Stroke of a Brush
THE STROKE OF A BRUSH
Hippies, music and protests is what I thought about while attending Southampton College during the 60s. Those were turbulent times. Vietnam. On weekends, I sat alone by the shore on one of Long Island’s beautiful beaches and watched the waves roll in, one after another.
Life passed by in a flash, like the stroke of a brush, and I think how motivated I was during the chaos back in the day. When I listen to the same music now that I listened to in my youth, I still feel the same energy to change things … for the next generation. For my children and my grandchildren who were raised here in the Hamptons, home of many artists.
I think of the history of wars in my life: the Killing Fields, Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur … Syria. My immediate family survived the Holocaust. They wanted to forget, like so many other Jews. They never talked about it, so we couldn’t patch their wounds, and so, we didn’t learn. Not until recent years did I discover the true history of my own family:
It is October 20, 1942, and my Opa, Benjamin Katz, and his frightened family stood at the train station in occupied Holland, unsure if the train doors would open and take them to freedom or a death camp. My mother held the hand of my sister Alma, who was about six years old at the time. She is now 80 years old and recalls the madness, as they were surrounded by armed soldiers on the platform barking orders. They wondered if a desperate last-minute escape had worked. At the last moment, a painting changed hands. They were accompanied by a German officer who, received the order to allow the escape and who commented, “I would have much rather been given the order to kill all of you.”
Opa’s brother, Nathan, and business partner, both well-established art dealers, had been working on a big trade – a Rembrandt “Portrait of a Man” in exchange for Jewish lives.
My telling this story gives away the ending of their harrowing escape along the tracks through Paris and on to the Spanish border where they would depart on a boat, the Marque de Comillas, which took them further away from Auschwitz, and closer to the island of Jamaica where they would wait out the war in a British internment camp called Gibraltar.
But most other members of the family were not so fortunate – a haunting memory for any survivor. Benjamin had to make a “choice” long before the emotionally-charged movie, Sophie’s Choice came out. He tried desperately to save everyone in his rather large extended family, but 65 perished in the camps and on the “Lost Transport” cattle car that drifted between enemy lines for weeks, right before the Russians liberated the camp.
Even though I was born in America after the war, I was long aware that my grandfather and his brother, Nathan, were art dealers of considerable reputation, but I had no idea as to the extent of their prominence in the art world. They were considered the foremost experts in the field of Dutch Old Masters. It was that collection that had long made them a prime target of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi henchmen before they occupied Holland.
My mother would only tell us stories haltingly, and with little detail, as if in denial. But only in the last few years, as I have worked to trace what became of that Rembrandt and so many other works of art my family once treasured, have I learned the terrifying details of what happened after the Nazis invaded the Netherlands in May of 1940 and appeared on the doorstep of their comfortable home in the small village of Dieren.
Shortly before the invasion in May of 1940, the Dutch Queen Wilhelmina fled the country with most of the Dutch government. Five days after occupation, Holland surrendered.
Referring to August of 1940, my grandfather testified after the war that they were forced to sell (under value) almost their entire inventory of 500 paintings. The Germans were shrewd and drew up transactions to make everything appear legit, in case they were defeated. After the war, my grandfather, a smart businessman, stated that they “would never have parted with so many paintings at one time. What was the choice? A canvas for a life?
At one time, Hermann Goering, the head of the Luftwaffe and Hitler’s chief art collector, not only visited their gallery; he actually stood in the living room of their home and pointed at the paintings he desired with a gun in his pocket. All the children were ushered into another room and ordered to stay there. The visit left everyone shaken.
In 1943, my grandfather’s mother was sent to Westerbork, which was a holding camp for those awaiting shipment to Auschwitz. She was later released when a trade was made for a Rubens meant for Hitler’s April birthday. With special permission to go to Switzerland, Nathan was able to acquire more artwork the Nazis wanted. As long as the Katz’ were alive, the Germans were able to force them to obtain more masterpieces.
The Second World War obviously took a tremendous toll on so many, not only the Jews. They also killed the handicapped, the gays, and gypsies, and so on. With the initial invasion, in the summer of 1940, it has been reported that over 700 people committed suicide unable to face the horror they knew awaited them.
Those who survived were the “lucky” ones. They were free, but not totally free for having survived. After the war, Nathan suffered an untimely death, leaping from a building to his suicide, September 27, 1949.
The dealings with the Germans were not done freely and without incredible duress. The Dutch Restitution Committee still has not acknowledged the obvious which is somewhat baffling, and may stem from their own guilt over the Dutch treatment of Jews – 75%, the highest “proportion” of Jews killed more than any other European nation. Their unwillingness to return paintings which line the walls of their museums to their rightful owners is somewhat appalling, especially when they want proof that the family was under duress. What Jew was not under duress during the Holocaust?
I am determined to understand what my grandfather endured in those tragic days. I only remember a sweet old man who enjoyed sharing little coin tricks with his grandchildren. These brave men, Benjamin and Nathan, were brilliant art connoisseurs but they were so much more. They had generous souls and great determination. They endured endless and exhausting negotiations, as they stared into the faces of true evil, so that my children and others could be here today to talk about those dark days. The lesson in each of the six million stories that should be told is that history does repeat itself, as long as there is prejudice and hatred in the world …
I am old now, like my grandfather and, I think, the times, they are not changing … the nuclear age is more frightening than ever. I sit at the same beach I sat at when I was young, watching a local artist dabbing paint on his easel, making waves with his fan brush, as they roll in, one after another.