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Whose Art Is It Anyway?

Gustav Klimt's Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer Hangs in Austria's National Gallery. Now Her Family Wants It Back.

December 16, 2001|ANNE MARIE O'CONNOR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

many people know about hitler's invasion of austria from "the sound of Music," a Disneyesque fable where evil Nazi storm troopers strong arm a noble and unwilling nation. The reality was far less flattering.

When Hitler marched into Austria on March 12, 1938, many Austrians embraced the Nazis, a welcome that encouraged Hitler's decision to declare the Anschluss, or union of Germany and Austria, a day later. The news was shouted up from the streets as Maria watched her father play cello in his string quartet.

FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Saturday December 22, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Czech president: In "The Immortal Golden Lady" (Los Angeles Times Magazine, Dec. 16), it was incorrectly reported that Jan Masaryk was the first president of Czechoslovakia. The first president was Tomas Masaryk.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday January 13, 2002 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Page 4 Times Magazine Desk 1 inches; 25 words Type of Material: Correction
In "The Immortal Golden Lady" (Dec. 16), it was incorrectly reported that Jan Masaryk was the first president of Czechoslovakia. The first president was his father, Tomas Masaryk.

"They say now Austria was a victim of the Nazis," Maria says, shaking her head scornfully. "Believe me, there were no victims. The women were throwing flowers, the church bells were ringing. They welcomed them with open arms. They were jubilant." Maria was in her apartment when she noticed some Nazis outside, pushing her new car from the garage. Next a Gestapo officer rang the bell and demanded her jewelry. He took her engagement ring from her finger. Adele's diamond necklace was handed over to Hitler's right-hand man, Hermann Goring, as a gift for his wife. Maria's Uncle Ferdinand was in Czechoslovakia, so no one but the concierge witnessed the Nazis sacking his Vienna palais--just across the square from the art academy that rejected Hitler.

Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer's art collection was so enormous and important that Nazi officials, including representatives of what is now called the Austrian Gallery, convened a meeting to divide it up. Hitler himself got a Waldmuller painting of an Austrian prince. Hitler's leading art agent, Hans Posse, "bought" a Rodin owned by Bloch-Bauer at a discount for the Fuhrer Museum Hitler wanted to build in Linz. A Munich bank owner, August Von Fink, acquired other Bloch-Bauer paintings for the Linz museum. Others, by Dutch Master Meindert Hobbema and Hans Holbein the Younger, were passed around. In the end, according to Nazi art theft expert Jonathan Petropoulos, "Hitler acquired more art in the limited amount of time than any other collector in history."

Like most Austrians, Hitler had no eye for avant-garde Austrian artists and was most interested in Ferdinand's Austrian Masters collection. Some Nazis frowned on the "philoSemitic Klimt," but the more sophisticated recognized his significance. The Austrian Gallery snapped up the gold portrait of Adele. A Nazi lawyer, Erich Fuhrer, sent it over with a cover letter signed: "Heil Hitler."

"And then," Maria says, "they took away my husband."

maria altmann's eyes darken and her features take on the watchfulness of a soldier who hears the sound of approaching artillery.

The Nazis, she says, had already confiscated her brother-in-law's cashmere factory, but they wanted the business's bank accounts, too, so they hustled her husband Fritz off to Dachau as a hostage.

Maria's father was heartbroken. He tried to stop the Nazis from taking his Stradivarius cello, a lifetime loan from the Rothschilds. His elderly Jewish friends began to commit suicide. The family pediatrician took morphine. A well-known writer jumped from a window. Even a Catholic colleague shot himself.

"Young people could get out," Maria says. "For old people, it was catastrophic. They didn't speak languages, they didn't know where to go. They couldn't go on." Maria's father died in July. "It was as if the thread of his life had been cut," she says.

Her uncle Ferdinand fled his summer castle near Prague as the Nazis advanced. It became the new home of Reinhardt Heydrich, the architect of the Final Solution. Ferdinand's Vienna palais became a German railway headquarters. The Gestapo moved Maria to an apartment under guard. The Nazis began to humiliate Jews in the streets, ordering them to clean the shoes of Nazis soldiers or scrub the sidewalks.

Maria's brother-in-law managed to get Fritz released from Dachau, and he and Maria were reunited, though they lived under house arrest. One day Maria told their guards that her husband had to go to the dentist, and he and Maria boarded a plane to Cologne. They made their way to a peasant's house on the Dutch border, and on a moonless night, the peasant led them across a brook and under the barbed wire to Holland.

The rest of the Bloch-Bauers scattered like rain.

Maria's brother Leopold was arrested and brought before a Gestapo officer. The Nazi eyed Leopold for a long moment, then asked how he had spent New Year's Eve a few years earlier. Leopold said he had been on a skiing holiday in the Alps when a call went out for help finding a lost skier. Leopold hiked up the mountain and found the man, injured and suffering from exposure, and carried him to safety.

"You are correct," the Gestapo officer said. "That was me."

The officer told Leopold he was Hitler's nephew. You have three days, the officer told Leopold, to leave Austria. After that, "I can't protect you."

Leopold fled.

There were darker fates. They emerge from the shadows of Maria's memory reluctantly, as if the events can be revoked by silence.

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