Tuesday, April 14, 2015

My grandfather's art

Seventy years ago last month, in March, 1945, my grandfather, Carl Heumann, was killed when an Allied bomb directly hit his house in Chemnitz, Germany. The story is told that he died because he went into his cellar to protect his beloved art collection rather than to the air raid shelter. A German Jew, Carl had already lost so much in the war. His job as the co-director of a local bank had been stripped from him years before, and more recently, in January of 1944, his non-Jewish wife had died suddenly of a brain tumor. Irmgard, by her sheer existence, had kept Carl from the death camps and now, suddenly, she was gone. Once she was gone, all hell broke loose for Carl.

Carl’s half-Jewish (“Mischlinge”) children were gone, too. They were still alive – as far as Carl knew, at least. Rainer, the oldest, had moved to Munich with the intent of attending university, but as a half-Jew he was not allowed to continue his education. My father, Thomas, had been summoned to the train station, from where he was taken to a labor camp. It was not a death camp, but the work could kill a man already weakened by years of malnutrition. Ulli, the youngest and the only girl, had been sent to live with Irmgard’s brother and his family. Ironically, Heinz was a ranking German officer, but to Ulli he was simply Onkel Heinz.

Seventy years later, my siblings and cousins still ask my father how Carl, a full-Jew in Germany during WWII, could have still been living in his own home in March, 1945, just a month before the war ended, when almost every other Jew in Chemnitz had been “relocated.” There is no logical answer. But there are some theories – which are for another post. This post is about Carl as an avid and prominent art collector – a Jewish art collector in WWII Germany.

It is through my grandfather’s art collecting that I have come to know him at all. As my brothers and I grew up, my father often told us stories about Carl from the perspective of an adoring – and adored – son who lost his father far too soon. But I never knew Carl from any other perspective than my father’s – until, that is, I began to learn about him as a passionate collector of German art.

At any one time, my grandfather’s collection contained many hundreds of sketches and paintings from some of Germany’s most admired and beloved artists. Like any art collector, Carl bought and sold art on a regular basis. Once he had been forced from his job and could no longer make a living, but still had a family to support (and taxes levied on Jews to pay), did Carl sell more art? Did he sell it cheaper, to pay for living expenses?

Did Carl sell his art to Nazis under duress, simply to stay alive? There is some evidence that points strongly to that possibility – and finding out more has become a passion of mine!

I saw “Woman in Gold” today. Although the story of Maria Altmann’s family is far more dramatic than that of my family, the theme is the same: in the late 1930s and early 1940s, the Nazis came to possess pieces of art that once belonged to German and Austrian Jews – millions of pieces of art! Much of it has already been returned to its owners or heirs, the result of governments that are finally intent on making reparations to those wronged so many years ago, but many thousands of pieces of ill-gotten art have yet to be returned -- and some of Carl’s pieces are very likely included in the missing art or the specific pieces being researched for possible reparation.

There’s a book here somewhere…

Stumble Upon Toolbar


Tonya said...

This is so fascinating, Carol. Have you been able to locate any of his art?

Margaret said...

I love learning about this and want updates on anything you find out!

Related Posts with Thumbnails