Over the past several weeks I have spoken to audiences across the country at screenings of the film Woman in Gold, about the recovery of the Klimt paintings. I have received a barrage of letters and e-mails and messages from people who were so moved by the film and its depictions of the events that occurred in Austria after the Nazi takeover, the Anschluss, of March 1938. Those of you who have seen the film and know the story certainly recognized the scenes reenacted in Vienna from well-known photographs and newsreel films, of crowds cheering as the Nazis paraded into the city, of Jews accosted on the streets and in their homes and businesses, terrorized by the people who had only recently been their peaceful neighbors. Although every film takes liberties, these particular scenes are not fictionalized in the least. The Viennese survivors who have talked to me or written to me tell me that this was exactly what they saw and witnessed with their own eyes. Even the frightening escape of Fritz and Maria Altmann as depicted in the film is not really exaggerated. Indeed, some of the more harrowing parts were left out. The filmmakers were not able to show Fritz being sent to Dachau for two months before being ransomed out by his older brother, or the three prior failed attempts to escape from their house arrest, nor the lucky escape through barbed wire into Holland.
We, the survivors and their descendants who make a point of remembering, know just how quickly things can change, how evil can spring up and engulf an entire population. We are dismayed, but not surprised, by the terror of ISIS in Syria and Iraq. We are disturbed, but not shocked, by the murderous attacks in France, Belgium and across Europe. To quote the old radio program, we know what evil lurks in the hearts of men, because we have seen it visited on our own families.
We support our Museum because we understand how important it is for us to remember, and for the rest of the world to learn about what happened to our families. We come here today to think about the family members who were lost. We understand that for every single story of escape to freedom like Fritz and Maria’s, there were hundreds who did not make it, and who were never seen or heard from again.
There is a very moving scene in the film where Maria says goodbye to her parents. In fact, this particular scene was fictionalized – Maria’s father died in June 1938, a few months before Maria escaped — and so I always looked at it as fiction. But then a woman came up to me and said that she was so moved by the scene because her mother also had to say goodbye to her parents, whom she never saw again. Only then did I realize that of course my own grandfather had done the same thing. He had escaped with my grandmother on the day after Kristallnacht, leaving his parents behind. His mother died of cancer and his father was sent to Theresienstadt and murdered at Treblinka. My grandfather must have had his own terrible farewell that haunted him. I know many of you here with us today had the same experience.
This is of course the power of film. Films allow us to universalize a particular experience, to make one story emblematic of an entire range of experiences belonging to many. I am very proud that the film about Maria Altmann’s story is working this way, as a catalyst for memory, for myself and for so many others.