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Dispute of Wagnerian Dimensions

An L.A. writer is fighting to reclaim an estate owned by his father, tenor Lauritz Melchior. The land, taken by the Nazis and then the Communists, now is held by a German government that refuses to budge.

May 30, 1996|MARY WILLIAMS WALSH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CHOSSEWITZ, Germany — This remote village, hidden on a back road near the German-Polish border, seems unremarkable on first view. But swarming beneath the tranquillity are the characters and doings of a historical thriller: land-grabbing Nazis; the century's greatest Wagnerian tenor; Jews hiding, Anne Frank-style, in barns; bourgeois-baiting Communists; a fortune to be won or lost--all set in a fairy-tale forest.

Perhaps one day, Los Angeles novelist Ib Melchior will have a chance to churn it all into another book.

For the moment, though, he is too busy: He is one of the embattled principals in the Chossewitz story. Melchior--a successful movie and television director and the author of a dozen books--believes he is rightful owner of the most valuable property by far in Chossewitz: a three-story manor atop a hill overlooking a forested lake, with 340 woodland acres and about 30 working farms.

The acreage is especially valuable in a nation of 80 million people squeezed into a piece of Europe smaller than California.

His father, the world-renowned tenor Lauritz Melchior, bought the land before the Germans launched World War II. But the Nazis took it over in 1943. Secret Service chief Heinrich Himmler fancied it as a training camp for the Waffen SS, with the manor house as an officers' mess.

After the war, East Germany's new Communist regime seized the Chossewitz estate, turning it into a vacation home for national railroad workers. Today, all is in the firm grip of the government of reunited Germany, which has leased the Melchior retreat to an east German socialist-turned-entrepreneur who runs it as a country inn.

From his house in the Hollywood Hills, Ib Melchior has waged what he calls an agonizing long-distance battle with the German authorities, trying to regain the childhood idyll that was willed solely to him when his father died in 1973.

That his family has already spent 23 years on this project and is nowhere near any resolution strikes Melchior, now 78, as more than ample proof that the German government would rather perpetuate the wrongs of the Nazis than honor the will of one of the world's most celebrated promoters of Germany's musical heritage.

"Lauritz Melchior spent his entire life bringing German music and German culture to the world, and today the Germans repay him by refusing his wish that Chossewitz be returned to the Melchior heir," he says. "And in the meantime, the German authorities collect rents on the Melchior property. Not a pfennig goes to the rightful owners."

The issue--expropriated land and competing "rightful" owners--is the central source of the anxiety still dividing easterners from their compatriots in the west nearly six years after unification.

"The German law governing land claims is basically a good law. You can solve a lot of problems with it," says Harald Rotter, head of the Interest Society for the Owners of Land in East Germany, a nonprofit group that tries to help people get back expropriated lands. "But there are some cases where, with this good law, you just don't get a good result."

Chossewitz may prove to be such a case. And if you multiply it by thousands, you get the essential story of eastern Germany since the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. After communism collapsed, about 1.2 million claims were filed on 2.8 million tracts in the former East Germany: some by Jews whose family homes were stolen by the Nazis; some by "junkers," as the Germans call the big, aristocratic landowners who fell victim to made-in-Moscow land reforms; still others by opponents of communism who fled the German Democratic Republic, as East Germany was called.

Some parcels were subdivided, built upon or otherwise improved by East German householders who had no idea they might be squatting on someone's ancestral home. While 1989 may have been the glorious year easterners burst through the Berlin Wall and won their freedom, come 1990, they began to see all the houses and gardens, farms and factories they had assumed were their own taken away by westerners with sharp elbows and court orders.

Some of the properties are burdened with as many as half a dozen claims. So far, sorting out this rat's nest has taken a government staff of more than 5,000 people six years. And even today, only about 60% of the post-unification land claims have been resolved--the easy ones.

"These unsettled property questions are the main thing holding back development in the former East," says Norbert Krause, the entrepreneur who leased the dilapidated Chossewitz estate, sank a daunting sum of borrowed money into repairs and now runs it as an inn.

He has set up a small display of Lauritz Melchior memorabilia and hung the walls of the manor house with photos and paintings of the tenor in theatrical costumes. He tries to promote the inn as a place where guests have a chance to spend a night in the great performer's old bedroom.

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