I don’t watch a lot of movies; truth be told, I don’t have the attention span.
But tonight I finally caught a movie I’ve been wanting to see for a long time: Woman in Gold, starring Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds.
If you’ve never heard of it, Woman in Gold is a true-life story about one of the most famous art restitution cases in history. Maria Altman and her lawyer, Randy Schoenberg, fought the Austrian government to have not just one, but six of the paintings stolen from her family by the Nazis, returned to her.
Not surprisingly, the Austrians were more than reluctant to return the paintings, worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Woman in Gold – the name given to the portrait of Maria’s aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer by the Belvedere Museum in Vienna – had become a centerpiece of the Austrian art world. In fact, it was referred to as Austria’s Mona Lisa. They had to fight through the US Supreme Court and then have their case heard by a mediation committee, before the paintings were rightfully returned to Maria.
This movie hit me especially hard, as it doesn’t just focus on the court case itself, but also on Maria’s life in Vienna before the Nazi occupation. The Austrians, while sympathizing with the Nazi regime in Germany, was still a relatively peaceful nation until March 1938, when Hitler issued an ultimatum to the Austrian government: surrender, or we’ll invade. Given what they’d seen of the Nazi war machine, Austria made the smart, but devastating, decision to surrender. The Austrian government was suspended, and the Nazis moved in.
I was never interested in World War II when I was growing up. My high school history classes were a joke – I remember spending about a week on the early civilizations, the next fourteen weeks on football and basketball, and then something about the Cold War near the end. Even when I was a history major at university, I was focused on medieval Europe and colonial America. It wasn’t until I had to teach World War II, in fact, that I ever really read anything about it.
I will never forget sitting in my office – I was a secretary for the college, and I was prepping for that night’s class while I was supposed to be working – reading about the Holocaust for the first time, I think, in my life. Looking at the maps of the camps, scattered strategically across northern and eastern Europe. Reading about Mengele’s unholy experiments, most of which I can’t even share with my students because they’re so damn brutal – seeing how long newborn babies could survive without food, seeing how long people could survive abdominal surgery without anesthesia, seeing if eyes would permanently change color if you injected blue dye directly into them.
The photos. The ‘walking skeletons’ that the Allied forces eventually freed in 1945, the gates to Auschwitz. ‘Work Will Make You Free,’ indeed. (Irony was, I suppose, not a strong suit of the Nazis.) The chimneys at Auschwitz, being demolished.
It was so unbelievable. Even though I knew – I knew – it had happened, there was part of me that recoiled, horrified, refusing to accept it. Refusing to accept that atrocities on this scale could have happened. I do remember one of the instructors coming to see me and the look on her face – she said, “What’s wrong? Why are you crying?” and I didn’t even realize until that moment that I was crying.
But I think what makes it worse for me is that the Germans bought into it so completely. Anti-Semitism was already there, simmering just under the surface of civility; Hitler just gave it free rein. Encouraged it. And in the end, licensed it.
It started so quietly. A law here, a law there. The Nuremberg Laws of 1935 required Jews to wear the yellow Star of David at all times. They took away Jewish citizenship rights. Basic rights like voting and running for office and having freedom of speech. They declared who was and was not Jewish – much like in America, they also had a ‘one drop’ rule. If Hitler’s genealogists could find just one Jewish ancestor in your family tree, guess what? Here’s your Star of David, and here’s your list of things you can and can’t do. Not a Jew? Of course you are. The fuhrer says you are.
And then the Kristallnacht. November 9, 1938. The first state-sponsored, state-encouraged night of violence against the Jews of Germany and Austria.
I think what scares me the most, when I look at Nazi Germany, is how fast it happened. How fast mob rule can take over. How seemingly good people can just . . . forget their humanity, and become something else. Something not human. Maybe demons aren’t supernatural creatures; maybe they’re just us, when there’s no soul left inside.
In Maria Altman’s case, in the case of so many European Jews and just those who stood against the Nazis, the change was swift and unbelievable. One day. Literally. It took but one day for their lives to completely change. For the Nazis to move into Austria, declare martial law, and infect the Viennese people with their hatred.
My students always ask me, why didn’t they just leave? When their businesses were being shut down, when they were being harassed, when they lost their citizenship rights – why not leave? Why stay? And the fact is, some couldn’t. They couldn’t get around the intricate Nazi immigration policies, or afford the travel. And some . . .I remember reading an interview with a Holocaust survivor in which they were asked that very question, and their responses was so simple and so heartbreaking. “Our people have been persecuted for centuries,” they basically said. “We just thought, this is our turn.”
Maria Altman was one of the lucky ones – and yet, she left everything, including her parents, behind in order to survive with her husband. Did she consider herself lucky? To have lost her entire family, all their wealth and belongings, the home and city she loved, in order to go to an entirely new country? Maybe she did. Maybe she didn’t. But she was just one of millions of European Jews – and other minorities – who lost everything. Twelve million innocent people, whose only crime was being something Hitler didn’t like, lost their lives.
The fact is, more than 100,000 pieces of artwork stolen by the Nazis are still lost. Languishing in museums or private collections. Hidden away in vaults or attics. Or just – lost. Burned by the Nazis near the end of the war, or buried, perhaps never to see the light of day again.
It’s important to right those wrongs, to find that artwork, to restore it to its rightful owners (or, now, to their heirs).
But it’s more important to remember that it happened –
And that it can happen again. All of it. The hatred. The registries. The identifying marks on clothing. The military rule.
All it takes is one person whose only goal is doing whatever the hell he wants to do – and a nation willing to let him do it.