Interview with a Phantom Cornelius Gurlitt Shares His Secrets
Part 2: Childhood in Nazi Germany
Gurlitt has experienced many goodbyes in his lifetime: his father's death in a car accident, his mother's death, his sister's cancer. "Saying goodbye to my pictures was the most painful of all," he says. "I hope everything will be cleared up quickly, so I can finally have my pictures back." It's another sentence he repeats often during the three-day trip.
He has a heart condition. After walking a short distance, he has to sit down and rest for five minutes. He doesn't have his father's strong heart. Instead, his heart is a constant source of worry, keeping him awake at night until his next doctor's appointment.
His doctor, an internist, is hundreds of kilometers away from Munich. He's an amiable man who tries to convince him to move into a nursing home. Gurlitt's descriptions paint a picture of an important senior physician in a private hospital. In fact, the doctor has an ordinary practice on a side street in a small city, nondescript, "and yet with the best equipment in Germany," says Gurlitt, as if to explain why he would take a trip that must be utterly exhausting for someone who has to take a taxi to go grocery shopping at home.
But the train journey is also a little like a vacation. Every three months, he buys a 2nd-class ticket on the ICE for 102 ($138), without a reserved seat. Gurlitt normally sits in the open coach car, to avoid being put in the embarrassing situation of having to look into other people's eyes. On this afternoon, however, there are no seats available in the open coach car, and Gurlitt has to sit in a compartment, which makes him anxious. He sits next to the glass door, so that the compartment looks full. He keeps his suitcase right next to him. It contains his red-and-white checked nightshirt, bread, cold cuts and his favorite carbonated drink. He needs the food for evenings in the hotel.
Gurlitt is always on time, which is important to him. He doesn't like things that are unplanned. The doctor's appointment is on a Thursday, but Gurlitt leaves Munich on Tuesday. He is wearing a black-and-white plaid sports jacket with three buttons. The jacket is far too big for him. He says he used be heavier, but that he can't find anything he likes in department stores these days.
He hopes that the public will soon lose interest. Until then, when he goes out on cold winter days he plans to hide behind a scarf, which he wraps around his face. He already senses that this might not work, and he hopes something else, something big will happen soon to divert attention from him -- perhaps some kind of newsworthy attack somewhere, but with no casualties, of course. He doesn't like violence and he doesn't like to see evil prevail, but if something does happen, he says, maybe it'll make the mob disappear from outside his building.
He says he doesn't understand why the public prosecutor's office is making such a fuss about an old issue. The raid and the assault on his world happened a year and a half ago. "Now the pictures are in a basement somewhere, and I'm alone. Why didn't they leave the pictures there and just pick up the ones they wanted to check? Then it wouldn't be so empty now."
He talks a lot about the old days during the three-day trip, the days when he had no responsibility and no decisions to make. In those days, his father was still in control of the situation, a man who fought for modern art and promoted art as a whole, but who then did business with the Nazis, selling so-called degenerate art abroad, which probably included stolen art. Apparently his father kept some of that art for himself.
Gurlitt recalls his childhood on Alte Rabenstrasse in Hamburg, a street located only steps away from the city's Alster lake. He talks about the camouflage structures for the lakeside anti-aircraft guns to protect Hamburg from bombing raids. He wants to go back to Hamburg to get his baptism certificate, for his private archive. It's important to be part of something and have roots, he says. People need that.
The family moved around a lot, always following a father who didn't have an easy time because he "wasn't racially flawless," Gurlitt notes. But he always fought and was very clever, he adds. In Hamburg his father registered the art gallery at Klopstockstrasse 35 in his wife's name, with the art dealer himself listed as an employee. Later, in Dresden, Gurlitt says his father didn't register his business at all. Instead, he kept the works of art at home and ran his business from there. "My father was often driven out, he often fell but he always got back up on his feet again."
Each time it was a new beginning for his son. Cornelius was a shy boy who attended elementary school in Hamburg, then went to high school in Dresden, where he saw Hitler wave from a train. After the Nazi era, he attended the Odenwaldschule -- a famous private rural boarding school in southwestern Germany -- from 1946 to 1948. From time to time, he was tutored by priests. He graduated from high school in Düsseldorf. Cornelius Gurlitt was always the new kid. The last to arrive, the first to go. The stranger who never really belonged. A loner who never had to decide things for himself because he had this strong father who posed for photographs with celebrities in the art museum in Düsseldorf, like German author Thomas Mann and postwar Germany's first president, Theodor Heuss. His father also spoke fluent French and English. "I only speak English, but slowly," says Gurlitt.
Growing Up with Paintings
He wanted to please his father. After high school, he studied art history at the University of Cologne. He also attended lectures on philosophy and music theory. Then he broke off his studies; he doesn't remember when and he prefers not to talk about it. He says he once traveled to Paris with his sister. He didn't want to make the trip alone.
Cornelius Gurlitt first lived with his parents, then with his sister, and finally with his mother. Yet no matter where Cornelius lived, he remained a phantom. He is a polite man, but when workmen came to his door to lay fiber optic cables, they had to fight to get inside his apartment. He says he only wanted to protect his pictures from the prying eyes of strangers.
He remembers playing among paintings by Liebermann, Beckmann and Chagall when he was a child. They moved with him from city to city, and hung in the living rooms and hallways. His father sorted them and loved them -- and they all bear his mark. He hung the green face by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner on the wall above young Cornelius' bed. "Hitler didn't like green faces," says Gurlitt. In the privacy of their home, the family didn't speak well of the Führer, Gurlitt recalls. His father resisted the dictator, but so surreptitiously that no one noticed it, he adds.
Hildebrand Gurlitt never bought anything from a private individual, Cornelius insists. Anything else would have been unimaginable for him. The pictures came from German museums or art dealers, Gurlitt says, adding that his father only cooperated with the Nazis because he wanted to save the paintings from being burned. And then he says: "It's possible that my father may have been offered something privately, but he certainly didn't accept it. He would have found that unsavory."
'I've Never Committed a Crime'
Now the anonymous son is in the limelight. This story is about coming to terms with German history, but it is also about Cornelius Gurlitt. After all, he's the son who inherited a treasure, yet never questioned where it came from. He had to take responsibility, but that's a difficult position to be in for someone who finds it hard to take responsibility. "I'm sure the public prosecutor will figure out what I'm going to get back," he says. "I've never committed a crime, and even if I had, it would fall under the statute of limitations. If I were guilty, they would put me in prison."
He just wants to have his pictures back. But when? And which ones? And what about his favorite pictures?
Gurlitt needs friends, family and, above all, lawyers. But he can't make up his mind: "I've never needed one before."
He is also a little disappointed with his sister Benita, who died of cancer last year. She left him alone with this burden. "She was two years younger than me and married. She should have outlived me." He gazes at his hands that he has splayed on the table. "Then she would have inherited everything, and she would have known how to deal with this. Now, everything is so miserable."
- Part 1: Cornelius Gurlitt Shares His Secrets
- Part 2: Childhood in Nazi Germany
- Part 3: 'What Kind of State Puts My Private Property on Display?'