Art Dealer to the Führer Hildebrand Gurlitt's Deep Nazi Ties
Part 3: Final Years and Tall Tales
Finally, in 1956, the year of his death, Gurlitt sent pictures from his collection to New York, including works by Max Beckmann and Vassily Kandinsky. He wrote a biographical sketch for the catalog, but it was never published. In the piece, Gurlitt described himself as courageous and bold, a hero whose dealings during the war were a "dangerous balancing act," and who had nothing left to his name but a pushcart filled with necessities after the bombing of Dresden. His account sounded almost like the story of the Kaims, a Jewish couple from Breslau who sold Gurlitt one of their paintings, lost everything and were sent to the ghetto pushing a handcart.
Gurlitt died after a car accident in 1956. In his obituaries, he was celebrated as an important figure in the postwar West German art world. His widow Helene moved to Munich in the early 1960s, where she bought two expensive apartments in a new building in Schwabing. In May 1960, she had four works from her husband's collection sold by the Ketterer Kunst auction house, including Beckmann's "Bar, Brown," which belongs to a US museum today, and a painting of playwright Bertolt Brecht by Rudolf Schlichter, which ended up in Munich's Lenbachhaus. The painting, an important work from the New Objectivity movement, is now one the museum's best-known works.
The Schlichter work was also among the paintings the Monuments Men had found in Aschbach. One of their German colleagues there, who later became the director of the Lenbachhaus, bought the work in the 1960 Ketterer auction.
There are many examples of works that Gurlitt acquired under questionable circumstances. There are also a number of pictures hanging in German museums today, from Hanover to Wiesbaden, that were bought from Gurlitt. There are even pictures that Gurlitt bought for Hitler's museum in Linz, which, because of their unclear origins, became the property of the state. One such painting, a landscape by the classicist painter Jakob Philipp Hackert, hangs in the German Foreign Ministry today.
Several paintings turned up in art galleries. One was August Macke's "Woman with Parrot," an early work of German Cubism. It was shown in exhibitions in 1962 and later in 2001, in each case as part of a private collection. In 2007, the work was sold at auction in Berlin's Villa Grisebach auction house for more than 2 million. Gurlitt's daughter Benita had apparently delivered the painting. She died in May 2012.
'Jewish Occupation of the Castle'
In November 1945, the Americans established a Camp for Displaced Persons in Aschbach Castle. They were traumatized survivors of the Holocaust, many less than 20 years old, who had spent their youth in Jewish ghettos and concentration camps. They had lost their families, and when the war ended they left the camps in groups. They were young Jews with names like Tovia, Menachim, Minia and Zynia, and many were Zionists who had come together to establish a kibbutz.
More than 140 individuals were housed in Aschbach between November 1945 and March 1948, although, at first, the Americans did not think the young Jews capable of farming the fields on the estate. There was hardly any contact between village residents and the Jews, even though a Jewish community had been established in Aschbach in the early 18th century. The last Aschbach Jews were deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp in 1942.
Gurlitt did not mention the Jews in the castle. He kept his own children, who were only a few years younger than many of the survivors, away from Aschbach, sending his son and daughter to the elite Odenwaldschule boarding school.
The Pölnitz family, whom the Americans ordered to vacate their estate, moved into a teacher's apartment in the village. They were concerned that the residents of the camp would not treat their furniture with care. In a letter to the authorities, Baron von Pölnitz complained that "the Jews" were appropriating his property in a "wild frenzy" -- and that his wife had fainted because of the "Jewish occupation of the castle."
Yehiel Hershkowitz was one of the Jews who lived in Aschbach at the time. He was 27 when he arrived at the castle on Nov. 20, 1945. His family was from Bedzin, a town in the Silesian Highlands of southern Poland that was known as Bendsburg during its Nazi occupation from 1939-1945. Hershkowitz was arrested in September 1939 and spent the next six years in 15 Nazi camps. He was freed when American soldiers liberated the Buchenwald concentration camp on April 11, 1945.
He and his second wife, Esther Urman, met in Aschbach and then traveled to Israel together. Hershkowitz died in 1979, and his wife died 11 years later.
Their son Benny is now 65 and lives near Tel Aviv. He says that his father had trouble sleeping, because he was kept awake at night by the memories of Nazi Germany.
REPORTED BY FELIX BOHR, LOTHAR GORRIS, ULRIKE KNÖFEL, SVEN RÖBEL AND MICHAEL SONTHEIMER
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan