Wilhelm von Schadow’s “The Artist’s Children” (1830).
The German city of Düsseldorf reached an agreement recently with the heirs of Max Stern (1904-1987), a Jewish art dealer forced to flee the city in 1937, ending a long-standing battle over the ownership of a painting, according to The Art Newspaper, which first reported the deal.
The family portrait from 1830, “The Artist’s Children,” by 19th-century Romantic painter Wilhelm von Schadow, has been held by the city since 1959, when it acquired the canvas from a private collector. It was discovered when a researcher from the National Archives in Ottawa found it in a catalogue for a 1967 Düsseldorf Museum Kunstpalast exhibition, which listed the painting’s location as the Stadtmuseum. In recent years, the Max Stern Art Restitution Project, based at Montreal’s Concordia University, and the Dr. Max and Iris Stern Foundation sought to reclaim it, contending that Stern sold the painting under duress.
Founded in 2002, the Stern Project, headed by Dr. Clarence Epstein, is seeking to track down the 220 Old Masters and Northern European artworks that formed Lot 168 in the November 1937 sale at Cologne’s Mathias Lempertz auction house, known as Auktion 392. The paintings constituted the inventory of Düsseldorf’s Galerie Stern that Nazi officials forced him to liquidate at vastly discounted prices. As well as the 1937 auction canvases, the Stern Project is seeking to regain the paintings the art dealer left with Cologne shipping agent Josef Roggendorf, which the Gestapo confiscated in 1938, when Stern was already in Britain.
As part of the agreement, Düsseldorf handed over the portrait on condition that the municipality immediately buys it back. The terms of the settlement, including how much the city paid to re-acquire the artwork, were undisclosed.
In a press release, Düsseldorf mayor Stephan Keller said he was pleased with the “fair and just solution” between the parties and that von Schadow’s artwork “will remain in Düsseldorf.” He added that the painting will go on view at the city’s Museum Kunstpalast starting in August.
Stern took over Galerie Stern on Königsallee, which was founded by his father Julius, in 1934. By order of the Nazi government, the gallery was “aryanized” in 1937. Its inventory was sold at a forced auction for a fraction of its value.
Armed with a single suitcase stuffed with his remaining possessions, Stern fled to London that year. But, in May 1940, when Hitler’s invasion of Britain seemed imminent, Scotland Yard rounded up more than 2,000 German and Austrian citizens, mostly Jews, and incarcerated them as enemy aliens. Stern was sent to an internment camp on the Isle of Man.
Hearing that some detainees were being sent to Canada to free up soldiers guarding British camps, Stern volunteered to join them. In North America, he believed, he would be well-positioned to help his mother and one sister in Britain, as well as his other sister and her family in France. But Canada, where he was greeted by bayonet-wielding soldiers, was even less hospitable than Britain. As Stern recalled years later, “We had to stage a hunger strike to convince the Canadian authorities that we were certainly not Nazis but, on the contrary, anti-Nazi.”
Held in a camp first near Fredericton, N.B., and later in Farnham, Que., he was put to work cutting down trees. Still, he remained optimistic, thankful for the food, shelter, clothing, exercise and 20 cents per day in pay. He also welcomed the opportunity to teach. Twelve years earlier, he had earned a doctorate in art history, which he put to use in classes for his fellow internees.
Stern’s talent and positive outlook caught the attention of William Birks, scion of the Montreal jewelry family, who headed the local branch of the National Committee on Refugees. Birks was openly critical of Canada’s restrictive and antisemitic immigration policy, which he called “narrow, bigoted and very short-sighted.” He believed the government should have sent trade missions to Europe to recruit men like Stern, “not wait for them to seek and beg us.” In 1941, he sponsored Stern’s release and move to Montreal.
Needing a job and hoping to assist in Canada’s war effort, Stern looked for work in an airplane factory. When he was not hired, he turned to the thing he understood best – art. “You’ll starve,” people told him, but he was certain he could be successful as a dealer in Montreal, because he had spotted a void he knew how to fill. Most of the city’s galleries were pushing stuffy 19th-century European genre and landscape paintings. No one was promoting or selling home-grown works because, as he later explained, “Canada didn’t have any confidence in its own artists.”
Stern pitched his vision to Rose Millman, who had just opened a space on rue Sainte-Catherine called the Dominion Gallery of Fine Art. Impressed by his assurance and expertise, she offered him a job for $12.50 a week. Stern said he wanted $17.50 and her promise to make him a full-fledged partner once he built up her business by conquering Canada, as he put it, “by selling Canadian artists.”
Within months, he was mounting exhibitions by contemporary Canadian painters. Over the years, they would include John Lyman, Goodridge Roberts, E. J. Hughes, Stanley Cosgrove, Jean-Paul Riopelle, and others whose names he would play a pivotal role in establishing. Stern secured their loyalty and best work by offering them monthly retainers for an agreed-upon number of works, already an established practice in France, Britain and the United States, but not yet in Canada.
Stern’s first major coup came in 1944, when he visited Emily Carr, then 72, at her home in Victoria. She showed him a room packed with 300 paintings. Struck speechless by her talent, he asked if he could mount an exhibition.
Laughing, she replied, “You will not sell a single painting.” The recipient of critical praise, Carr had yet to enjoy commercial success. “If you let me choose the paintings,” Stern replied, “I think I can make it a perfect success.”
In 1947, Stern and his wife Iris became the sole owners of the gallery.
Following the defeat of Nazi Germany, Stern endeavoured to track down his confiscated paintings. His efforts were largely unsuccessful. He died childless in 1987, and left his estate to Concordia University and McGill University in Montreal, as well as Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
The three schools later founded the Max Stern Art Restitution Project to reclaim the estimated 400 artworks lost during the 1930s. To date, the project has recovered 24 pieces, including paintings by Otto Erdmann, Nicolas Neufchatel and Jan Brueghel the Elder.
The case of von Schadow’s “The Artist’s Children” proved to be particularly complicated due to questions of provenance. When the city of Düsseldorf acquired the portrait in 1959, it was hung in the office of the city’s mayor. Decades later, when the Stern Foundation filed a claim for the artwork, it pointed out that, in 1937, Galerie Stern allowed for the piece to be reproduced in a book about paintings of children. But Düsseldorf city officials pushed back, arguing that the book did not prove the gallery owned the artwork at that point. There was no evidence of the painting being surrendered under Nazi persecution, the city contended.
In 2017, a scheduled exhibition in Düsseldorf about Stern and the Restitution Project was abruptly canceled due to local opposition, leading to intense controversy. The city’s stance apparently softened following the 2020 municipal elections.
“We couldn’t prove that it was not a restitution case, so we, as the city government, recommended to the assembly that it should be restituted,” Miriam Koch, the Düsseldorf city official in charge of culture, told The Art Newspaper. “The big parties in the city council supported restitution.”
According to Lynn H. Nicholas’ 1995 book The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe’s Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War, more than 140,000 pieces of artwork were looted under the Nazi regime. Most of them remain unclaimed.
Gil Zohar is a writer and tour guide in Jerusalem.
Today, Nov. 9, is the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Seen by some historians as the moment when the Nazis’ legalized discrimination against Jews turned irreversibly toward genocide, the date has been marked by the Vancouver Jewish community for several decades.
Jews view the present and the future through a lens of the past. This has its advantages and disadvantages. Unable to see the future clearly, a keen awareness of the past can lead us to reasonably project expectations. But the memory of Kristallnacht and what came after it instils a rightful and necessary caution in interpreting current events. History tells us that vigilance is crucial and that complacency can be fatal.
Of course, no two moments in history are identical. Are we overreacting by drawing too instructive an historical parallel when we experience traumas like the mass murder at the Tree of Life synagogue on Oct. 27? We can’t be certain. It is probably wise to err on the side of caution and respond with vigilance.
The reaction from so many faith groups and other allies, including at a “solidarity Shabbat” last weekend that filled synagogue seats throughout Metro Vancouver and across North America, is not only a reassuring phenomenon. These demonstrations of intercommunal friendship are underpinned by the awareness that, while some might dismiss the events in Pittsburgh as the deranged act of a single madman, historical consciousness places the terrible act within a larger context.
History is important, too, because we live busy lives and a lot of things are slammed into our consciousness every day. Stepping back and placing contemporary events in a larger context helps us assimilate our place in society, individually and collectively. This is being demonstrated particularly well this week, as Remembrance Day (Nov. 11) approaches.
The Government of Canada’s apology for the 1939 refusal to accept the imperiled Jewish refugees aboard the MS St. Louis comes as part of a long line of apologies for historic wrongs. A cynic could look at the litany of regret and see political expediency. We prefer to look at it as a progressive, healthy way of not only addressing the past but of improving the future.
The journey of the MS St. Louis saw just 29 of the 937 passengers allowed to disembark in Cuba, the intended destination and presumed final refuge for the passengers fleeing the imminent Holocaust. The ship then sailed to the United States and on to Canada, where, in both places, xenophobic and antisemitic attitudes among the general public and the governing elites prevented the asylum-seekers from disembarking. Forced to return to Europe, 254 of the passengers would be murdered in the ensuing genocide.
At a time when many Jews are looking at the news with trepidation, the prime minister’s statement represents the voice of a country facing the antisemitism of its past and, more importantly, committing to face and combat similar sentiments today and in future.
Presaging the prime minister’s formal apology this week, Canada’s ambassador to Israel, Deborah Lyons, speaking at the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America last month (see “Interdependent communities” and “GA pitches softballs at Bibi”) spoke movingly about the importance of applying historical knowledge to the present. She quoted a 17-year-old from Hamilton, Ont., who, after completing the March of the Living, observed that, “as our hearts were breaking, our hearts were also growing.”
Said Lyons: “We need to acknowledge these difficulties, we need to acknowledge these injustices. It may break our hearts, but it will teach our hearts to love again and to grow.”
The government of Canada has apologized to Omar Khadr and awarded him $10.5 million in damages. Khadr is a Canadian citizen whose parents took him as a child to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Fifteen years ago, on July 27, 2002, a firefight took place in which Khadr, then 15, was wounded and a U.S. soldier, Sgt. First Class Christopher Speer, was killed.
Khadr was arrested and incarcerated at the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where he pleaded guilty to throwing the grenade that killed Speer. Khadr later said he confessed falsely in the hope of returning to Canada. However, the facts of the firefight, whether Khadr was guilty or not guilty, whether he was a terrorist or a coerced child soldier-victim, are not relevant to the apology or the compensation.
The decision to apologize and pay Khadr millions of dollars is a result of a $20 million civil suit that Khadr launched after the Supreme Court of Canada unanimously determined that the Canadian government’s interrogation of Khadr while he was at Guantanamo “offends the most basic Canadian standards about the treatment of detained youth suspects.” The civil suit claimed that Canadian officials violated his rights, interrogating him when he was a minor, in the absence of legal representation. He also claims to have been subjected to torture, which would be consistent with the history of Guantanamo and evidence in the public realm.
The decision to apologize and compensate turns on this point: even if Khadr were guilty, the government of Canada did not adequately protect the rights and well-being of one of its citizens; indeed, it was complicit in their violation and acted outside of the rule of our own nation’s laws.
We can all make our own assessment of right and wrong in this case. But the Supreme Court of Canada made the key judgment about the legal foundation of Khadr’s case and the federal government – facing the alternative of almost certain failure in defending itself in the civil case, resulting in a much greater cost to taxpayers – opted to pay Khadr $10.5 million.
Whether it is First Nations land claims and residential schools payouts, symbolic payment to the Chinese-Canadian community for the head tax on their ancestors or compensation to Japanese-Canadians who were deprived of their property and forcibly sent to internment camps during the Second World War, money and an apology are poor substitutes for justice.
Money and an apology will not return lost years or family members. They cannot heal physical or mental wounds, though the money can help pay for medical and psychological treatment. Apologies and reparations cannot undo the harm done. But they can help hold our government and society accountable and, ultimately, that serves us all well.
“Young Man as Bacchus” by Jan Franse Verzijl was among about 400 works owned by Max Stern that were forcibly sold by the Nazis in the 1930s. (photo from Max and Iris Stern Foundation)
When the painting “Young Man as Bacchus” by Dutch master Jan Franse Verzijl (1599-1647) went on display in New York City two years ago, the FBI moved in and seized the work. In the possession of an art gallery in Turin, Italy, the painting was among about 400 works owned by Max Stern that were forcibly sold by the Nazis in the 1930s.
In 1935, Stern was a successful gallery owner in Düsseldorf, Germany, but because he was Jewish, his collections were confiscated and sold by the Nazis. Stern would later move to Montreal, where he became a leading figure in the Canadian art world. After Stern died, in 1987, the beneficiaries of his estate learned of Stern’s Düsseldorf gallery and an extraordinary project began to seek restitution for the confiscated artworks.
Dr. Clarence Epstein, director of the Max Stern Art Restitution Project and senior director of urban and cultural affairs for Concordia University, will speak in Vancouver March 23 about the successes and challenges of the project.
The beneficiaries of Stern’s will are Concordia University, McGill University and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. As a result, the art restitution project may be the only program of its type with three academic institutions working collegially to a common goal, said Epstein. His visit here is presented by the Canadian Friends of the Hebrew University, the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre and Congregation Schara Tzedeck and is sponsored by Heffel Gallery and the estate of Frank and Rosie Nelson.
The Dominion Gallery, Stern’s Montreal business, remained in operation for more than a decade after his death. During this time, the beneficiary universities became aware of Stern’s prewar history.
“There was an entirely additional gallery business in Düsseldorf that his family had run before the war but had been closed by force as a result of Nazi persecution,” Epstein told the Independent in a telephone interview. “It wasn’t public knowledge. I think some people were aware of Dr. Stern’s past, but it coincided with the time when the issue of restitution was just starting to gain a little bit of traction in the art world and so it merited questioning. We just didn’t know how far to take it.”
The Max Stern Art Restitution Project has become a significant entity, with staff in Montreal, Ottawa, Washington and New York, as well as researchers in Europe. In addition to the obligation Epstein has to maximize the financial outcome for the beneficiaries of Stern’s will, there are other factors driving the project.
“There were fiduciary obligations, which is part of estate management,” he said. “There were moral implications, because this was something that was right for the universities to do on behalf of their great benefactor Max Stern. And then there were educational opportunities that this could open up in the fields of art history, of social justice, of art and law, the mechanics of the art market – and this enticed all kinds of academics to get involved in the project.”
The return of “Young Man as Bacchus” is among 16 successes the project has seen so far. While the restitution of that piece involved law enforcement, it also exemplified the good faith response of the gallery into whose possession the painting had fallen.
Every country has different rules and statutes of limitations around the return of art that has been stolen or forcibly sold, and the Stern project navigates the law as well as less litigious means of restitution. Through the recommendation of the German Friends of Hebrew University, the German government recently announced tax receipts for the owners of returned artworks. In the cases of galleries or museums, the reputation of the institution could suffer if they are known to be in possession of a work of dubious provenance, so this encourages cooperation. Individual collectors may not have the same impetus for preserving a reputation, but once a piece of art is identified as coming from Stern’s Düsseldorf collection, it bears a figurative black mark that makes it valueless on the open art market. Even so, Epstein said, the project does not seek to punish anyone for unwittingly possessing such a work.
“We don’t intend to be the bearers of bad news about the state of the work that is in their possession,” he said, “so if there’s any way that we could alleviate that kind of misfortune with some kind of tax relief, we would do so. But it hasn’t been tested yet.”
One example of an innovative solution found is the case of a work that was discovered in a Düsseldorf gallery. While the ownership was transferred to the Max and Iris Stern Trust, the universities agreed to lend it back to the gallery for long-term display.
“In their case, everybody kind of got their cake and ate it, too,” said Epstein. “It is owned by the Stern Foundation but it is lent to the Düsseldorf Museum.”
While Canada does not have the sort of art sector that New York or the capitals of Europe have, Epstein credited the federal government, specifically Minister of Canadian Heritage Mélanie Joly, for expressing the Canadian government’s commitment to restitution.
What happens to the artworks when they are returned varies. In the Düsseldorf case, the gallery in possession maintained custody. In some instances, the pieces have been sold to fund additional work of the project. (Once returned, the black mark is eliminated and the piece can be exchanged in the legitimate art market.) Others are loaned to museums and public institutions.
Next year, an exhibition of works from Stern’s collections will open in Düsseldorf, later traveling to Haifa, Israel, then Montreal.
Popular culture has taken on the topic of art restitution, Epstein said, and this is a good thing. For example, Monuments Men is about Allied soldiers charged with rescuing cultural artifacts before the Nazis destroyed or hid them, and Woman in Gold focuses on an American woman’s legal fight with the government of Austria to return a painting by Gustav Klimt that was stolen from her family by the Nazis. There have also been documentaries on different aspects of pillaging during the war. Epstein credited Helen Mirren, the star of Woman in Gold, for personally taking up the cause of restitution and making it more public.
“Any way we can make more public the challenges of the recovery of these kinds of objects, and the more we keep it in the spotlight, the more I think we’re going to be able to generate sympathy and attention from the groups that are in possession of those works,” he said.
While the Stern project has seen the return of 16 works and has located several more that are the subject of negotiation, it is impossible to know precisely how many cultural artifacts were stolen and remain unidentified.
“There is a number circulating on the internet in the hundreds of thousands in terms of objects that remain unrecovered,” said Epstein. “I don’t think it’s ever going to be possible to nail down that number … because we are talking about an historic loss that is multiplied over millions of people’s losses, that is also somewhat effaced as a result of time and lack of memory and archives. But that’s really the tip of the iceberg in terms of losses because in terms of material losses, everything that was in the possession of a Jewish family that was oppressed could still be in circulation now – musical instruments, jewelry, the list goes on. But those items were a lot harder to trace in terms of ownership and attribution than a painting has been. Works of art that are under a certain value and have not been researched historically are probably still circulating in the tens of thousands.”
Epstein added that Stern also had significant B.C. connections. His gallery represented E.J. Hughes and Emily Carr, two of this province’s most noted artists.
Admission to the March 23, 7:30 p.m., talk at Schara Tzedeck is free but an RSVP is requested to [email protected].
Pat Johnsonis a communications and development consultant to the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre.
In late August, a $250 million fund for Jewish child survivors of the Holocaust was established. (photo from Memorial de la Shoah, Paris, via claimscon.org/2014/09/child-survivors)
On Wednesday, Aug. 27, a symposium was held at the Centrum Judaicum in Berlin. The topic was Lost Childhood, referring to the impact of the Shoah on Jewish children who survived and continue to live with its consequences to this day. The audience was comprised of German government officials, members of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, and child survivors of the Holocaust.
Among those present were members of the negotiating committee, including Ambassador Colette Avital from Israel, Ambassador Stuart Eizenstat from the United States, Roman Kent, treasurer of the Claims Conference, and Greg Schneider, who serves as executive vice-president of the Claims Conference. From Germany, representative Rüdiger Mahlo and deputy director of negotiations Konrad Matschke were in attendance, as was Stefanie Seltzer, president of the World Federation of Jewish Child Survivors of the Holocaust and Descendants, and Max Arpels Lezer, its European representative.
A variety of speakers, from historians to psychiatrists, politicians to psychoanalysts, participated in order to press the case for restitution to previously overlooked Jewish children, now aging in trying circumstances connected directly to their early childhood deprivations and traumas. The negotiations following the symposium took place on Aug. 28, and resulted in the recognition of child survivors as a distinct entity deserving of restitution. Mahlo noted, “German politics has been made aware of the particular fate of the child survivors and its negotiations with the German government, the Claims Conference succeeded in establishing a Child Survivor Fund. With this, the loss of childhood is recognized for the first time as a case of damage.”
A fund of $250 million was established for Jewish child survivors worldwide. My address, entitled The Continuing Struggle to Survive After Survival, follows:
I stand before you keenly aware that I am here only because of a narrow escape from those who sought to murder me. As a Jewish child born in 1940 in The Hague, Holland, my family was ordered to report on Aug. 19, 1942, for “resettlement to the east.” That meant being assembled at Westerbork and, from there, deported primarily to Auschwitz or Sobibor.
My mother and I would have been killed shortly after arrival. Mothers with babies were doomed. One hundred and eight thousand Dutch Jews were sent to the factories of death. About 5,500 returned.
I stand before you keenly aware that I am in Berlin, the city in which were conceived the most grotesque crimes in human history. It was here that the minds of well-educated and presumably civilized Germans formulated plans for the annihilation of Europe’s Jews: men, women and children. And, by war’s end, in German occupied countries, 93 percent of Jewish children had been murdered.
I survived in the care of my Dutch Christian rescuers, Albert and Violette Munnik and their daughter, Nora, who I shall visit in The Hague in two weeks. Nora is 83 years old, nearly the age of Anne Frank had she lived. But the Frank family was betrayed and deported on the last train to leave Holland, on Sept. 3, 1944, destination Auschwitz.
And I stand before you also aware of the great strides that Germany has made to preserve this history and to remember not only what it has done but to teach this history to succeeding generations, indeed, to the world.
For those who pose the question concerning whether there are long-term consequences, a story. One day, my mother, in her mid-80s, suddenly apologized for giving me away into hiding. I was stunned. I told her she had been heroic; there was nothing to apologize for. Her response, “When I left you, you tried to follow me pulling a little suitcase, and I looked into your eyes and knew you would never forgive me.”
And it is true. She was so smart. She knew that having saved my life through her uncommon courage that I would nevertheless be unable to truly forgive her for abandoning me. A child cannot comprehend the reasons for such a rejection. That, we learn only as adults. We live with such complexities, we Holocaust children.
What was done to us involved not only physical annihilation. Those who survived also experienced the touch of death, the murder of the soul. My parents, who miraculously survived in frightening circumstances, never recovered. How could they?
In 1945, my father learned that his parents and two sisters were dead; my mother was informed that her parents, two brothers and little sister were dead. And so, there were three of us. Only the son of one of my father’s sisters survived also.
We spent those postwar years in shock. While Dutch citizens resumed their lives, traumatized by years of occupation but largely intact, Dutch Jews were shattered. I saw them. They came to our home, some with whip lashes on their backs. I heard them describe the horrors of the camps, the smell of the crematoria. It was too much for a little boy aged 5 or 6. And you may ask, even today, were there consequences and did they last all these years? The answer is, “What was done to us, never, ever left us. The Shoah envelops us like a shroud. But we put it aside so that we can function as if normal.”
For children under the age of 16 in 1945, there was little help. Most surviving children were orphaned and housed in orphanages or shelters such as Ecouis in France, where 426 boys from Buchenwald were looked after by the OSE [Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants]. And yes, of these boys told by a psychiatrist or psychologist that they would never recover, the majority led productive lives, even attained great achievements. They included Elie Wiesel, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, a chief rabbi of Israel, George Goldbloom, a U.S. businessman, and Kalman Kalikstein, a physicist who worked with Einstein.
But who can say that they recovered from the Shoah? Elie Wiesel, who devotes his life to healing, injustice and Holocaust remembrance and education? Rabbi Lau, who is now the director of Yad Vashem, Jerusalem’s Holocaust Remembrance Authority? Their lives remain rooted in Holocaust memories. The Holocaust’s imprint was too traumatic to overcome, too painful for healing, and medical professionals shied away from us in the postwar years. There was no help.
Think of it. Before the war, every psychiatrist, psychoanalyst and psychologist focused on the traumas visited upon a child in the developmental years. Anna Freud discussed the vulnerability of a child’s ego. One symptom, and therapists recommended years of individual or play group therapy to heal children suffering from anxieties. But postwar, where was this legion of therapists? They were nowhere to be seen. They were not prepared to deal with us, we were the carriers of traumas too great to confront.
We left for Canada in 1951 and I set about becoming a normal Canadian. With after-school jobs and summer work, I put myself through medical school, then psychiatry in Philadelphia and Stanford, and became professor of child psychiatry at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada.
In the 1970s, Holocaust survivors brought me their children and I worked with Holocaust survivor families struggling with overwhelming memories, some of which complicated the lives of the entire family. I helped some of the adults fill out restitution forms. A particularly poor and troubled survivor patient who had worked in the mines as a slave laborer, and who lost eight brothers and sisters, was awarded $1,300. I was furious upon hearing this. He saw it differently: “They acknowledged my suffering. They owned up to what they did to me.” I learned from him that reparation is not just about money, it is also about justice.
I soon discovered that Holocaust survivors who sought restitution were, in many instances, directed toward German psychiatrists for evaluation. Can you imagine it?
One child taken by her mother in an effort to obtain some financial help faced a particularly gruff doctor who yelled at her in German. This particular child, who, when hidden with a Polish family, had sat in total silence under a dining table at which German soldiers had a meal. Had she spoken, moved or coughed, her death was inevitable. And, years later, she endured this harsh treatment from a German physician. Dr. Kurt Eissler, in his powerful article “Perverted Psychiatry” in the American Journal of Psychiatry (1967), cites instances of reparations exams performed by appointed German psychiatrists:
“A Jewish woman aged 23 years lost her father and two younger sisters upon arrival in Auschwitz. She went through four concentration camps in which she often had to collect corpses. Amongst her complaints during examination were lack of initiative, difficulty in concentrating, poor memory and hypermnestic preoccupation with traumatic events. The psychiatrist’s diagnosis was ‘anxiety neurosis, unconnected with the persecution.’
“A woman was interviewed whose parents, brother, three sisters with their children, husband and 8-year-old daughter had been killed during the course of the persecutions. She herself spent years in a ghetto and in several concentration camps and had frequently been beaten to unconsciousness. She complained of depression, anxiety, phobia, feelings of guilt. The doctor denied any connection between these symptoms and the experience of persecution. He included in his report, ‘despite such grave experiences, of which no one is spared, most people continue their lives and have no chronic depressions.’”
It may stretch belief, but these psychiatrists frequently attributed the excruciating symptoms of atrocity to the patient’s prewar personality or to that of their upbringing.
It is no wonder that children who survived the Shoah all but disappeared into their own lives. The few who tried to talk were told that, as children, they had no memories and, therefore, did not suffer; or, if it looked like they were suffering, were told to forget it and get on with their lives. The comparative few who applied for compensation were humiliated and shamed again.
I got on with my life. My Holocaust preoccupations never stopped. I did not let on. But, when I presented myself for a Dutch restitution program to personally experience the process, the examiner, a pleasant lady representing the Netherlands, asked me why I thought I should seek compensation. After all, her Dutch husband had been a child during the war and he did not need any help. She did not even recognize that her non-Jewish husband suffered neither loss of family nor required hiding, at risk of discovery and death. Yes, he was hungry also.
As protocol dictated, she referred me for a psychological interview. I felt confident. After all, I was a 60-year-old professor of psychiatry, successful in my career and with a lovely family. I was asked the reason for my assessment and then I cried for two hours. I remained in therapy for five years.
I became deeply involved in the self-discovery of child survivors and our emergence as a distinct group of Holocaust survivors that culminated in the 1991 Hidden Child Conference in New York. From 1982, I worked with Prof. Sarah Moskovitz, author of Love Despite Hate, concerning 24 child survivors found in Terezin and brought to England for their recovery, and followed up by her nearly 40 years later. In 1982-83, I helped found the Los Angeles Child Survivor group and we began to write about child Holocaust survivors and their coping skills and adaptation.
In the course of that work, we defined child survivors generally as those children who were aged 16 and under by 1945, and we also examined restitution issues concerning children.
In 1998, Sarah and I coordinated a survey of child survivors to inquire about their experiences for war-related consequences. One thousand questionnaires were sent out. At that time, child survivors were aged mid-50s to mid-60s and were asked, “As you look back on your life, how do you think you were affected by your Holocaust experiences in childhood, physically, socially, emotionally, educationally and economically?” Six hundred and sixty-four child survivors responded.
The general findings revealed a staggering number of separations from parents with three-quarters of fathers and two-thirds of mothers never returning. More than half of respondents lost both parents.
Three-quarters of the child survivors in this survey reported themselves to have suffered serious to severe lifelong effects emotionally as a result of their traumatic past.
With respect to restitution, there were at that time, six main road blocks to obtaining restitution.
Missed deadlines: Many children did not know how to make claims. Nor did they know if their families had property or insurance. Children placed in adoptive or foster homes were not in touch with the community. They were taught not to think of themselves as survivors. When they did, it was too late to apply. According to our survey, over half never applied or had applied and been rejected. One third of those who applied received a one-time lump sum payment, one half of them less than $700 US.
Documentation requirements: In most cases, young children had neither the knowledge nor resources to obtain proof of country of origin, birth certificates, death certificates or names of witnesses. As one respondent stated, “First they killed my family and now they want proof that they existed.”
Time requirements for those in hiding or in ghettos: In order to qualify, a child was required to have been in closed hiding (confined) for 18 months. “Open” hiding (able to be outside) did not warrant restitution – as if these children had not also suffered loss of home, family, identity and religion, leaving them with feelings of abandonment, identity confusion and loyalty conflicts. A 1987 study by Moskovitz had also revealed that over one half of child survivors in hiding were harshly treated, beaten, and one in five were sexually abused.
Time requirements for six months in concentration camp: In Treblinka and Majdanek, young children were unlikely to live more than one day. In Auschwitz, the majority of adults lived no longer than three months. It raises the question, “How many days in Auschwitz are required for the experience to have left its mark on a child?”
The means test: One’s economic status was required to be at poverty level, precisely the persons who cannot afford legal advice or the resources to pursue rightful compensation. Even today, the annual net income for residents of Canada to meet the income eligibility requirement for a monthly pension is $29,103.
Requirement to be interviewed by German psychiatrists: Under certain circumstances, such as continuation of pension, an interview is arranged with a German psychiatrist rather than simply a board-certified psychiatric practitioner. This raises a single question: Where any Jewish child survived the Nazi occupation, what could possibly be grounds for discontinuing a pension? Each and every child has suffered enormous losses, profound disruptions, fear and malnourishment, and lifelong consequences.
To summarize, in our survey, child survivors reported themselves, despite personal successes and achievements, as seriously and permanently affected to this day: emotionally, 81 percent; socially, 69 percent; educationally, 66 percent; physically, 67 percent; economically, 65 percent.
We are 15 years beyond our 1999 survey and child survivors are now aged mid-70s to mid-80s. And, for many, the war’s memories are returning to cripple them once again. For those persons who have had reasonably normal lives, childhood recollections are a nostalgic review of mostly cherished memories. For child Holocaust survivors, it is a trip back into bottomless despair.
It should be noted that in Los Angeles this year there is a shortfall of $1.1 million for the care of Holocaust survivors. This is being raised by the local Jewish community. A typical account follows:
“I am a 78-year-old survivor of the Holocaust. I was a child during the Nazi occupation and I was hidden in the countryside by a Christian farm family. Both of my parents perished in German concentration camps. I immigrated to the United States in the early 1950s.
“I live on a limited income. I receive $800 in monthly income from social security and a $1,100 monthly pension from Holland. I rent a small apartment on the west side of Los Angeles that costs $1,180 per month. I have a lot of medical bills related to hearing loss, arthritis and psychiatric care relating to chronic depression.
“Last year, I was granted about $4,800 from the Holocaust Survivors in Urgent Need Fund. This was a life saver for me. I used the funds to cover dental work and bills relating to my apartment. I am feeling much better and able to eat and chew without pain.”
I suggest you view those who express need with compassion. Do not humiliate them with seeking proof beyond establishing they lived under the Nazi domination and survived. And do what is right and just to ensure their remaining years are dignified.
Remember that it is not only about establishing a degree of
financial security. It is also about assuring a measure of justice. And justice demands an official acknowledgement by responsible governments, particularly those that collaborated in the murders of my people.
It is growing late in the day. Our sun is setting.