caught up for a bit, and it was fun to reminisce about our days as editors of the school newspaper way back when. We’ve both come a long way.

Pam and I got all dressed up.  My friend Nick Meyer had suggested I wear a tux, and I figured I might as well go through with it, even though everyone else was probably going to be less formal.  The film folks had a big press event, but I was not specially invited, so I figured I would have dinner with Pam and our guests before the screening that night. My old friend Sebastian and his wife Franziska came, as well as my cousin Gabriel Loewenheim, an opera singer from Haifa who now lives in Berlin, and a last minute addition our friend’s daughter Ariella Kattler-Kupetz, a student who arrived just a week ago on a semester abroad. Sebastian is a judge and told us about his trial that day, involving a 500-lb man who had to be moved by the authorities out of his apartment just to attend the trial, which had to be in a special location because they could not get him up to the regular courtroom.

We made our way to the Friedrichstadt Palast for the premiere. We walked the red carpet, but even wearing a tux, not a single person figured out who I was. We had Ariella take our own photo.10955678_10152713794166270_6653498862542665263_o  We got into our seats and waited for the show to start. The theater is huge, maybe 1,200 seats. Tim Schwarz and his wife Antoinette were in the row in front of us. Tim had produced the documentary on the Klimt case “Stealing Klimt,” and was part of the reason the film got made since he was the one who told the story to Simon Curtis.  Simon came on stage with Helen Mirren, Ryan Reynolds and Daniel Brühl to introduce the film. I was genuinely surprised when Helen called me out from the stage and asked me to stand. That was really nice.

Pam and I had seen a draft of the film in October, but not the final cut and we had not heard the music scored by Hans Zimmer for the film. Even knowing the film already, it was a different experience seeing it in a large theater on a giant screen. I felt I was paying attention very closely, more than the last time. Occasionally I saw a small mistake (they’re driving the wrong way on the freeway) and made mental note, but at several places I really became extremely emotional. There is one line that I had given the writer Alexi Kaye Campbell, something my grandmother had said when she took us back to Austria when I was a teenager. Gamma, as we called her, was nearly always happy, really never sad, morose, angry or mean. But as we rode the train into Austria she became misty-eyed and said “I’ll never forgive them for not letting us live here.” She loved her Austrian homeland. She was 33 when the Nazis came and she was forced to flee, on the day after Kristallnacht. To her dying day she thought of herself as an Austrian, probably more so than her younger friend Maria, who was just 22 years old when she left. Alexi gave this line to Helen Mirren’s Maria in the film, and when she said it, I almost lost it. Thinking of my grandmother has always done that to me. There is another scene in the movie, where Ryan Reynolds is at the Holocaust monument in Vienna and gets that emotional hit. That was something that really happened. I was there at the unveiling of the monument, thinking about my grandmother and my great-grandfather Siegmund Zeisl who was murdered at Treblinka and just started crying. That’s when I met my friend Thomas Lachs, who spotted me and realized I had a real connection and wasn’t just there for the ceremony. Anyway, this happens to me, and it happened to me again and again during the film, which is I think a real testament to the emotional power of the performances, and to the emotions they were awakening in me. At several places I reached for Pam’s hand and held it tight. The ending of the film, where young Maria, played wonderfully by Tatiana Maslany, says a final goodbye to her parents just shattered me. You just cannot be unaffected by Allan Corduner (Maria’s father Gustav)’s farewell speech. It may be schmaltzy, but it works as a film. At least it works on me. An almost uncontrollable wave of emotion hit me at the end.

I suppose to some viewers it might seem maudlin to evoke these type of emotions in a film. But the audience seemed genuinely affected. The applause was thunderous and lasted a long time. Pam and I were brought back stage, and I hugged Simon and Alexi and thanked them profusely. Telling the story, telling Maria’s story and the story of her family, of our families, was the prime mover for me during the entire ordeal. Now it was a huge film, and so many people would see it.

I seemed to be the happiest person backstage. I greeted executive producer Harvey Weinstein for the first time and he was a bit cool. I learned later that the first reviews had just come in, and were not as good as they had hoped. (More on that later.) At that time, I had only seen a very positive Austrian review, and was untroubled by any concerns for the reception of the film. I met Daniel Brühl, who was running the jury for the festival, and he told me that the applause for this film was greater than for any other film at the festival.

At the post-screening party, we took a nice photo with Matt Weiner and his wife Linda Brettler (whose younger sister Sandra was in my elementary school class). This will be a good one for the Harvard-Westlake Alumni magazine.10987652_10152714266101270_4550433964091897015_n We had fun at the party. At the end I sat with Harvey Weinstein and really introduced myself. He was busy on his iPad, doing whatever it is that he does to make his movies succeed. I only figured out later he was probably dealing with the reviews that had just come out. I told him not to worry. This story is charmed, and whatever touches it turns to gold.

When Pam and I got home, I looked for the reviews and saw some of the really not nice things published in the Guardian, VarietyHollywood Reporter and IndieWire, which were in stark contrast to the much more positive reviews in Screen (“a classy real-life story . . . thoroughly enjoyable”), Huffington Post (“stunning”), HeyUGuys (“a bonafide story of the underdog”), The Art Newspaper (“Helen Mirren shines as Maria Altmann”), FlickFeast and London Evening Standard (“heartwarming story of belated justice”), the German press Der Spiegel, Jüdische Allgemeine, FilmStarts, the Austrian newspapers KurierSalzburger Nachrichten and Die Presse, and even the Italian press Movieplayer.it and Sentieri Selvaggi. I think it is very interesting that the German and Austrian critics were positive about the film. It is not easy to make a Hollywood film about the Nazis that Germans will like, and this movie has a number of lengthy flashbacks to those times, with scenes of jubilant Austrians greeting Hitler’s arrival in Vienna, and various degradations imposed on Austria’s Jews, not to mention Maria and Fritz’s harrowing escape, which was very dramatically portrayed, but in some ways even less scary than what actually happened. (The film doesn’t mention that Fritz spent weeks in Dachau before being ransomed out by his older brother, nor does it show the escape over the border to Holland, aided by a priest who was later murdered by the Nazis).

It seems likely that the jaded trade reviewers assumed that everything they saw had been “Weinsteined” to make it more dramatic.  Certainly this was the case in some scenes. (Pam’s water did not break when I was packing to go to argue in the Supreme Court, but she did call me from the hospital when I was in Washington just two days before my argument, because she went into premature labor at 29 weeks.)  But the reviewer’s failure to appreciate how much of the film was true to life underscores the real need for a film like this to succeed. For them the emotional core of the film felt “manipulated,” even one-sided. The reviewer for Variety Peter Debruge even complained that so many Austrians were portrayed as bad guys, and that viewers were not given an opportunity “to question Maria Altmann’s case.”  The Guardian‘s Ryan Gilbey was similarly offended by the portrayal of our Austrian opponents: “sinisterly obstructive officials who only just stop short of clicking their heels.”  If he only knew . . .

As far as the portrayal of Austrians is concerned, I think the positive reaction of the German and Austrian press leaves little doubt that the portrayal is accurate and plenty nuanced.  (“Not least for our domestic education and a better understanding of the facts is ‘Woman in Gold’ therefore sure to become popular.”) The character of Hubertus Czernin (played by Daniel Brühl), for example, is wonderful, and I liked very much how Alexi put some of my own words in Ryan’s mouth for his final speech “There are two Austrias. . . ” But one of the reviewer’s own readers already had the best response: “This strange review seems to be a plea for more ‘balance’ in portraying Nazis.”

I suppose it is always going to be difficult, after we have won, to show how hopeless the case seemed all along. It may seem “Weinsteined,” and easy to dismiss or forget, when the reporter approaches Ryan Reynolds to assure him that he would lose the Supreme Court case, but then the reviewer didn’t have to read this headline “Court Likely Will Reverse Art Case” in our legal newspaper after returning home from Washington. If the reviewer thought that watching us win was dull, he should be forced to suffer through the movie he apparently wanted to see — eight years of stonewalling with infuriating, procedural, counterfactual arguments and roadblocks. It is almost as if the reviewer wanted the filmmakers to have invented better arguments on the other side, just to make the film more interesting. But on this point, the story is really the opposite of Stanley Kramer’s great film Judgment at Nuremberg, which perhaps explains why it wouldn’t work to make the Austrian position more attractive than it was. As the reactions of the reviewers demonstrate, there are still plenty of folks who have a knee-jerk stance against restitution of stolen Jewish property.  Some of them are unabashed neo-Nazis.

I guess if you’ve read this far, you’ll be inclined to trust me when I say that the negative reviewers seem to have some sort of axe to grind that has really very little do with the film that was made.  The Hollywood Reporter critic David Rooney liked Helen Mirren’s portrayal of Maria, but thought Ryan Reynolds was too much of a “goy.” Well, ok (no less that the stars of Barry Levinson’s Avalon), but at least one other reviewer, Mark Adams, found it an “engagingly subtle performance . .  a nice change of pace and tone for the actor.” Rooney didn’t like Phipps & Zimmer’s score and wished they had used Schoenberg. Yeah. But seriously, I realized early on that this story was not going to be told as an art house movie. A nerdy grandson of Austrian exiles is not a protagonist that most people want to watch for two hours. Sure, I’d love to score the whole movie with the Begleitungsmusik. But who else is going to come watch with me? As I recently told the LA Times, I knew that I had to give up control and allow a certain amount of license if this story was ever going to be made into a film.  Even my grandfather was once willing to sell out to Hollywood. So, yes, this is not a small art-house flick with quirky directing and an experimental screenplay. But really, is that so bad? This is a story that countless people have told me they find inspirational. If that isn’t a good enough justification for a Hollywood movie, what is?

Apparently Variety‘s Peter Debruge just isn’t that comfortable with the idea of people owning personal property. I thought the communist-capitalist debate had been sort of put to rest with the fall of the Berlin Wall, but I guess not. His review claims: “there’s a monumental issue at stake here that the film scarcely acknowledges: Does (or should) anyone really own art? At a moment when the music and movie industries have all but lost control of their own product and the public feels more entitled than ever to access such media for free, what does it mean for the world’s most valuable paintings to remain in private hands?” IndieWire’s Jessica Kiang seems to agree with this bizarre sentiment about the “thorny issue of art ownership,” and thinks that Austria’s “right to any sense of cultural identity” gets short shrift in the film. Seriously? Let’s leave aside for the moment the fact that the portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer was purchased by the Neue Galerie in New York and is on permanent public display, and also that Klimt’s copyright has expired and so the image can be plastered at will on college dorm rooms and used for fridge magnets, scarves and coffee mugs sold throughout the world. Is the “monumental issue” really whether people get to look at a pretty painting, or is it whether we are okay with the idea that private property confiscated by the Nazis was never returned? I guess I (and the filmmakers) are guilty of mistakenly believing it was the latter.

Some of the reviewers didn’t like Martin Phipps and Hans Zimmer’s score, calling it “so much heavy-handed strings-and-pianos business.” Personally I found their music unobtrusive and harmless, and maybe less Korngold-esque than I would have preferred. But none of the reviewers even bothered to mention the Mozart, Schubert and Schoenberg used in the film either. The short section from Verklaerte Nacht was nice, even if the concluding chord tacked on at the end was for me a bit jarring.  Maria’s husband Fritz, who always wanted to be an opera singer, would have loved his portrayal by the excruciatingly good-looking Max Irons, and Maria, who always loved to quote operas (in the most unpretentious way), would have smiled at the Mozart aria sung by Fritz at their wedding.

None of the reviewers seemed to understand how difficult it was to make a film like this. How many films can you name that successfully cover 100 years of history? (Istvan Szabo’s Sunshine is the only one I can think of, and it was problematic.) Successful courtroom dramas are pretty much all completely invented or include scenes that are mostly impossible. (I loved A Few Good Men, but you don’t really get confessions like that in real life. And what lawyer didn’t laugh at the “climactic” summary judgment denial in Erin Brockovich?) It’s not so simple to make a legal drama that is accurate. (This one has me on the wrong side of the room in the Supreme Court, and of course my partner Don and not Maria was sitting next to me — for all those making a nitpicking list.) Let’s remember that this 100-minute film had to cover the period from 1906-2006 spanning two continents, and include both Nazi times and a lawsuit going to the US Supreme Court. Is it really any wonder that Katie Holmes’s part as my wife Pam is a bit perfunctory (but still cute)? Oh, and remember it required filming in two languages. Sure, I liked how Quentin Tarantino had his Nazi Christoph Waltz speak English, so that others couldn’t understand him, during his interrogation of a French farmer in Inglorious Basterds, but does anyone think that would ever have happened? It’s not easy filming a story that takes place in two languages and this film does a really good job with it, or so I thought.

As a final example of the pettiness of the critics, in the Guardian, Ryan Gilbey really takes Alexi to task for one old joke: “‘It would have been a lot better for us all if Hitler had spent his life doing tacky paintings,’ says Mirren’s Maria, taking the stating of the bleeding obvious to a new level.” Well, that’s actually a joke that Maria said, numerous times, and I usually use it when I give my speeches on the Klimt case. I’ve seen it attributed to the artist Oskar Kokoschka. Did Gilbey really think Alexi invented it?  But seriously, it’s hard to read a critique like this from a guy who recently wrote, of his somewhat confused past sexuality: “Those women were the only girlfriends I’ve had and the only women I’ve been attracted to. It just so happens that I made both of them pregnant, which has tended not to be the case when I’ve slept with men.”   Apparently a joke about “the bleeding obvious” is okay for him, but not for Maria Altmann.

So, I have to apologize to the critics who think that our true story is just too Hollywood to be true. What can I do about it? All I know is the audience seemed to love it. Harvey Weinstein told me that the ratings at their screenings are off the charts. This is one of those films that is just going to have to defy the critics. Maria and I did it for eight years together, and we’ll do it again.

Sticks and Stones

The venerable Rabbi Harold Schulweis, who passed away this week, was a beloved leader of the Los Angels Jewish community. I heard his sermons at bar mitzvahs when I was growing up, and much later had a chance to meet him when he invited me to give a talk on the Klimt case at Valley Beth Shalom. He was a super, kind, intellectual rabbi. And yet, I occasionally found myself disagreeing quite strongly with him, as I did when he wrongly spoke out against the Los Angeles Opera’s performance of Wagner’s Ring cycle, which I had supported in an Op-Ed.

Rabbi_Schulweis

On the day before he died, the Jewish Journal published a poem by Rabbi Schulweis concerning genocide and violence against African Americans, written for this past year’s high holiday services. It begins with the familiar schoolyard trope “Sticks and stones may break my bones / But names will never harm me.” Never mind that the version I grew up with ended with “But words can never hurt me.” I have always found comfort and strength in this mantra, and it dove-tails nicely with my libertarian views supporting the First Amendment.

But not Schulweiss: “False, false we Jews have learned” is his next line before he goes on a tirade against hate speech, which he says “materializes into lethal weapons,” invoking the Holocaust and all subsequent genocides (47 in number, he says), a “litany of civilizations’ broken covenant.”

False? My favorite schoolyard saying is false? And worse, it leads directly to massacres, rapes, torture and genocide?

I don’t think so.  Schulweis, may he rest in peace, completely missed the point of “Sticks and stones.” The saying was never meant as a license to hurl insults. Rather, it is all about defense. “But words can never hurt me.”  Not you, me. Of course words can hurt. That’s what everyone feels. But the saying teaches us to deflect the injury — not to let words hurt you. By doing so, you regain the upper hand, without stooping to the same level as your attacker. My opponent’s words have no effect on me. They cannot hurt me. I am above being hurt by words. So go on and hurl insults. I have nothing to fear from you.

How noble a sentiment. How empowering. And how Jewish! For thousands of years we have been insulted and taunted. Has it stopped us? Has it caused us to discard our faith? Our people? No. Words can never do that.

What exactly is Rabbi Schulweis preaching? That we should treat hate speech like a hurled stone? That we should fight back? That violence is the appropriate response to words that hurt us? After all, if words are so hurtful and dangerous that they can lead to genocide, wouldn’t they deserve our greatest sanction? The schoolboy who punches the kid who taunts and teases him would have every justification. After all, the words hurt.

There is no denying that sticks and stones can break our bones. Against those we must defend differently. But words can be neutralized and defeated without resorting to counterattacks and violence. That is what we should try to teach our children.

Heinrich Heine was a better poet and I like his line better: “Where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people as well.” For my taste, that’s the more Jewish outlook. Think of all the murder done by people who want to protect the world from people who say things they don’t like. Isn’t that the real source of genocide?

The great Jewish Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis understood this, perhaps better than Rabbi Schulweis, when he wrote the following concurring opinion in Whitney v. California (1927), which I find still valid and truly inspiring, notwithstanding the Holocaust and 47 smaller genocides that followed it. Rabbi Schulweis was an amazing person. But I am sorry to say his last poem got it wrong.

MR. JUSTICE BRANDEIS, concurring.

Those who won our independence believed that the final end of the State was to make men free to develop their faculties, and that, in its government, the deliberative forces should prevail over the arbitrary. They valued liberty both as an end, and as a means. They believed liberty to be the secret of happiness, and courage to be the secret of liberty. They believed that freedom to think as you will and to speak as you think are means indispensable to the discovery and spread of political truth; that, without free speech and assembly, discussion would be futile; that, with them, discussion affords ordinarily adequate protection against the dissemination of noxious doctrine; that the greatest menace to freedom is an inert people; that public discussion is a political duty, and that this should be a fundamental principle of the American government. They recognized the risks to which all human institutions are subject. But they knew that order cannot be secured merely through fear of punishment for its infraction; that it is hazardous to discourage thought, hope and imagination; that fear breeds repression; that repression breeds hate; that hate menaces stable government; that the path of safety lies in the opportunity to discuss freely supposed grievances and proposed remedies, and that the fitting remedy for evil counsels is good ones. Believing in the power of reason as applied through public discussion, they eschewed silence coerced by law — the argument of force in its worst form. Recognizing the occasional tyrannies of governing majorities, they amended the Constitution so that free speech and assembly should be guaranteed.

Fear of serious injury cannot alone justify suppression of free speech and assembly. Men feared witches and burnt women. It is the function of speech to free men from the bondage of irrational fears. To justify suppression of free speech, there must be reasonable ground to fear that serious evil will result if free speech is practiced. There must be reasonable ground to believe that the danger apprehended is imminent. There must be reasonable ground to believe that the evil to be prevented is a serious one. Every denunciation of existing law tends in some measure to increase the probability that there will be violation of it. Condonation of a breach enhances the probability. Expressions of approval add to the probability. Propagation of the criminal state of mind by teaching syndicalism increases it. Advocacy of law-breaking heightens it still further. But even advocacy of violation, however reprehensible morally, is not a justification for denying free speech where the advocacy falls short of incitement and there is nothing to indicate that the advocacy would be immediately acted on. The wide difference between advocacy and incitement, between preparation and attempt, between assembling and conspiracy, must be borne in mind. In order to support a finding of clear and present danger, it must be shown either that immediate serious violence was to be expected or was advocated, or that the past conduct furnished reason to believe that such advocacy was then contemplated. 

Those who won our independence by revolution were not cowards. They did not fear political change. They did not exalt order at the cost of liberty. To courageous, self-reliant men, with confidence in the power of free and fearless reasoning applied through the processes of popular government, no danger flowing from speech can be deemed clear and present unless the incidence of the evil apprehended is so imminent that it may befall before there is opportunity for full discussion. If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence. Only an emergency can justify repression. Such must be the rule if authority is to be reconciled with freedom. Such, in my opinion, is the command of the Constitution. It is therefore always open to Americans to challenge a law abridging free speech and assembly by showing that there was no emergency justifying it.

Moreover, even imminent danger cannot justify resort to prohibition of these functions essential to effective democracy unless the evil apprehended is relatively serious. Prohibition of free speech and assembly is a measure so stringent that it would be inappropriate as the means for averting a relatively trivial harm to society. A police measure may be unconstitutional merely because the remedy, although effective as means of protection, is unduly harsh or oppressive. Thus, a State might, in the exercise of its police power, make any trespass upon the land of another a crime, regardless of the results or of the intent or purpose of the trespasser. It might, also, punish an attempt, a conspiracy, or an incitement to commit the trespass. But it is hardly conceivable that this Court would hold constitutional a statute which punished as a felony the mere voluntary assembly with a society formed to teach that pedestrians had the moral right to cross unenclosed, unposted, wastelands and to advocate their doing so, even if there was imminent danger that advocacy would lead to a trespass. The fact that speech is likely to result in some violence or in destruction of property is not enough to justify its suppression. There must be the probability of serious injury to the State. Among free men, the deterrents ordinarily to be applied to prevent crime are education and punishment for violations of the law, not abridgment of the rights of free speech and assembly.

Gaza is not a Nazi concentration camp or ghetto

warsaw-ghetto-children2During this summer’s war in Gaza, I have heard and read otherwise intelligent people making an ignorant comparison of Gaza to Nazi concentration camps.  For example, the author Lawrence Weschler, an old family friend of mine whose grandparents fled the Nazis, accused Israel of “confin[ing] 1.8 million Gazans within what might well be described as a concentration camp.” Not an extermination camp, he explained, but “one cannot help but liken the conditions today in Gaza to the sorts of conditions once faced by . . . Jews and gays and gypsies at Dachau and Theresienstadt in the years before the Nazis themselves settled on their Final Solution. After another friend of his complained about the comparison, he wrote a second piece suggesting thata fitter analogy might be to the Warsaw Ghetto.”

Notwithstanding the fact that there has been a proliferation of Holocaust museums, including the one I helped build in Los Angeles, perhaps the terrible reality of the Nazi period is still evading the consciousness of the world.  The fault may be in how we set up our museums.  Mostly we avoid the real terror, the stench of death, and skirt around the horror of what transpired to instead give a somewhat more palatable, sanitized version of the Holocaust fit for masses of school children and adults who otherwise would be offended. What other explanation could there be for the type of wanton ignorance that would compare Gaza with Dachau, Theresienstadt or the Warsaw Ghetto?

Here are just some of the facts:

Gaza has a population of 1.8m people in a 139 square miles (360 km2, or a density of about 13,000 per square mile (5,000/km2). This is about the same density as Chicago, Boston or San Francisco, and only 25% the density of cities like Paris, Athens, Hanoi or Calcutta.  People are not starving, disease is not rampant and untreated, and mortality rates are not abnormally high. For example, “[t]he infant mortality rate is ranked 104th, at 16.55 deaths per 1,000 births.” There are 640 schools in Gaza serving 441,452 students.

Of course during the month-long war, as many as 2,000 may have been killed and 10,000 injured. Gaza is a war zone and there is no doubt that Gaza faces a humanitarian crisis in the coming months. But it is very thankfully not a Nazi concentration camp or ghetto.

The Warsaw Ghetto held 400,000 Jews in an area of 1.3 sq mi, or a density of 300,000 per square mile, 23 times the density of Gaza. In just two months in 1942, 254,000 were sent to Treblinka and exterminated. But even without counting the extermination, the mortality rate in the ghetto was astronomical, due to overcrowding, malnourishment and rampant disease. During 1941 deaths rose from 898 a month in January, to a peak in August of 5560, and right through to May 1942 where 3,636 died. The average monthly mortality rates for the seventeen months January 1941 – May 1942 was 3882.  That is nearly 1% mortality per month over a period of a year and a half. And again, that is not counting the ongoing deportation and extermination of almost the entire population.

Theresienstadt, the so-called “model ghetto,” at one point reached a population of 58,491 in a fortress built for 7,000, for a density comparable to Gaza, but without the housing to accommodate them. Sickness and malnutrition led to mortality rates comparable to the Warsaw Ghetto. Out of 160,000 prisoners sent to Theresienstadt between 1941 and 1945, 35,409 died in the ghetto due to hunger or disease, 88,129 were deported from there to extermination camps and out of these just 4,136 survived. Infant mortality at Theresienstadt was nearly 100%, because it was forbidden for women to bear children. (Survivor Vera Schiff recounts in her memoirs that as a teenage nurse she was required by a doctor to smother a newborn baby, because if it had lived to the morning, the mother, child, doctor and nurse all would have been executed.) Education of children in Theresienstadt was prohibited and could only be undertaken clandestinely. Men, women and children were housed separately. On November 11, 1943, the Commandant ordered all 40,000 prisoners to stand outside in freezing weather for a census. About 300 prisoners died of hypothermia as a result. This is just a small taste of the terror of being a prisoner in Theresienstadt.

Dachau concentration camp was a prison for men. Prisoners lived in constant fear of brutal treatment and terror detention including standing cells, floggings, the so-called tree or pole hanging, and standing at attention for extremely long periods. There were 32,000 documented deaths at the camp, and thousands that are undocumented. Typhus epidemics and forced death marches killed thousands. At the time of liberation, the death rate was 200 per day.

I have tried to set forth just a few of the terrible facts about the Warsaw Ghetto, Theresienstadt and Dachau, just three of a network of dozens of camps and ghettos the Nazis set up throughout Europe. In our museum in Los Angeles, we have displays for 12 ghettos and 19 concentration camps, in an attempt to give people some perspective on the enormity of the Nazi persecution and extermination of Jews. But what we cannot do is show people exactly what it was like to be in these hellish places, because it is simply too terrible, too disgusting, too unbearable for ordinary people to be confronted with such horror. Still, we need to do a better job, so that people come away from our museums with the perspective necessary to understand the difference between a place like Gaza, where people are living under terrible conditions, and places like the Warsaw Ghetto, Theresienstadt and Dachau under the Nazis, where people were dying and being murdered.

That’s Not Expressionism

I went this week for the second time to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) to see the big new exhibition entitled From Van Gogh to Kandinsky: Expressionism in Germany and France. I had high hopes for this show. Thanks to the Robert Gore Rifkind collection at LACMA and the Galka Scheyer collection at the Norton Simon Museum, Los Angeles can boast the best collection of Expressionist artwork anywhere outside Germany and Austria. A blockbuster international show highlighting the Expressionists would be a welcome antidote to the steady stream of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist exhibits at LACMA and most other American museums.

The show presents a vast array of works by artists associated with the two German Expressionist groups Die Brücke (The Bridge) and Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider). The main argument of the show is that these artists from Germany — Kirchner, Heckel, Nolde, Pechstein, Kandinsky, Marc, Macke, Jawlensky, Schmidt-Rottluff and Feininger — were influenced by the artists in France — Van Gogh, Matisse, Gaugin, Derain, Dufy, Picasso, Rousseau, Signac, Braque, and Cézanne. Indeed, the wall panel introduction asserts the “conversation” between Germany and France was the “most significant” influence on the Expressionists.
While the artworks presented certainly demonstrate that the German artists imitated the Post-Impressionists and Fauves early in their careers, what is almost entirely missing from the show are any actual works that one might call Expressionist. By focusing on only the color palette, and not the actual content of the works, the curators have entirely missed the point of what Expressionism was supposed to be.
Expressionism was not necessarily a new direction in art.  There were many precursors, including, for example, Grünewald, Goya, Turner and Munch, artists whose focus was on the expression of deep, often dark, mysterious emotions. The major French schools — Impressionists, Post-Impressionists, Fauves, and Cubists — studiously avoided this type of heart-on-your-sleeve emotionality.   Perhaps the distinction is best explained, not by words, but by pictures.
Here are three works from 1910 by the Austrian Expressionists — Kokoschka, Schiele, and Schoenberg — all of whom were consciously excluded from this show.  
 kokoschka schiele_standing

 

 

 

 

These are all undoubtedly works that one would label Expressionist.  Now, what do they have in common with Cézanne’s Still Life with Apples (1893-94)?

lessing_40061302

 

 

 

 

 

 

What about Gaugin’s Polynesian Woman with Children (1901)?

7619033012_bfd859f6f4_z

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And can you see a connection with Van Gogh’s Restaurant of the Siren at Asnières?

The Restaurant de la siren in Asniäres by Van Gogh

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ok, last one.  Can you see the influence on the Austrian Expressionists in Matisse’s Still Life with Red Rug (1906)?

still-life-with-a-red-rug-1906

 

 

 

 

 

 

The answer is: you can’t.  Of course, if you are trying to make the case that the German Expressionists were mainly influenced by the French, then you have to choose only their works that show that influence, which is what the curators of the show do.  Over and over again, the curators take works that are obviously imitations of the French, rather than the later works that we all have come to know as Expressionism.  The few exceptions in the show stand out like sore thumbs.

So, it is true that Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s 1909 Dodo at the Table really does look like a Matisse.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, «Dodo am Tisch (Interieur mit Dodo)»

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But his Street Scene from 1913 really does not.

 

tumblr_lk8gz0yi5h1qhvptfo1_500

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wassily Kandinsky’s Arabian Cemetery (1909) really does almost look like a Fauve work by André Derain.

arabs-i-cemetery-1909

 

 

 

 

 

 

But his Sketch I for Painting with White Border (1913) really does not.

8524_kandisky21

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What is missing from this show is anything that shows what German Expressionism really was.  Fortunately, you can walk over to the Ahmanson Building at LACMA and see highlights from the Rifkind collection, including this 1919 Expressionist masterpiece by Otto Dix.

DixLedaSwan1919 LACMA Web

 

 

 

 

 

 

But you won’t find anything like it in the blockbuster Expressionism show.

The truth is that German Expressionism was not chiefly an outgrowth from French art trends. No doubt the Dutch (living in France) were a great influence.  The examples from Van Gogh and Van Dongen in the show really are terrific and certainly do point the way to Expressionism. But Expressionism as a movement was not really about the imitation or appropriation of the French color palette. It was the idea, not the style, that made Expressionism.

In sum, the Post-Impressionists made great innovations in style (palette and technique), which the artists in Germany who later became Expressionists all tried early in their careers to imitate and adopt. But the bottom line is that Post-Impressionist painters for the most part were still painting pretty pictures of pleasant scenes.  The Expressionists, when they finally hit their stride, were emphatically doing something completely different. The LACMA show is just an excuse to once again put together a blockbuster Post-Impressionist show (Van Gogh, Matisse, Cezanne, Gaugin, etc) with some derivative early works by the Die Brücke and Blaue Reiter artists. We’ll have to wait for a truly great show on Expressionism, one that does not limit its focus to just the German artists, but includes the Austrians too. Because you cannot explain works like Kokoschka’s 1913-14 Bride of the Wind by looking to France.

'Bride_of_the_Wind',_oil_on_canvas_painting_by_Oskar_Kokoschka,_a_self-portrait_expressing_his_unrequited_love_for_Alma_Mahler_(widow_of_composer_Gustav_Mahler),_1913

Answers to Geni Skeptics

Over and over again, I see the same questions and negative comments from folks who can’t seem to understand the beauty of the World Family Tree at Geni.com.  So, here are some answers to their issues:

  1. Someone stole my tree and put it on Geni.  You are confusing the different qualities of the word “my.” It can be used as a possessive, as in “that’s my wallet.” But it can also be used as an attribute, as in “red is my favorite color.” You can steal a wallet, but not your favorite color. When you say “my family tree,” it does not mean you own it. It just means that your name appears on the tree. You don’t own the facts on your tree.  You don’t own your mother and father, even if you call them “my mother” or “my father.”  So, no one can “steal” your family tree. Additionally, the law of copyright protects only original works of authorship. The basic facts on a family tree (name and dates and places of birth, marriage, death) are neither original nor authored by you. They are not protected by copyright. This is true even if you did a lot of work or paid a lot of money to compile the information. The bottom line is that anyone is allowed to create a family tree using the data on your family tree. So, get over it. Whoever added the information did you a favor. Now you don’t need to do it yourself.
  2. I found sooooo many mistakes on Geni.  Yes, there are mistakes on Geni, as there are on every family tree. Is your tree publicly available so we can check it to find your mistakes? The beauty of Geni is that you can find and correct the mistakes. Geni’s World Family Tree has 77 million connected profiles.  If only 1% of them have errors, that is still 770,000 mistakes. The fact that you discovered a few of them is no big deal. Did you try to fix them? Often you can just fix the mistakes yourself. Other times you can contact the managers or start a discussion on a profile to address mistakes. By allowing users to fix not only their own mistakes, but the mistakes of other people, the tree on Geni is quickly becoming the most accurate tree ever created. The same principle worked for Wikipedia. Initially, skeptics questioned whether a crowd-sourced encyclopedia could ever compete with and be as reliable as the professionally edited versions. Ten years later, the printed versions are obsolete and no longer being printed. Geni works the same way and with the same effect. After a while, the Geni tree surpasses and supersedes any other version.
  3. I want to be deleted.  No man is an island.  We all are part of the World Family Tree, even if we don’t want to be.  In general, you can’t boss other people around and tell them what to say and do.  Do you also go around to your friends and family and tell them not to talk about you? Do they listen?  So why do you think it is appropriate to do that on Geni?  You have two options: either ignore it if it bothers you, or join Geni and take over the management of your own profile so you can do with it what you want.
  4. I want my family member deleted.  This is a variant of the one above.  You say “I don’t care for myself, but my sister wouldn’t want to be on the Internet.” Please.  Let your sister take care of herself.  You aren’t responsible for her.  And all living people are private on Geni anyway.  Read Geni’s privacy policy.
  5. I want my children deleted.  Another variant of the above.  Why would you want your children deleted?  Do they not exist?  Why deprive them of their ancestry?  The answer is the same as for the previous ones.  You can’t boss people around and tell them who they can and cannot put on the World Family Tree. So just get over it. Besides, all living people are “private” on Geni already. Read Geni’s privacy policy. In most cases, if you ask the manager, they will remove your kids. And Geni policy is to remove them upon request. But someone will add them back in sooner or later, so it’s really pointless.
  6. Geni is dangerous because it will lead to identity theft.  First, there is no such thing as “identity theft.”  You don’t wake up one morning and say “Who am I?  Someone must have stolen my identity!”  What people call “identity theft” is merely garden variety fraud. The most common kind is the use of credit card information, ordinarily stolen in bulk from some merchant or individually by a store clerk.  Neither of these require the use of genealogical data. Another type of “identity theft” is when someone applies for a credit card in your name. This ordinarily is perpetrated by someone you know, someone with access to your mail, who also knows your address and phone number and social security number.  Usually it is someone living in the home.  Again, since the person already knows you and has access to all your information, there is no need to use an online genealogy source to perpetrate this type of fraud.  In the many years I have been following this issue, I have not heard of a single case of “identity theft” (or any crime) involving the use of an online family tree.  Not one.  But I bet you are still worried.  This is not because of any real risk, but of something called narcissistic paranoia.  People imagine that the world thinks they are as important as they feel themselves to be.  But trust me, with 7 billion people in the world, no one really cares about you.  No one is targeting you for fraud. Get over yourself.
  7. On Geni you lose all control of your tree.  Yes. That is what works so well. You collaborate with other people and together you solve problems, fix mistakes, make breakthroughs and build a better tree. Geni is like a giant jigsaw puzzle with millions of people working together at the same time on one single puzzle. If you are a control freak, and can’t work with other people, Geni is not for you. If, when you were in Kindergarten, you got a “Needs Improvement” in Works Well With Others, then Geni is not for you.  But remember, that beautiful little tree that you spruce up and polish and admire is going to simply disappear into oblivion when you are gone.  No one is going to care.  Eventually, someone will put all the data on Geni and no one will ever look at your work again.  No one.  But go on having fun hugging your tree.  You might want to put your private tree on MyHeritage, since that site works well for personal trees.
  8. I have a huge tree and don’t want to take the time to put it on Geni. This is a legitimate issue. But here’s the story. What you think of as a large tree is really very small. What do you have, a few thousand profiles? Geni’s World Family Tree has 77 million and is adding more at a rate of 7 million per year. Any personal tree with more than a few thousand profiles most likely is built by importing Gedcom files and adding data that is already on Geni. The problem is that Geni had to disallow importing Gedcom files because it caused too much duplication. But the problem you have is solvable. First, just start your tree again on Geni. Very soon, you will find a match with part of the existing tree. Then you can take advantage of the work that has already been done and not have to re-enter that part of the tree. With any sizable tree, you will find duplicates very quickly. Second, make sure to invite your family members to the tree so that they can assist in re-building it on Geni. This is one of Geni’s strengths, because everyone can work together. Last, ask for help. There are a lot of folks on Geni who love to just help people enter data. Start a discussion or ask a curator for help. Trust me, it is doable. There is some pain involved, but in the end you will be happy you took the time to migrate your data over to the Geni platform so that your tree can be part of the World Family Tree.
  9. There is no quality control on Geni. False. Geni has over 100 Curators whose job it is to help users resolve issues and to clean up messes in the tree. This is another unique feature on Geni that does not exist at any other collaborative tree program.
  10. I don’t want my ex-husband on my tree.  You should have thought of that before you married the jerk.  Seriously, the issue here is that genealogists have traditionally used marriage records to help identify people and discover genealogical data. This has made the marriage itself genealogically significant. So, even if it was just a few bad years for you, genealogists will want to include your marriage on the tree. Practically what this means is that you have to share your tree with your ex. Geni will keep living profiles private from ex-spouses and anyone else you remove from your family group. Some people still hate this. But it’s just something you have to get used to. On Geni, the goal is to have one single tree with everyone, so it doesn’t make sense to have ex-spouses working on separated trees. Especially if there are children from the marriage, it just doesn’t make sense.
  11. I have a problem with how Geni works. We all do. Geni is just a small company with a tiny staff that works very hard to keep the platform running. There are about a thousand pending improvements that we are all clamoring for.  Go to the Geni Help Desk and request an improvement.
  12. There are no sources on Geni. Geni is a place to build your family tree. Geni’s parent company, MyHeritage, competes with Ancestry in offering (for a fee) access to billions of records and other data sets (like US census records). On Geni, you can also pay to access the data on MyHeritage.  When there are record matches with data from MyHeritage, you can attach those records to your profiles on Geni (just as you can if you build your tree on Ancestry).
  13. The trees on Geni have no sources and are just copies of trees found elsewhere.  This may be true for some parts, but many parts of the World Family Tree are very well sourced. It just depends on who is doing the work and how much has been done. There are people who have added many thousands of documents and photos to the tree. (See the Geni Top 10 Lists to see who has done the most.) Bottom line is that the World Family Tree on Geni is only as good as we make it. If you have sources that aren’t on Geni, then go ahead and add them. What are you waiting for?
  14. I can’t figure out how to use Geni. There is a learning curve on Geni and in the beginning it can be steep. Don’t be afraid to ask for help from a Curator.  Also search the Geni Wiki and the Knowledge Base at the Help Center.  Trust me, we’ve all been there. Not all of it is intuitive. But the good thing is that Geni is a very flexible tool. Pretty much anything is possible and all problems can get solved.  So be persistent and don’t give up.
  15. How do I stop someone from changing my tree?  If there’s a problem with vandalism, you can report the user from his profile page under the Actions menu, or contact a Curator. But if it’s just that you want absolute control, that’s something that Geni doesn’t allow. Geni is all about collaboration and working together. If you can’t stand the idea of someone adding or changing something on the tree, stay away from Geni. Of course, you’ll be missing out on the most exciting thing to happen to genealogy in the last 100 years, but that’s your choice.
  16. Who can get access to change my profiles?  A good question. Because of the various levels of privacy, there are several ways of getting access. If you are in the “family group” of the manager, that will give you the most access. Under the Actions menu on the manager’s profile page, you can request to add someone to your family group. You can also “collaborate,” which gives you the ability to edit only the public profiles of the other manager. Generally, deceased profiles should be public, and living ones private. Public profiles are searchable on Google, which is a great way for people to find your tree.
  17. Geni has all this fantasy stuff, Adam & Eve, Odin, Zeus, even God Almighty, and I don’t want my tree connected to such things.  Part of collaborating is allowing other folks to do their thing. Sometimes it strikes us as bizarre. But seriously, who cares? Most of us have plenty of trouble dealing with just the past few hundred years. If others want to make believe and work on fantasy trees from thousands of years ago, just ignore them and leave them alone. With over three million users connected to the World Family Tree, there are going to be more than a few crackpots. But you have to take the good with the bad. Working with others in the parts of the tree you care about is the main thing.
  18. The Geni tree is completely unreliable. Again, it depends where you look and who is doing the work. In the area I focus on, Austrian and Czech Jewry, the tree is incredibly accurate and reliable and includes tens of thousands of sources and documents added by dozens of users who work nearly every day to improve the tree. If you think you are the world’s expert on some part of the tree, and you haven’t put your work on Geni, then you only have yourself to blame. Geni is not the place to find the answers to your genealogical problems (although it often does have them), but rather it is the place for you to share your answers with others. Geni works because the best way to conduct any type of scientific research is to make your hypotheses public and allow others to check your work. Geni makes this possible like no other platform. See my earlier post On Certainty in Genealogy.  So, bottom line, either roll up your sleeves and get to work, or just be quiet and keep it to yourself.  There’s plenty of work still to be done and nobody likes the guy who just sits on the sidelines with his arms crossed criticizing all the other people who are actually doing the work.
  19. I’ve used another site and it’s better.  It’s pretty clear you have no idea what you are talking about. Those of us on Geni also use all of the other sites. We wouldn’t be on Geni if there was something better. There’s simply no comparison with the competition. The other collaborative trees are much, much smaller. Remember, the World Family Tree on Geni has over 77 million profiles and over 3 million connected users.  The World Family Tree is growing at a rate of 7 million profiles per year. And Geni also has millions of as yet unconnected trees added by millions of users. By comparison, WikiTree has just 7,395,539 profiles from 169,417 members. WeRelate has just 2,548,000 profiles. FamilySearch (operated by the Mormons) just started its collaborative tree, and it’s not certain how large it is, but it will be tough for them to catch up. The Mormons are industrious, but Geni already has an incredibly comprehensive Mormon family tree. (According to the Geni Forest Density Calculator, there are over 125,000 profiles within just seven steps of Brigham Young.) OneGreatFamily claims to have a big tree as large as or larger than the one on Geni, but I don’t know of anyone who uses it. It is not publicly searchable on Google as far as I can tell, which makes it a bit useless. Bottom line is that Geni has a big advantage over its competitors in terms of the size and number of users, which makes it really the only place worth putting your tree.
  20. I am a serious professional genealogist and people like me don’t use Geni.  Wrong. There are plenty of fabulous genealogists using Geni, including many professional genealogists. But you know better. You logged in one time in 2007, didn’t add any of your family, made a couple of searches and didn’t find the data you were seeking, and never came back. You don’t believe in sharing genealogy for free because, after all, that’s how you make your living. You have never tried to work with a client by using Geni to collaborate with him on his tree. You found a mistake on Geni and therefore decided the whole thing is worthless. (See #2 above.) You didn’t bother to try to fix the mistake because you’d rather criticize Geni than actually do genealogy. You think you are the greatest genealogist in the world, but you have no clue because you have never worked on a collaborative site like Geni and seen how other genealogists work. There are folks on Geni who do more serious genealogical work before breakfast each morning than you do in an entire week. But you wouldn’t know that, because you are too old-fashioned to try something new. You like to badmouth Geni to others because it threatens you and your livelihood. You are right to be afraid.
  21. Geni is a for-profit company and I won’t give my information to them so they can make money off of me. Geni is a small company with a handful of employees, now owned by MyHeritage. It makes enough money from subscriptions to keep itself going, but not much more. Your own contribution is negligible among the millions and millions of profiles on Geni.  So don’t worry about anyone making tons of money off your work. If you are under the illusion that your contribution to the World Family Tree is that valuable, see the comment about “narcissistic paranoia” above (#6) and just focus on the narcissism part, or better yet, look up “delusions of grandeur“.
  22. Geni might go out of business and then all my work will be lost. Your work will be lost anyway. Trust me, as soon as you’re gone, that tree on your hard drive will never be looked at again. That private website you pay for? Gone within months. Only if you publish is there some hope of your work outlasting you. An online tree is an easy place for most people to publish their work. Geni’s World Family Tree is a unique asset that will certainly continue to grow and have some non-negative value to whichever genealogy company owns it. Of all the trees being built today, it has the greatest chance of being maintained far in the future. You can also eliminate any short-term risk of data loss by exporting Gedcom backups from Geni. The real risk is in refusing to share or publish your data. What would you have to show for all your work if your home were to burn down? Have you ever considered that?

Disclaimer:  The views expressed above are my own and are not necessarily the views of Geni or its parent company MyHeritage.