‘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).







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.









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.


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.


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)?








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










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)?








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.











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








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










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.


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.

Ich bin Österreicher

Today I was awarded Austrian citizenship. Last year Austria passed a new citizenship law (Section 64a Abs. 18 StbG) that allows children born between September 1, 1964 and August 31, 1983 to an Austrian mother to apply for citizenship. The deadline for application is April 30, 2014. Several years ago, my mother, who was born in New York in 1940 to parents who had fled from Austria, convinced the authorities that they should award her Austrian citizenship retroactively. I am not sure this was a normal application of the law, or if they made some exception for her. In any case, this meant that technically my mother was an Austrian citizen when I was born. Unfortunately for me, at the time of my birth, Austrian law did not allow a child to inherit citizenship from your mother.


As an aside, my father’s parents, also Viennese, had Czechoslovakian citizenship when they fled from Germany in 1933. Although my grandfather Arnold Schoenberg was born in Vienna in 1874, he was not able to obtain Austrian citizenship after World War I because of discriminatory anti-Semitic laws that prohibited “Eastern” Jews (from Hungary, Slovakia, Galicia, etc) from obtaining Austrian citizenship. Arnold had inherited from his father the status “zustaendig nach Pressburg” (meaning he had official residence rights only in Pressburg/Bratislava), so he automatically became a citizen of Czechoslovakia after WWI. More recent restitution laws have corrected this injustice, but not posthumously, so my father is not entitled to Austrian citizenship. So I had to rely on my mother’s status.

1689170_10151963463601270_1426601067_nIn any case, I applied under the new law, which was a bit cumbersome (FBI fingerprint reports, apostilled birth and marriage certificates, a biometric passport photo), and just today received my certificate awarding me retroactive Austrian citizenship. The good news is that I can now pass citizenship on to my children. The ones under 14 require only an application, while the older one first needs to pass a basic German test and a quiz on Austrian history. But once they are citizens, they can study and live anywhere in Europe. I figure that this might come in handy for them someday.

If anyone else is in the same boat, I urge you to contact your nearest Austrian consulate and get your application in before the April 30 deadline.

Schoenberg drought continues

Almost two years ago, I blogged about the fact that the Schoenberg Violin Concerto had not been performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic.  (Actually it had been performed just once, in December 1974, with conductor James Levine and violinist Zvi Zeitlin.)  Well, the orchestra programmed the piece for this month.  But the performance was cancelled when both the conductor Christoph Eschenbach and the soloist Christian Tetzlaff, cancelled due to illness.

Next season’s program will be announced in a couple of weeks and we’ll have to see if the now twelve-year drought in Schoenberg performances by the LA Philharmonic on a regular subscription concert will continue.  I don’t think there is another major orchestra in the world that has avoided playing Schoenberg for such a long period.  Most of them perform Schoenberg’s music quite regularly.  Only in his adopted home-town is he so mistreated.  Very sad.

On Certainty in Genealogy

In June, I wrote an article on collaborative genealogy for Avotaynu.[1]  In recent articles, Israel Pickholtz and Sallyann Amdur Sack-Pikus have responded by raising concerns about collaborative genealogy, especially as it is practiced on the leading collaborative genealogy platform Geni.com.[2]  Both authors suggest that genealogy on Geni is not for the “serious/accomplished/seasoned genealogy researcher.”  In his most recent article, Pickholtz uses the term “serious” no fewer than five times to describe his differing approach.  Elsewhere the authors describe their opposing genealogical method as producing results that are “authoritative,” “definitive,” “verified,” “proven,” “fully vetted,” “accurate,” “validated,” “correct” and “certain.”  The implication throughout these articles is always that the genealogy that I and others do on Geni is none of these fine things.  So certain is Pickholtz that his, and only his, method leads to truth that he defines his own mantra, and the lesson he would have us teach new genealogists, as “if it might be wrong, it doesn’t belong.”

In fact, the problem is a philosophical one.  The “serious” genealogist, as defined by Pickholtz and Sack-Pikus, is a positivist.  He or she believes that empirical genealogical facts can be conclusively verified as true by following prescribed rules.  The Genealogical Standards Manual of the Board for Certification of Genealogists (BCG), and other such manuals propounded by groups of professional genealogists, is a positivist attempt to set forth such rules.  As a lawyer, I find the positivist approach very appealing.  It is comforting to begin with the rules set forth in code books and precedents and think of the practice of law as merely an application of the rules to the facts of the case.  But as a scientific approach to determining empirical facts, positivism leaves a lot to be desired.

Let me explain.  Positivists set up rules for interpreting evidence and assume that these rules lead to “verified” results.  In a court of law, a judge will exclude hearsay or documents that lack foundation (a verified source), in order to prevent consideration of evidence that might lead to an incorrect result.  Similarly, in the Genealogical Standards Manual you can read about “unsound presumptions – concepts that may be valid, but cannot be accepted as true without supporting evidence.[3]  As the first example of an unsound presumption, the BCG lists “A man’s widow was the mother of all (or any) of his children.”[4]  Now, a positivist following prescribed rules, and interested only in facts that can be “verified” according to those rules, might be able to dismiss and exclude for lack of corroborating evidence the possibility (even the likelihood) that a man’s widow is the mother of his children, but that isn’t necessarily the best scientific approach for a genealogist trying to make an educated guess at the mother of those children.

There is another approach, which I will call the “sophisticated” approach, to differentiate it from the “serious” approach propounded by Pickholtz and Sack-Pikus.  Genealogy is the science of assembling empirical genealogical facts such as “A is the son of X and Y” or “B is the sibling of C” or “X is the husband of Y”.  The sophisticated genealogist understands that there is no scientific method that can definitively determine the truth of any genealogical fact.  Rather, as the great 20th century philosopher of science Karl Popper, a critic of the positivists, suggested, the best that one can say about any posited empirical fact is that it has not been falsified, that there is no evidence suggesting it is incorrect.  Take, for example, the fact that “Y is the father of A.”  A serious genealogist, following a positivist approach, might say that this fact has been conclusively determined to be correct because it has been verified in a birth certificate, a document presumed under the Genealogical Standards Manual to be true and correct.  Of course, the sophisticated genealogist knows that paternity is a tricky thing.  Sometimes the father listed on the birth certificate is not in fact the biological father.  What appears true and correct to the serious genealogist is for the sophisticated genealogist merely a likely possibility, not yet disproved or falsified.

A sophisticated genealogist would never say “if it might be wrong, it doesn’t belong,” because the sophisticated genealogist understands that every assertion of an empirical genealogical fact might be wrong.  No matter how many genealogical research standards are applied, the empirical truth of observed facts can never be conclusively determined.  There is always a chance that the evidence has led to the wrong conclusion.  So, when someone asks me, as they often do with regard to genealogical profiles on Geni, whether I am certain that something is correct, I always answer: “I am never certain of anything!”  I am always looking for new evidence, open to the possibility that something I had believed to be true has been falsified in some way.

For good reason, Karl Popper’s approach of empirical falsification is today much preferred by scientists over the positivist approach.  If genealogy is the science of assembling empirical genealogical facts, then empirical falsification may be the best philosophical framework for a sophisticated genealogist.  I think of every genealogical fact I put on Geni as a hypothesis waiting to be tested by other genealogists.  If they find a fact that tends to disprove the hypothesis, it is easy to change the hypothesis to fit the newly discovered fact.  That flexibility is what I like about Geni.  Contrary to what those unfamiliar with Geni, like Pickholtz and Sack-Pikus, have presumed, Geni does not use an algorithm to merge or change any profile.  All changes are made by humans and are viewable by other users.  Each profile includes a “Revisions” tab that records any changes that were made, so prior hypotheses can be revisited.  Geni curators are not authoritarian arbiters of correctness, but rather facilitators who help other people discuss and resolve or preserve differing views on the Geni platform.  For example, to answer one of the criticisms of Sack-Pikus, there is a trick that curators can use for people who were adopted, so that you can have two sets of parents, biological and adopted.  I have used this for the poet Richard Beer-Hofmann, whose mother died in childbirth leading to his adoption by his mother’s sister, who was married to his father’s nephew/first cousin.  It’s a complicated family, but on Geni you can show all the relationships, a necessity for historians trying to figure out ambiguous references to family members in the poet’s biographical writings.

Pickholtz dismisses the analogy to Wikipedia, but he misunderstands the argument because he is stuck in the positivist philosophical framework.  Wikipedia and Geni are not mechanical arbiters of objective truth according to some positivist rule book.  Rather, they succeed because they are platforms that allow scientific collaboration by many millions of people, each presenting empirical facts and testing hypotheses.

The underpinning of the sophisticated approach is to always add ever more documents and sources so that others can retrace the steps and test the hypothesis. I have personally uploaded about 14,000 documents to Geni.  The ability to allow others to recreate an experiment and independently assess the evidence is at the heart of the scientific method.  The results of this type of scientific collaboration on a shared platform are clearly superior, leading to more discoveries and more correction of mistakes.  From his website, Pickholtz is thrilled to receive a note from another researcher “every few months.”  On Geni, I receive about five messages per day related to work I have done.  The work on the tree is never-ending and continuous.

Genealogy can be done in many different ways and collaborative genealogy on Geni is not meant to supplant or replace other forms of genealogy.  If you like, you can and should keep your own file, whether written or digital, for keeping certain types of records and work in progress.  I have nothing against websites like Pickholtz’s, or even the obviously silly way he attaches percentages of certainty (30%, 50%, 90% etc.) to various speculative connections.[5]  I find all types of assertions of genealogical facts interesting and useful.

So, as a sophisticated genealogist, if I were asked, as Pickholtz was, what advice to give to new genealogists, I would say: have fun.  Don’t be dour like the serious genealogists.  Make the best guesses you can, based on the facts at your disposal.  But don’t fret too much over whether every fact you set forth in your tree is correct or not, or whether it is verified according to someone’s rule book of standards.  No one, not even the serious genealogists, can conclusively determine the truth.

[2] I. Pickholtz, “Getting It Wrong,” Avotaynu XXIX, No. 2, p. 21; S. A. Sack-Pikus, “As I See It,” Avotaynu XXIX, No. 3, p. 2; I. Pickholtz, “Concerns about Geni and Other ‘Collaborative Genealogy’ Websites,” Avotaynu XXIX, No. 3, p. 14; S. A. Sack-Pikus, “Collaborative Genealogy: Some Cautions on an Exciting and Useful Advance,” Avotaynu XXIX, No. 3, p. 13.

[3] The BCG Genealogical Standards Manual (2000), p. 11 (emphasis in original).

[4]  Ibid.

[5] See http://www.pikholz.org/General/TreesIndex.html (viewed November 28, 2013).

London’s National Gallery Shows Nazi Loot

This article has been published on Al Jazeera.

It might be news to some that London’s National Gallery is featuring an unreturned Nazi-looted painting from Austria in its current show “Facing the Modern: The Portrait in Vienna 1900.”  Gustav Klimt’s beautiful unfinished portrait of Amalie Zuckerkandl, herself a Nazi victim, was owned by Amalie’s friend, the widower and Jewish sugar baron Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer.  In March 1938 Ferdinand was forced to flee Austria, and survived the war in Zurich, Switzerland.  He died in November 1945.  As he explained in his 1942 will, his “entire property in Vienna [had been] confiscated and sold off.”  His heirs never found or recovered the portrait of Amalie.  For the rest of the story, see  Al Jazeera.

Amalie Zuckerkandl

London’s National Gallery Shows Nazi Loot (original)

It might be news to some that London’s National Gallery is featuring an unreturned Nazi-looted painting from Austria in its current show “Facing the Modern: The Portrait in Vienna 1900.”  Gustav Klimt’s beautiful unfinished portrait of Amalie Zuckerkandl, herself a Nazi victim, was owned by Amalie’s friend, the widower and Jewish sugar baron Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer.  In March 1938 Ferdinand was forced to flee Austria, and survived the war in Zurich, Switzerland.  He died in November 1945.  As he explained in his 1942 will, his “entire property in Vienna [had been] confiscated and sold off.”  His heirs never found or recovered the portrait of Amalie.

Amalie ZuckerkandlThe portrait of Amalie hung in Ferdinand’s bedroom since at least 1932, and was still in his home over nine months after Ferdinand fled, as it is listed first in an inventory created in January 1939 by the Nazi authorities tasked with distributing Ferdinand’s artworks and selling off his estate to pay off a discriminatory tax judgment that had been imposed.  The lawyer Dr. Erich Führer, a high-ranking SS officer, had initially been hired by Ferdinand to protect his property, but in the end became the liquidator.  Dr. Führer even kept twelve of Ferdinand’s paintings, including a Klimt, for himself.  A 1943 report of the Central Monument Agency confirmed that “the Bloch-Bauer collection was completely liquidated by the Finance Office.”  Dr. Führer was captured after the war and sentenced to hard labor.

No one knows exactly what Dr. Führer did with the portrait of Amalie, but Amalie’s non-Jewish son-in-law Wilhelm Müller-Hofmann supposedly came into possession of the painting during the War and sold it to the art dealer Vita Künstler.  Vita held onto the painting for many years, finally donating it to the Austrian Gallery when she died in 2001 at the age of 101.

In 2006, several months after an Austrian arbitration panel decided to return five other Klimt paintings to Ferdinand’s heirs, the same panel had a change of heart and refused to return the portrait of Amalie.  No doubt they were disappointed by the Austrian government’s decision not to exercise its option to purchase and keep the famous gold portrait of Ferdinand’s wife Adele in the country.  Feeling great pressure, the arbitrators could not again give another painting to Ferdinand’s heirs, so the Panel denied the claim.

The evidence to support the denial was non-existent.  In fact, the denial itself was premised on the novel theory that Ferdinand’s heirs should be required to demonstrate exactly what happened to the painting after Ferdinand fled the Nazi advance.   The matter was complicated by the fact that Amalie’s family claimed the painting should be returned to them.  The young Austrian historian Ruth Pleyer testified that, at age 97, Amalie’s daughter Hermine supposedly told her that she thought Ferdinand had arranged for the painting to be given to her family.  Protokoll, p. 15.  (Hermine failed to confirm this when the Director of the Austrian Galerie Gerbert Frodl and I each spoke to her.)  Of course, Hermine had survived the war in hiding in Bavaria and could not possibly have had any first-hand knowledge anyway.  In fact, in one private family letter of the time, she had complained of Ferdinand’s “unheard of behavior” in cutting off assistance to her mother, assuming incorrectly that he was living a life of wealth in exile (a common misimpression created by Nazi propaganda).

All of the parties to the arbitration, Ferdinand and Amalie’s heirs as well as the Republic of Austria, conceded that they did not know exactly what had happened to the painting or how it had left Ferdinand’s estate.   This should have been the end of the matter.  Under long-standing laws governing restitution, the victim is never required to demonstrate anything more than that the property had once been owned and was lost.  But the Panel changed the law.  They said that Austria’s new 1998 art restitution law only applied when it was absolutely proven that the artwork was expropriated, and not transferred in some other manner.

Ignoring the mountain of circumstantial evidence (i.e. Ferdinand was in Zurich, the painting was in Vienna, and his entire estate was liquidated), the Panel instead leaped to the conclusion that there was no confiscation, but rather that “at the instigation of Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, the painting was voluntarily given over to Hermine Müller-Hofmann without compensation.”  Decision, p. 12-13.  Again, there was absolutely no evidence to support this conclusion, nor apparently was there any thought given to explaining how exactly this could have been accomplished after the Ferdinand’s estate was ordered liquidated.  Ferdinand had himself written to the artist Oskar Kokoschka in 1941 “In Vienna and Bohemia they have taken everything away fro me.  Not even a souvenir has been left to me!  Maybe I will get the two Klimt portraits of my poor wife and my portrait [by Kokoschka].  I should find that out this week.  Otherwise I am totally impoverished.” As a work of a degenerate artist, the Kokoschka portrait was in fact delivered to Ferdinand, but, as we know, even the two portraits of his wife Adele were traded and sold by Dr. Führer to the Austrian Gallery.  If Ferdinand could not even rescue for himself the portrait of his own wife, what would make anyone think that he could voluntarily make a gift of a painting to Amalie Zuckerkandl?  As Prof. Hans Dolinar of Linz concluded, “the naive evaluation of the evidence by the arbitration panel is completely absurd.”

At the arbitration, I was not even concerned with the crazy theory, propounded by the Müller-Hofmann family, that Ferdinand had somehow arranged a gift to them from his exile.  Why not?  Because such a gift could only have been undertaken as a result of Nazi persecution.  As Prof. Georg Graf of Salzburg confirmed in his harshly critical review of the Panel’s decision, Austrian restitution law has always been interpreted to mandate the return of gifts made by victims who were forced to flee.

But the Panel refused to apply this law or any of the ordinary rules regarding restitution of property that had been developed in the post-war period.  They said that the 1998 art restitution law did not incorporate those older laws and therefore they no longer applied.  On appeal, we argued very strongly, as did legal author Nikolaus Pitkowitz, that the decision of the Panel violated Austrian public policy.  The best the court could say in upholding the decision was that the construction of the law by the Panel was “not unthinkable” (nicht denkunmöglich). Appeal, p. 39.  The Austrian Supreme Court affirmed, argued that it was possible that the Austrian parliament intended to reverse 50 years of restitution laws when it formulated its 1998 art restitution law, finding that such a construction was not against Austrian public policy.

The great tragic irony is that shortly after these terrible decisions, the Austrian art restitution advisory board, which had forced the arbitration by refused to return the portrait of Amalie, clarified its position on the 1998 law and suddenly decided that it should return artworks that would be considered returnable under the old restitution laws.  Had they followed this rule with the portrait of Amalie, it would also have been returned.

So, the portrait of Amalie is a Nazi-looted painting, wrongly withheld by the arbitration Panel.  Under Austrian law, as it is currently being interpreted, the painting would be returned to Ferdinand’s heirs.  The only thing that is necessary is for the Minister of Culture and the art restitution advisory board to reconsider the case.  I have been waiting seven years for this reconsideration to take place.  Perhaps before the National Gallery returns the painting to the Austrian Gallery in Vienna, it should request a new determination by the Austrian art restitution advisory board.  That way this misappropriated painting can finally be returned.

(All documents relating to the Amalie Zuckerkandl painting can be found at http://www.bslaw.com/altmann/Zuckerkandl/.)