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 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 from 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 refusing 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

Prague Blog #7

October 6, 2013

On our last morning in Prague, I took a quick walk around the Jewish quarter and ended up in the Robert Guttmann Gallery to view an exhibition on propaganda films made in Theresienstadt.  Watching the films, seeing the faces, often close-ups, of the young and old people who would soon, most of them, be murdered in Auschwitz, was heart-breaking. Of all the memorials and cemeteries I had seen on the trip, this made the most impact on me.  Perhaps it was also because I left Nathan in the hotel and went there alone.  When you are alone with your won thoughts, it is easier to connect emotionally with the material.  I see this also in our Holocaust museum, when people have the audio guides on and in their eyes you can see the emotion as the story hits them.

These propaganda films have naturally been criticized for not showing the truth about Theresienstadt.  But there is something actually quite subversive about them, and I can understand why the Nazis never released them.  The town was prettied up for the film and all of the old and sick people were taken out of sight.  Instead, the film shows relatively happy-looking, fit and comfortable people just going about their daily business, watching a concert or a soccer match, reading a book on a park bench, hanging out in the dormitory-like bunks.  In all, they look perfectly normal — which of course raises the question:  what the hell are they doing being locked up in a prison-ghetto?  Why are all of these nice, normal, well-mannered, happy people being treated like criminals.  The Nazis could never have released the film because it would have undermined the entire premise of their extermination campaign.  This film is the absolute opposite of the the stereotyped anti-Semitic caricatures of Der Stürmer and of the Nazi propaganda films like Jud Süß.

Perhaps the prisoners realized the subversive nature of the film and played along, with the hope of demonstrating to the Nazis how good and normal they were.  But the performance was too good.  Rather than demonstrate how well the Jews were being treated in this supposedly “model” ghetto, the film put the lie to the entire Nazi enterprise.  Of course, one would need to know the context these days to understand the film in this manner.  All one needs is the coda, used also at the end of this exhibit, that 60% of the people remaining in the camp in the Fall 1944 were deported and murdered at Auschwitz, as many as 24,000 in one month.

I do not want to end this blog on a downbeat.  The trip itself was fabulous, the weather was perfect, the people were universally friendly.  Really, the whole thing could not have been better.  Nathan really loved the trip and loved spending time with me, and I know I will always remember this trip I took with him.  I think he got a sense of where he came from and how he got to where he is today.  You can’t ask for more than that.


Prague Blog #6

October 5, 2013

Michaela picked us up with Hana early this morning at 7:00 am for the drive down to Ckyne.  Prague is beautiful at all times of day, but especially in the morning when things are quiet and the sun is coming up.  As we headed south, the road took us through a pastoral landscape of low, green, rolling hills fenced off into small farms with random clumps of forest here and there.  Every few miles we passed a small village or could see one in the distance.  Ckyne is about two hours south of Prague.  We passed through Strakonice, once the fez capitol of the world.  As we approached Ckyne the hills got larger and steeper, the road curved more and the scenery became more green.  We first passed through Volyne, a town that looked like it might have about 5,000 people.  A few minutes and hairpin turns later we arrived at Ckyne.  The town was larger than we expected. We were told there were 3,000 people living there.  Michaela stopped at a market to ask for directions to the new synagogue.  Make a left and another left and you will see it.  Sure enough, there it was, bright and shiny in its brand new white paint job.


We were early so I got to look around a bit.  The building was immaculately restored. There was a small prayer room at the top, used when it was too cold downstairs.  This will be the permanent home for the old torah they found in the attic.  Downstairs in the main sanctuary, they have repainted as best they could the design they found for the are around the ark.  The place looks terrific, very comfortable.  They built large cases on the side for exhibits about local Jewish history.  They look like giant closets when closed up, really a terrific design and very practical, with shelves behind glass on top and pull-out drawers underneath.

IMG_0931The services began around 10am and lasted almost three hours.  Over 100 people attended, far exceeding any expectations I had.  There were representatives of other old Ckyne families: Wedeles, Wudl, Fantes, Sittig and Nathan and I represented the Blochs. The services were led by a wonderful singer named Michal Foršt. He lives in Prague also acts as a cantor for the small congregation in Liberec (Reichenberg).  Michal was wonderful, explaining and performing and reading in Czech and English, guiding everyone through a somewhat traditional service.

IMG_0924The old torah scroll found in the synagogue was used for the service, even though it is a bit damaged.  One of the attended was Anna (Kineret) Sittig, a rabbi from Amsterdam.  She was called into service to help with the torah, which was not rolled to the correct portion (Noah, near the beginning).  I got up and helped her roll the old torah until we got to the right place.  It was really very exciting because obviously the torah had not been used in about 100 years, since the community disbanded and sold the building (long before the Nazi era).  And it was fun to think that probably our ancestors had used this very same torah.

Michal called Nathan up to do some of the prayers before the torah reading, and then Nathan was called for the first aliyah, the prayer before the first reading from the torah. Having Nathan there made everyone very excited, I think, because they all started to take photos.  I couldn’t resist joining in.  I put a video up on facebook of Nathan saying the prayer following the torah reading.  More photos from the trip are in the 1, 2, 3 facebook albums I made.


Julius Müller acted as gabay and helped figure out all the various people to call up for the remaining aliyot.  A man from Germany, Hermann Löffler, who had helped support the restoration of the synagogue, was called asked to call out the names. After Nathan, I came up, then the Sittigs and Wudls and also a friend of my fellow Geni curator from Israel, Rafi Kornfeld, was touring in the region and came to join us.  The last aliyah was given to everyone in the community, so we all stood up around the old torah as Michal read from it to conclude the torah service.

The service was long, and with most of it in Czech or Hebrew, sometimes my attention flagged.  At one point I actually got disappointed because I was missing the smell of an old building.  I wanted some sense that the old congregation had been there.  The place felt too new somehow.

IMG_0989After the service, many of us were invited by Jindra Bromova, the woman who organized the entire restoration project and this event, to the local hotel restaurant for lunch.  Nathan passed on the trout, but I actually liked it even though I don’t ordinarily eat much fish.  After lunch, we all went to the outskirts of town and climbed up to the old Jewish cemetery.  It is on a hill enclosed by a high wall that has broken down in one place so you can easily walk in.  The tombstones were recently cleaned (by Matana, I heard) and looked white and polished.  I could not find Rabbi Bloch’s grave, until I took out my blackberry and went to the Geni page and found a photo.  I realized it was against a wall and then Alex Woodle showed me exactly where it was.  Not with all the rest of the graves, but completely separate, along a wall about 10 yards away, his grave stood almost alone, lined up with some much later graves of children who had died young.  I did not understand this, since he died in 1850.  Later I asked Achab Haidler, a wonderful man, and actor by profession, who has helped catalogue many Jewish cemeteries in the region, and he thinks the grave was moved, or perhaps the plaque with his name fell off and someone attached it to a different grave along the wall.  He said he would investigate further.  You can hear Achab on this video of the Ckyne synagogue.  Achab can read all the tombstones, a very difficult task, and he even made a catalogue of the cemetery in Ckyne.   I should also mention Jan Podelsak, a local man who had been IMG_0957working to rescue the old cemetery and the synagogue for about 20 years.  In fact, I recalled coming to Prague in 1996 and getting a poster about saving the Ckyne cemetery that he must have designed.  Jan was clearly very moved by the tribute to him and seeing his long dream fulfilled.  He is a local hero there in Ckyne.

We returned to the synagogue at 4pm for a concert led by Michal Foršt and his band of musicians from Prague.  They began with a lengthy spoken introduction about my grandfather Eric Zeisl (whose grandmother was from Ckyne), followed by a performance of several of his works: Menuhim Song for violin and piano, Shepherd’s melody for Clarinet and piano and two songs for baritone (Ein Stundlein wohl vor Tag and my mom’s favorite Stilleben).  This was well received and then followed by a very entertaining series of Jewish standards (Romania, Halavai, etc).  Michal is truly a great performer (and he said he had a cold, but we didn’t notice at all).

The restoration of the Ckyne Synagogue was obviously a group effort with many people involved.  Jindra’s business partner Vladimir Silovsky was extremely nice and showed me all the work that had been done.  The mayor was there too, and Jindra said he had dedicated one million Czech crowns to the project (about $50,000), which is quite a large sum for such a small town.  Many people came from all over the region to attend the ceremony.  An elderly Jewish woman, apparently the only one in the entire region, came to attend also.  She showed me her mother’s Jewish star and other family documents.  Apparently she had survived as a hidden child. I met a British girl, Natalie, from Cesky Budejovice (Budweis) who came with some local friends of hers that she had met.  A Czech-Swiss woman said she had read about it on the Internet and decided to come from Basel.    There was a film crew and the rededication made the evening news in the Czech Republic.

We left just before Achab Haidler conducted a Havdalah service, because we had a two-hour drive back to Prague and both Nathan and I were exhausted.  Michaela drove us back through the scenic villages and countryside to the shining lights of Prague, with its castles and churches all lit up against the evening sky.  This has been an incredible trip for Nathan and for me, one that I am sure we both never forget.  I hope to return to Prague and the Czech Republic soon, to see all our friends and relatives, and to explore in more depth the home of 3/4 of my ancestors.  I am coming away with a much better mental picture of the world that they lived in, and a real connection to their lives, which was my goal all along.


Prague Blog #5

October 4, 2013

The day began too early, with a silly phone call at 3am from Budapest from someone who thought I was in Los Angeles.  Should have put the phone on silent, I guess.  Afterwards, neither Nathan nor I could fall asleep.  Finally got back to sleep around 7:30am, but then had to wake up again so we could get to a meeting I set for 10am at the new Jewish cemetery.

During the trip I wanted to try to make some headway in getting the Jewish Community to make the cemetery database available for genealogists.  The Vienna Jewish Community put its much larger database online years ago.  So I got in touch with Zuzana Beránková, who administers the cemetery for the Jewish community.  We met in her office along with Rabbi Chaim Koci who represents the Jewish Community in these matters.  My cousin Helena Vankova showed up with her two year old son Adam and joined us, which was nice because Helena’s husband Daniel is a good friend of Rabbi Koci.

Bottom line is that they want money, about 15 500,- EUR in order to make the database of over 20,000 names public on their own website.  The data is ready, but they want to recoup some of the cost of compiling it and perhaps use it for further work on other cemeteries.  Nathan thinks it is ridiculous, but I suppose that’s how these things work. They have something that we want, and hope that they can get something for it.  Others might consider it a duty or even a mitzvah for the Jewish Community to help Jews with family members in the cemetery find their loved ones and remember them.  But even mitzvahs can cost money, I suppose.  So I will see if I can help raise the necessary funds.

They should make the data available on the JewishGen Online Worldwide Burial Registry, but they want to keep control.  It’s a mistake, because now only those who know to research in Prague will use it.  But Prague, like all major cities, was a magnet for Jews from the surrounding smaller towns, especially from Galicia.  While a Galizianer might search a surname at JewishGen and find a cousin in Prague they never knew existed, they aren’t likely to search a Prague database. So they will lose all those if they do it themselves and don’t share with JewishGen.

IMG_0810Helena and Nathan and I walked through the cemetery.  I took photos of all the tombstones with names I recognized, about 20 percent of them.  All these very common Prague family names that do not exist anymore: Nachod, Beständig, Porges, Bondy, Schifferes, Moscheles, Taussig, Teweles, Klemperer, Wehle, Wantoch. You can see a list of about 200 of them on the genealogy website I have been working on, that ties them all together in one big tree.  Helena showed us some of her family graves, which are in prominent locations in the cemetery, easy to find. They must have been relatively well off.

Then we met my friend Julius Müller, for my money the best genealogical researcher in Bohemia and Moravia.  First we went to lunch, and I had another typical goulasch with a somewhat canned knödel.  (It was sliced, but you’re supposed to pick it apart with a fork.)  After lunch we went to the older cemetery in Zizkov.  This one was mostly destroyed in the 1980s when the Communists decided they needed a giant radio tower in the center of town.  Julius said the tower was really used to block reception of Radio Free Europe.  Didn’t work, I guess, since the Communists fell in 1989 anyway.  The Jewish Community was apparently too weak or complicit to stop the demolition of 5/6 of the cemetery.

I noticed again that it seemed that only the oldest tombstones, all in Hebrew, survived.  The cemetery lasted from 1780-1890 and therefore most of the tombstones should be in German.  Jews in Bohemia and Moravia predominantly spoke German after 1780.  Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.  After Czechoslovakia declared independence in 1918, the Jewish community split into three camps.  Citizens were forced to declare their nationality. Some Jews, the Zionists, declared themselves Jewish.  Others, who had assimilated German culture, picked German.  And Czech nationalists picked Czech.  After 1918, it became increasingly advantageous to be Czech and so all the younger people became Czech, the children spoke Czech in school, etc.  After the Nazis murdered two thirds of the Jews and most of the others escaped, the Czechs then expelled anyone (even surviving Jews) who had declared themselves German.  So the only ones left were the Czech nationalist Jews.  Mostly they suppressed the fact that their families had spoken German in the 19th century.  You hear so many family stories of Bohemian Jews who claim that their grandmother spoke only Czech.  Certainly it was true for some, but only a tiny minority. IMG_0765You can tell because in most villages the tombstones after the early 1800s are all in German until about 1900, and mostly German through 1918.  I’ll be able to confirm this again when I go to Ckyne tomorrow, but it is certainly true for the new Jewish cemetery in Prague.  Only the newer tombstones, done after 1918, are in Czech.  Here’s a good example of one.  Franz Klauber died in 1936 and his epitaph (Mein Bestes – Mein Edelstes – Mein Alles! / My Best – My Truest – My Everything!) is in German.  Underneath is the name of his mother, who perished in Treblinka in 1942, listed with a Czech female ending as Amalie Klauberová.  I bet she never called herself that.

IMG_0830I suspect very strongly that part of the motivation for erasing the Zizkov cemetery in the 1980s was to erase this large remaining sign of the German-speaking Jewish history in Prague.  No doubt the Jewish Community also found it embarrassing to have this reminder of their very recent conversion to Czech.  Bulldozing it was in everyone’s best interest, except for those like me who live abroad and descend from the people who were buried there. Unfortunately, I was too young to know or do anything about it.  Would be different today, I hope.

Julius Müller

Julius Müller

Julius took us toward his office in a nice part of the city, near the river.  I always learn things from Julius, who told me there are “missing” Jewish registers held by the Jewish Musuem of Prague for about 20 Moravian towns.  We need to get them scanned.  He also gave me scans of the index for the mostly destroyed Zizkov cemetery.  I always wonder what happened to all the gravestones and how come there were no pictures.  Julius said he heard that the Jewish gravestones were sold to the CIty and used for cobblestones.  Martin Smok tells me the stones were destroyed already in the 1960’s and in the 1980’s it was only the graves that were removed.  In any case, they are lost to us.

IMG_0835Nathan and I rested a bit and then went by subway and bus to Michaela’s apartment for dinner with her and Hana.  The apartment building was just as I remembered it, still with the sandbox out front.  Michaela even still had the old 1991 Let’s Go Europe that I had left with her after my first visit.  At that time she had not yet explored outside of Czechoslovakia. By now she is a world traveller, fulfilling her lifelong dream to see the great sights of the world that were for so long cut off to her.  Michaela showed me some old family photographs.  She has better ones of my my great-grandparents than I do!  And a very cute one of my grandmother’s older brother and sister. I took photos of the photos, so now I have them in some form at least.


Maria and Rudolf Kolisch

Tomorrow we head down early in the morning to Ckyne for the rededication ceremony.  I am curious what it will be like.  Ckyne is a very small town, and the cemetery is not overly spectacular like many others in Bohemia.  But there are apparently no better examples in the south of Bohemia.  it should be a fun conclusion to our week here.





Prague Blog #4

October 3, 2013

Today was our museum and sightseeing day.  Still jet-lagged and awake during the night, I managed to fall back asleep and as awakened by a call at 9:45, so we got off to a late start.  The breakfast at the Intercontinental is very good.  Nathan tried a fried egg this time.

We went up the street to a book store that sold tickets for the Jewish Museum, which is located in several synagogues throughout the area.  We went first to the Spanish Synagogue, which has a good exhibit on the history of the Jews of Prague, with emphasis on printed materials and important personalities, as well as the obligatory fantastic display of ritual objects.  I’ve spent the past serval years really digging into the family trees of the old Jewish families from Prague, so I recognize the names and faces this time.  When I see an engraving of Rabbi Eleazar Flekeles, Dr. Jonas Jeiteles or publisher Wolf Pascheles, I feel I know them.  Photography is forbidden, but Nathan secretly takes photos with his i-phone and no one seems to care.  Why should they?

We went around the corner to the offices of the Jewish Museum and I asked for Dr. Alexander Putik, the leading expert on Prague Jewish history and author of many important books and articles.  His specialty is the political history, figuring out the feuds and fights within the community.  Dr. Putik kindly brings us up to the book shop and I proceed to buy a half dozen tomes he suggests, including a brand new edition that records the domicile forms that were filled out by the Jews returning in 1748-1751 after the expulsion by Empress Maria Theresia.  A genealogical goldmine if I can manage to link them up to the later trees I have been working on.

IMG_0672Dr. Putik answers my secret wish and offers to take us through the old Jewish cemetery.  Ordinarily, visitors are herded through on the far sides of the cemetery, unable to wander through the massive field of jagged stones.  But with Dr. Putik we hop over the ropes and follow him to areas we could never otherwise reach.  The stones are beautiful, but my Hebrew is not good enough to read them on the fly, and in any case tombstone Hebrew is a real specialty.  Nathan and I snap some pictures as Dr. Putik tells us of his recent find, the brother of the Hakham Zevi, a famous chief rabbi of Hamburgi.  He cannot remember exactly where all the Nachod (my great-grandmother’s family) graves are, but suspects they are with the Horowitz family (the Nachods are supposedly a branch from one of the daughters of Aaron Meshulam Horowitz) and near the Pinkas synagogue, which was built for them.

After the cemetery, we part from Dr. Putik and make our way through the various exhibits, fabulous displays of Judaica, reproductions and paintings and all sorts of items.  An embarrassment of riches.  I see a painting of Theresia Wolf (Foges) and immediately know from her maiden name that she is on the family tree.  Turns out not too close.  She’s my first cousin four times removed’s wife’s first cousin’s wife’s sister.  I wish I had scans of all the paintings and photos in the museum.  Would keep me busy for the next year.

We stopped into the cafeteria of the Jewish Community to say goodbye and thank you to Dr. Putik (after getting grilled by the guard who claimed he was Hungarian, but sounded and acted Israeli to us).  Then we went to the fancier kosher restaurant King Solomon.  I finally got my goulasch and knödel.  A bit disappointing.  Not quite enough meat and the knödel were too dry.  Nathan ordered and ate goose (hard to believe).

IMG_0695After lunch we walked down across the river and found our way up to the big castle (apparently the largest in Europe by some measures).  Nathan and I really liked exploring all the sights.  We entered the big church of St. Vitus with it’s fantastic stained glass windows (glass is a Bohemian specialty).  The exterior is not too different from Notre Dame in Paris.  We had the most fun in a museum full of armor and weapons, many of then 500-1,000 years old.  Nathan got to try his hand at shooting a cross-bow.  I thought the old viking swords were cool.


At the bottom of the castle we even went into a torture chamber.  Nathan was intrigued by a contraption that looked like it was used to lower a person into a pit with wild animals. We also visited the Lobkowicz Palace, which has an audio guide spoken by the current head of the Lobkowicz family (an American).  The family had fled the Nazis and returned, only to have their property confiscated again by the Communists.  They managed to recover the palace and its contents, mostly family paintings but also a nice Breughel landscape and some Canalettos from London, after the end of Communism in 1989.

Restitution in the Czech Republic is a sticky subject.  As is history.  After the nationalism, nazism and communism of the 20th century, basically no one in the country knows anymore what the truth really is.  The country is filled with legends of the Bohemian roots of the place, mostly neglecting the German and Jewish contributions.  For example, you’ll often hear that Jews lived in the area since about the 10th century. What they don’t say is that the 10th century is also the earliest evidence of a separate Czech language in the region, and that Czechs arrived maybe a few centuries earlier.  The German presence probably predated them.  But the land was ethnically cleansed (twice) in the last century with the extermination of the Jews and the subsequent expulsion of millions of Germans. So today it is basically all Czech all the time.

When people debate about Israel and whether it should have a one-state or two-state solution, I like to remind them of the Czech Republic.  I don’t remember hearing about any recent UN resolutions concerning the expelled Germans.  And no one seems to care about all the expropriated Jewish property in the country, most of it never returned.

For example, the castle outside Prague that was owned by Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer (of Klimt painting fame) was taken and used as the home of the Reichsprotektor of Bohemia and Moravia Reinhard Heydrich (the man who convened the Wannsee Conference and set in motion the Final Solution).  After the war, the Communists expropriated the castle again.  When the Communists fell, the Czechs privatized the castle, selling it to an agricultural company, before they enacted any restitution laws.  Ferdinand’s heirs at law, including his niece Maria, did not even qualify for a token restitution payment (limited to victims and their children only).

I am dealing with a crazy case at the moment.  I am helping out the family of a holocaust survivor, a woman who made it through Theresienstadt, Auschwitz and several other camps.  She returned to her home in Moravia and managed to reclaim the property of her murdered sister’s murdered husband Rabbi Schön, including an old illuminated manuscript called a Kitzur Mawar Jabok, with prayers for the dead, that had apparently come from the community of Mikulov (Nikolsburg).


She managed to escape from Czechoslocakia and came to the United States.  After she died, her family offered to sell the book to the Jewish Musuem of Prague, which initially agreed to purchase it.  But then, with the assistance of the Holocaust Claims Processing Office in New York, the Musuem and the Federation of Jewish Communities in the Czech Republic claimed ownership of the book.  I find the claim incredible.  First, no one knows for sure who owned the book before the war, nor how the book made its way into the hands of the Holocaust survivor, so calling the book “stolen” is a leap. Second, the Museum and the Federation were not the prior owners of the book. Their theory is that the book should have been stolen by the Nazi, then stolen by the Communists, and in the 1990s should have been given to the Federation and housed in the Museum.  That’s not exactly a convincing claim of title in my opinion.  I tried to set up a meeting while I was here, but the Museum directed me to its lawyer in New York, who only wrote me this Monday.  So we’ll have to see how this gets resolved.  I did see another book on display today and have to agree that this one is much better.  So now I know why they want it.   I’m ordinarily on the other side of these cases, seeking restitution.  But in my book, before you go accusing a Holocaust survivor of holding stolen property, you’d better have some real proof that it was stolen and a good claim of title.

A postscript to yesterday’s trip to Theresienstadt.  I remembered the story that the survivor Pavel Stransky told his tour.  He had returned at the end of the war to Theresienstadt, but was caught in the quarantine because of the typhus epidemic.  His new id card said “suspect of typhus” so an attempt at escape was impossible.  He and a friend then doctored their id cards to say “unsuspect of typhus” and were able to convince a guard that they could leave.  Then, when a Russian soldier tried to commandeer their truck, they claimed to have been exposed to typhus in order to scare him off.  I contacted a survivor friend about Stransky, thinking that they must know each other, but apparently he had a bad experience with him when they were in Auschwitz.  I suppose there are folks I knew in high school that I might not want to see either, and my high school was not the worst hell on earth, as his was.  So I can understand.

Tomorrow I have a meeting at the new Jewish cemetery to discuss making the database available to genealogists.  Then I have lunch with my old friend Julius Mueller and new Ckyne friend Heleen Sittig.  In the evening, we will be eating with my cousin Michaela and her family.  Then Saturday is the big trip down to Ckyne for the rededication.  So far, it has been a wonderful trip.

Prague Blog #3

October 2, 2013

Michaela picked us up at the hotel to drive us to Theresienstadt.  She brought her late brother’s wife Hana with her.  And we joined with our cousin Petr Willheim on the way there.  Petr knew Theresienstadt well and would be our guide.  His parents had both survived the camp, and he had even been stationed there when he was a young soldier. From the parking lot Petr took us first toward the Small Fortress.  We passed a long rom of gravestones, mostly from late 1945, around the time of liberation, when thousands died of a Typhus epidemic that spread through the ghetto and the outlying areas.  Half of the graves were Christian and half Jewish.  Most of the Jewish ones had no names, just a number.  Michaela said that she heard that Gypsies had stolen the iron names form the graves, but I later heard that the unnamed graves simply represented hundreds of unidentified people who died during the epidemic.

Theresienstadt cemetery outside the Small Fortress

Theresienstadt cemetery outside the Small Fortress

I wasn’t really much interested in seeing the Small Fortress.  It has a few claims to fame, as the home of the SS men who administered Theresienstadt Ghetto, as the place where prisoners were taken by the SS to be tortured to death or executed, and as the place where Gavrilo Princip, the Serbian nationalist who started World War One by assassinating the heir to the Habsburg throne, was imprisoned. I asked Petr to allow us to turn back instead to the town where the ghetto had been.


We walked toward the old garrison town, with its star-shaped exterior walls along the river Oh?e (Eger).  First we went to the memorial site where in 1944 the ashes of 22,000 prisoners who had died in the camp were thrown into the river.  The memorial did not do much for me, a tall sculpture of a woman standing next to a marble block.  Nathan and Petr waled down to the riverbank but I wanted to head back to enter the camp.

Despite having read extensively about Theresienstadt, I suppose I did not have a good mental picture of it.  Once inside the walls, it appeared very much like an ordinary town, a bit shabby in places, but in many ways just fine, with open spaces, parks, and nicely painted buildings, not like the army barrack housing I had imagined.  I took two pictures, to show how different you can make the place look, depending on where you point your camera.

IMG_0608 IMG_0604


We went into two buildings with museum exhibits.  The first one was a comprehensive exhibit with the history of the Jewish camp, with text panels in Czech, German, English and Hebrew, and reproductions of many documents.  I found the placards advertising concerts and events very interesting.  Some of the things I had seen before, but I could have spent longer.  There were some good videos also on display, in Czech with subtitles in English and German.  But near the end I joined a tour being led by 92-year-old survivor Pavel Stransky.  I only heard the last part of his story, and also an epilogue about the fate of Fredy Hirsch, a man who devoted himself to the care of children at Theresienstadt and later at Auschwitz-Birkenau.  I had an opportunity, but did not feel like interrupting the end of the tour to speak with Mr. Stransky.  After he spoke was the only time I felt that emotional wave of sadness come over me that I had been dreading on this visit.  I wrote in the guest book: “First family member to return to Theresienstadt since my great-grandfather Sigmund Zeisl was here July-August 1942.”

Downstairs in the gift shop I bought a book on Vedem, the children’s newspaper in Theresienstadt edited by Petr Ginz.  When I was in Prague in 1996, Michaela had introduced me to Martin Glas, who was a friend of hers.  I have a video of our conversation where he showed me an issue of Kamarat, another magazine he had helped publish as a teen in Theresienstadt.  He survived and later became been a tv news anchor in Prague. Downstairs there was also an exhibit room that had the names of all the children who who perished.  At first I did not realize it was just children and spent some time looking for my grandfather’s cousin Arthur Schönberg, who died in Theresienstadt.  But there were no Schoenbergs.  Then we realized that they were only the children.  It was overwhelming and sad.

800px-Terezin_CZ_Magdeburg_Barracks_Ater91We walked down the nice street to the Magdeburg Kaserne, the barracks that also housed the offices of the camp leadership.  Upstairs was a good exhibit that included a few rooms made up like barracks, with triple bunks.  I had presumed that suitcases had been taken from the prisoners, but I was wrong, and saw confirmation also in photos.  Perhaps it was just the contents that were stolen.  And maybe they were used then communally and not individually.  I don’t know.  Anyway, it was good to get a mental image of the barracks, even though it felt not quite as dingy and dirty as I had imagined it, probably because it was in fact clean and empty and not filled with sick and dying people, as it would have been when Theresienstadt was packed with ten times the ordinary number of inhabitants. The smell was missing.  This is also Daniel Mendelssohn’s critique of the boxcars that pepper our Holocaust museums.  Yes, they can give people a feeling of claustrophobia, but the stench, the cold, the heat, the fear — those are all absent.

IMG-20131002-00845The exhibition included rooms on the artists, composers, writers and actors in Theresienstadt. I was surprised to see a placard for a concert put on by Viktor Ullmann that included two songs by my grandfather.  Alice Sommer-Herz, now nearing her 110th birthday, was the pianist.

I did not feel like visiting the Crematorium and so we left Theresienstadt.  It was an odd visit.  I was used to our museum, where the architecture is part of the story.  In Theresienstadt, the architecture worked against the story.  These were just nice buildings in the Bohemian countryside.  The exhibits were adequate, but not extraordinary.  There was nothing there to give you the feeling that you were in the presence of a catastrophe, the site where tens of thousands of Jews were crowded together and murdered with hunger and sickness or deported to Auschwitz and Treblinka.  The town is just a somewhat humdrum old country town, nothing more.


We went to nearby Litomerice for lunch.  It has a beautiful town square, all neatly restored, and nice restaurants.  No goulasch on the menu so I ordered duck with knödel on the side, which was Bohemian enough and very good.

We returned to Prague and visited my distant cousin Helena Vankova (Kovanicova), whom I had never met.  We had corresponded over our Nachod ancestors for a number of years so I was eager to meet her.  IMG_0661She greeted us with her mother and two small children, Leah and Adam.  Later her father Jiri, a photographer, came, as did her husband Daniel, who teaches and works for the Jewish Community in Prague.  We had a nice dinner, speaking mostly English with some German.

They tried to teach us a few words in Czech, but I am afraid my brain can’t hold it in.  It was nice to finally meet Helena, although she was so busy with dinner, I hardly got to speak with her.  Her husband is friends with some folks I hope to meet later in the week, so it was nice to get to know him as well.  He let Nathan try out his shofar, which was challenging.


We returned home for some computer time and now it’s time for bed.  Tomorrow I hope to see some of the Jewish Museum and also maybe the Castle.

Prague Blog #2

Oct 1, 2013

Easy flight via Paris to Prague.  Cousin Michaela picked us up at the airport.  Lots of construction on the road into town, but it gave Michaela and me time to catch up.  Staying at the Hotel Intercontinental.  We stayed here on my first visit during the Communist era.  Back then you could hardly engage in conversation with the staff.  Much easier now.  The location is great, right on the river and just steps from the Altneuschul and the rest of the Jewish quarter.

Nathan in front of his gg-grandmonther Pauline Nachod's synagogue, the famous Altneuschul in Prague.

Nathan in front of his gg-grandmonther Pauline Nachod’s synagogue, the famous Altneuschul in Prague.

Nathan and I walked around and then found a kosher restraurant, Dinitz. Had a nice chicken with mushrooms (“forestiere”), which was the only non-Israeli entree on the menu.  Nathan had an hamburger.  Then we walked around the old town, climber the tower and go a view of the city, and walked down to the Charles Bridge, crossed and then wound our way up the bank to the next bridge and back to the hotel.  A fine first day with lots of great views of the city and the castle on the hill.  Tomorrow we go to Theresienstadt.

Prague Blog #1

Sep 30, 2013

I am heading off to the Czech Republic with my 13-year-old son Nathan to attend the rededication of an old synagogue in Ckyne, southern Bohemia.  Our first stop is Prague, the capital city where my great-grandmother Pauline Nachod was born in 1848.

I have been to Prague before.  The first time was when I was a teenager, during the Communist era.  At that time, getting a visa to enter the country was difficult and tours were very constrained.  Interaction with ordinary Czechs was pretty much out of the question.  I returned to Prague in 1991, after taking the bar exam.  Following a brief lunch with my aunt Nuria’s friend, the musicologist Ivan Vojtech, I tried to track down a cousin of my paternal grandmother Gertrud Kolisch.  I looked in the café’s old telephone book that had not been updated in twenty years and found Dr. Rudolf Kolisch.  So I called the number.  The young man who answered (I later learned he was just 15) did not speak English, nor French, but uttered a few words in German before hanging up on me.  “My grandfather is dead.  My mother is not here.”

Traveling alone and having nothing better to do, I took the address in the old phone book and decided to try to see if I could find my cousins.  I took the bus to the outskirts of town, to a residential park filled with 10-story apartment buildings.  When I finally found the building matching the address I scanned the intercom directory.  No Kolisch.  My grandfather is dead, the boy had told me.  His mother wasn’t home.  So the apartment must be listed under the mother’s married name.

Well, I had come this far.  Undeterred, I went over to the sandbox playground next to the building.  Some young folks about my age (25) were playing with their babies in the sandbox.  I asked if they spoke English.  No luck.  French?  No.  German?  No again.  One of them spoke a little Russian, but my four weeks of Russian in seventh grade didn’t get me very far.  So I took out a little notebook and drew a picture of my family tree, up through my father to his mother and her father, then sideways over to his brother down to his son and then to ?, the woman in the building.  They understood enough and ran to get the help of an old lady in a nearby building.  She spoke German with me and told me she would call my cousin. In a little while I was ushered into the building and introduced to my cousin’s neighbor, with whom I conversed for nearly an hour in French.  Who knew I could even speak French?  I thought I had forgotten it all.

Finally, my cousin Michaela Navratilova walked through the door.  I don’t remember my grandmother, who died when I was just a baby, but from the photos I knew I could recognize that Michaela had the same face.  No doubt she was a Kolisch.  With tears in her eyes, we embraced.  She had known of our existence, but had never communicated with us.  Her father and brother had died over a decade earlier, and she felt herself completely cut off.  With only her father’s books to remind her of the more cosmopolitan world before 1939, she had until the fall of communism in 1989 never seriously allowed herself to dream of traveling abroad or of meeting another member of her father’s family.  And now here I was, opening the door for her to the outside world.

Michaela took care of me for the next several days, showed me the little cabin in the woods that her husband had built with the plum tree laden with fruit.  We went hunting for mushrooms.  At each one, she said “Hmm.  I’ve never seen one like this before.”  On the way back to the cabin, we stopped at the local gas station and she asked the woman who lived upstairs to come down and inspect our basket of mushrooms.  Returning to the car with a smile, she assured me the old woman said they were all non-poisonous and edible.  Not completely convinced, I let her son Tomas, the one who had answered my initial phone call, taste the stew first.  When he didn’t drop dead, I ventured a taste and then dug in.  For dessert, we ate dozens of homemade plum dumplings called Zwetschkenknödel in German.

I returned to Prague in 1996.  Pam and I had just become engaged and she joined me on a trip to Vienna for a family reunion I had organized with the various branches of my family.  Beforehand, I had planned a side trip through Moravia and Bohemia to visit the towns where my ancestors had lived.  The plane landed in Vienna after a long flight and we immediately set off into Moravia in a rental car.  Many hours later,  we arrived at Kromeric, exhausted, and found a hotel.  Waking up the next morning, eager to explore, we looked for our car.  And looked.  And looked.  It was gone, taken during the night.  The hotel claimed that the parking lot out front was not its responsibility, which was small comfort.  I had been too tired to put the “club” on the wheel and bring the last bag up, the one with Pam’s dresses, to our room.  She still hasn’t forgiven me for losing them.

After touring the bishop’s palace in Kromeric, we decided to go directly to Prague and boarded a train in nearby Holesov (birthplace of my great-grandfather Hermann Jellinek).  The train stopped on the way in Pardubice (birth-place of my great-great grandmother Rosalie Reichmann).  As we had no food or drink, I decided to get off the train while we are stopped at the station and buy something to drink at a small stand.  I handed the woman a large bill, the only one I had, and she mumbled something in Czech and ran off to make change.  As I waited for her to return, the whistle blew for the train to depart.  I grabbed the change from the lady and ran for the train, just hopping on as the train gained speed and headed out of the station.  By the time I got to our cabin and found Pam, the train was at full speed, and Pam was white as a sheet.  Day one of the trip: car stolen, dresses stolen, and now alone on a train, not even certain where she was going.  She thought I had abandoned her! Our stay in Prague was clouded by the difficulties of our first day.  It took two days, until we arrived in Vienna, before Pam smiled again.

After the family reunion and a trip to Salzburg for a performance of Moses und Aron, Pam returned home and I went back to Prague alone, staying in the apartment of my cousin Nick Teller.  Nick had been raised in England and Germany.  His father was my grandmother’s cousin and his mother was from Prague, a survivor of Theresienstadt and Auschwitz.  Nick worked at the German Commerzbank in Prague, almost as a quadruple-agent.  He could play British, Czech, German or Jewish and witnessed the worst prejudices of all these groups in Prague.  I used my stay to visit the Czech State Archives and get copies of records of my family.  These records had been maintained by Jewish communities in Bohemia and Moravia since 1782, when the Habsburg Emperor Josef II issued his famous Tolerance Patent, granting Jews some civil rights.  (They would not be fully emancipated until after 1867.)

The records had been collected during World War II, as the Jewish communities were liquidated by the Nazis, and ultimately were deposited in the Czech State Archives.  One of the books I found was for the small town of Ckyne in southern Bohemia.  All I knew of the town was that Rosa Bloch, the maternal grandmother of my grandfather Eric Zeisl, was born there.  She was apparently a nasty lady, who burned my grandfather’s early compositions and criticized him for “playing instead of practicing.”  My grandfather half-joked that he had three enemies in his life: Hitler, the sun and his grandmother.  That he would put her in the same category as Hitler gives you some idea of what she must have been like.

Anyway, I found the old record books from Ckyne in the Czech State Archives.  Probably no one had looked at them for decades.  I traced back from Rosa to her father Isak and then to his father Mathes Bloch.  I soon noticed that Mathes Bloch had signed as the mohel for all the boys born in the town in the first half of the 19th century.  The whole book was in his handwriting.  I triumphantly reported back to my family that we were descended from the Mohel of Ckyne.  Only years later, when the cemetery was photographed, did I learn that Mathes (or Mendel) Bloch was in fact not only the mohel, but the rabbi of Ckyne.

Several years later, I received a call out of the blue from a man in Boston named Alex Woodle.  He said that he just learned that his family, who came over to the US in the 1840s, may have come from Ckyne.  I pulled out the copies I had made of the pages where the Blochs were mentioned in the old record book, and sure enough, right next to them were the records for the Wudl family.  Alex was thrilled to get confirmation and help tracing his family back another generation.  Ultimately, he went to Prague and Ckyne and even made a film about his discovery that was shown on TV.

I kept in touch with Alex and over time we discovered a number of other families that descended from the Jews of Ckyne.  Amazingly, many of these families also had avid genealogists.  Emily Rose even published a successful book on her family.  Rochester professor Phil Lederer put up a detailed account of his roots trip to Ckyne on his website.  So did Francisco Fantes.  Heleen Sittig in the Netherlands had an entire website devoted to her family tree.

A few years ago, Alex announced to me that a woman named Jindra Bromova in Ckyne had arranged for the town to repurchase the old synagogue building and restore it.  She managed to raise over 200,000 Euro from the European Union and intended to turn the building into a Jewish cultural history museum of southern Bohemia.  Apparently, this synagogue, built in 1828, was the finest example of synagogue architecture left in the entire region.

The Czech Republic was not bombed very much in World War II and so many of the synagogue buildings, including the very old and beautiful ones in Prague, still stand.  The Ckyne synagogue had been abandoned as Jews moved to larger towns and was sold  even before the Nazi era.  From what I have seen, it is a large, rather ordinary looking building.  But the inside has been nicely restored and so I am curious to see what becomes of it.  When Jindra wrote to tell me that there would be a rededication ceremony, I decided I wanted to be there.

As it happens, the rededication is on October 6, just six weeks after our son Nathan’s bar mitzvah.  Pam and I decided it would make sense to pull him out of school for a week so that he could attend and participate in the ceremony, as the representative of his ggggg-grandfather Rabbi Bloch.

So we are off to Prague.  Michaela will be meeting us and she and our cousin Petr Wilheim will take us to Theresienstadt on Wednesday.  I have never been to a concentration camp before.  When I admitted this to a group of Holocaust survivors a few years ago, I was berated and told I must go.  I have misgivings.  First, I am not someone who needs to go somewhere in order to be reminded of the Holocaust.  As the President, and for the past ten months Acting Executive Director, of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, I have to deal with the memory of the Holocaust nearly every day.  I also don’t feel any special connection to the main camps.  My great-grandfather Sigmund Zeisl was deported to Theresienstadt in July 1942 and deported two months later to Treblinka, where he was presumably murdered on arrival, if he even survived the train ordeal.  There is nothing at Treblinka for me.  Just a monument at the place where he was taken for execution by his kidnappers.  If I wanted to connect with my great-grandfather, I would go to Vienna, where he lived for ll but the last two months of his 70-year existence.

Of course, I have read a great number of books about Theresienstadt.  My great-grandfather’s time there was no doubt brief and terrible.  The elderly did not receive enough food to survive for long and the crowded and diseased living conditions made the mortality rate astronomically high, even in this supposedly model ghetto.  Theresienstadt was a garrison town, built to house soldiers, and what remains are the same barracks and buildings.  Now they house museum exhibits about the infamous Nazi ghetto.  I am at the same time eager to see how the Museum deals with the subject-matter and at the same time afraid of the emotions my trip there will be sure to evoke.  I am not sure how traveling with my son will affect me.  Just thinking about it makes me well up with sorrow and indignity and terror at the inhuman cruelty of it all.  Being there will not be easy for me, which is why I have avoided it until now.