Will Austria part with Hitler’s Vermeer?

If only Adolf Hitler had been accepted to art school, the old joke goes, he never would have felt the need to conquer the world. Unable to fulfill his dream of becoming an artist, Hitler rampaged through Europe looting and pillaging its great treasures. One of his trophies, Jan Vermeer’s “Artist in his Studio”, is again at the center of controversy, as Austria’s art restitution advisory board considers on March 18 whether it should be returned to the heirs of its prior owner.

Austria came into possession of the Vermeer by nationalizing the painting at the end of World War II. It currently hangs in Vienna’s famed Kunsthistorisches Museum. Hitler had obtained it in 1940 and planned to have it as the centerpiece of his museum in his hometown of Linz, Austria. The museum was never built.

Prior to World War II, the Vermeer was owned for many years by the aristocratic Czernin family. Count Jaromir Czernin-Morzin inherited the painting. He considered selling it. The American industrialist Andrew Mellon offered to pay $1 million, which would have made it the most expensive painting in the world. But the Austrian authorities wouldn’t allow the painting to leave the country, and so Czernin held onto it.

When Hitler marched into Austria in March 1938, Czernin was put in a difficult position. His new wife, Alix-May, was the granddaughter of a famous Jewish banker named Oppenheim. As a result, she and her former husband, Roland Faber-Castell, had been subjected to vicious anti-Semitic attacks in the popular Nazi tabloid, Der Stürmer. Czernin’s sister was also married to Hitler’s chief opponent in Austria, former chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg, who was kept imprisoned from 1938-1945. Czernin had to be careful not to run afoul of the new Nazi bosses.

In 1939, a cigarette manufacturer from Hamburg, Philipp Reemtsma, who was also a close friend of Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, offered to purchase the Vermeer for RM 1.8 million (about $720,000). Although Göring gave his support to the deal, Austrian officials managed to block it by begging Hitler to intervene. Hitler’s secretary sent a telegram declaring that the painting could not be moved without Hitler’s approval.

Jaromir’s wife was still suffering anti-Semitic attacks. In February 1940, the Gestapo (Nazi secret police) intervened in her child custody dispute with her former husband, stating that she was unfit to be a mother. Later that year, she was officially declared “Jewish and an enemy of the State” and her passport was ordered to be taken away.

Hitler had his heart set on obtaining the Vermeer. In September, he set his henchmen in motion. Hitler’s private secretary, Martin Bormann, asked around if any outstanding taxes could be used to take the painting away. Hans Posse, Hitler’s special envoy in charge of obtaining artworks for the planned museum in Linz, was dispatched to Czernin’s home to negotiate the purchase of the painting at Hitler’s price. Posse told Czernin he might as well sell, because Hitler would get the painting “one way or another.” Hitler set the price at RM 1.65 million, or about $660,000 and Czernin had no choice but to agree.

Even after selling the painting to Hitler, Czernin and his wife did not escape persecution. Alix-May was driven from their home in Bohemia in 1942 and Czernin was forced out a year later. In 1944, Czernin was arrested by the Gestapo. He was held in prison and forced to do manual labor, but was never charged with any crime.

After the war, Czernin sought to recover his painting. But the Austrians, having nationalized the painting, balked at returning it. They claimed that Czernin and his wife could not have been persecuted because Alix-May had only been one quarter Jewish. The restitution tribunal determined that Czernin had “freely chosen” to sell to Hitler. Czernin’s appeals fell on deaf ears, and, betrayed by his own country, he died a broken man.

This Friday, the case of Hitler’s Vermeer will once again be reviewed by an advisory committee appointed by the Austrian government. Over the past 12 years, this committee has returned hundreds of works from Austrian museums to persecuted families, but not without controversy. The committee famously refused to return the Klimt paintings taken from the Bloch-Bauer family, valued at over $300 million, and those were recovered only after eight years of litigation ended with an arbitration ruling overturning the committee’s decision. Will the committee once again struggle to hold on to a valuable painting, notwithstanding its Nazi taint? Or will Austria finally come to terms with its Nazi past and clear its museums of their ill-gotten treasures?

E. Randol Schoenberg is an attorney in Los Angeles, California. He represents Helga Conrad, the step-daughter of Jaromir Czernin-Morzin. During the past decade, he has litigated several prominent Nazi-looted art cases, including Republic of Austria v. Altmann, which resulted in the return of five paintings by Gustav Klimt valued at over $300 million.

For a detailed analysis see VermeerAnalysis.pdf.

Keeping My Hair Under Wraps


Recently, I found myself spellbound while watching “Girl With a Pearl Earring.” This film, based on the excellent Tracy Chevalier novel, is a fictional account of the history behind Vermeer’s famous painting of the same name.

The novel revolves around a servant girl, Grete, who became a secret assistant to the painter in his studio. In one scene, Vermeer accidentally glimpses Grete with her hair uncovered. The moment is electric. Grete, like all women of her social station, covered her hair at all times. It was as if Vermeer had caught her unclothed.

It was odd to feel such a kinship with a fictional character, and one who lived in the 17th century at that. But, like Grete, I also keep my hair covered in front of all but family members.

Over the years, I have begun to feel that my hair is a very private part of me. Revealing it has become an almost intimate act.

I never expected to feel this way. Years ago, I wrestled with the idea of living an Orthodox life. It was the most defining and difficult spiritual struggle of my life, and one that was not made quickly. While I was captivated with the timeless truths of the Torah, I insisted that I could never fulfill the mitzvah of covering my hair after I married.

The Torah considers a woman’s hair part of her crowning beauty. Covering it after marriage symbolizes not only the woman’s modesty but also her exclusive relationship with her husband.

For a long time I considered this idea to be repressive and anti-feminist, and could not make peace with it. But I had a problem: In my new circle of Orthodox acquaintances I kept meeting Orthodox married women, bewigged or wearing scarves or hats, who failed to match my unflattering stereotype of the Jewish Stepford wife. These women were intelligent, highly educated and lively. Almost none had grown up Orthodox, so I couldn’t claim they were covering up their locks by rote. Nearly all were baalei teshuva, or returnees to the faith, and they had chosen this spiritually rich lifestyle despite myriad available choices.

Even after I married and adhered to most Orthodox standards, I did not cover my hair. I wanted to want to do it, but I couldn’t bring myself to take on this monumental obligation. I attended lectures about hair covering, but left depressed because I had not found the beauty or inspiration I had sought. What did everyone else see in this that I could not see?

However, I no longer viewed the idea of hair covering as repressive, since Jewish men, both single and married, also wear garments that remind them of their unique obligations as Jews: the kippah on their heads and the four-cornered tzitzit under their shirts. I had learned enough by then to understand that these guidelines were designed to help us incorporate spiritual awareness into the physical aspects of our lives, including how we dress.

Eventually, I began covering my hair to set a good example for my sons.

After all, how could I expect them to make blessings before and after eating, wear their little kippot and perform other mitzvot, when I failed to uphold such an obvious one?

Still, it remained a struggle. I vainly missed compliments about my hair’s beauty. I missed feeling the wind in my hair. Still searching for meaning behind the practice, I continued to drill friends about their feelings about it. When one friend said that covering her hair made her feel special, like royalty, something finally clicked. Jews are supposed to be God’s chosen people and should dress the part. Stylish, modest clothing and head coverings did the trick for her. I liked this idea of hair covering making me special.

These days, when women and girls bare so much skin in public, I know that my manner of dress makes me something of an oddity. Looking at me in my long skirt, mid-sleeve blouse, and hat or beret on my head, many can instantly identify me as an Orthodox Jew.

I like being marked this way. I appreciate how the Torah has taught me to resist the ordinary and the faddish in an effort to become exemplary. My modest attire and hair covering remind me that I must always separate the private from the public. My body, including my hair, is private. I’ve also been heartened by the book, “Hide & Seek,” an anthology of essays about hair covering, edited by Lynne Schreiber (Urim Publications, 2003). The writers in this book are an eclectic group of Jewish women — not all of them Orthodox — who came to the decision to cover their hair in many ways, some of them unexpected and dramatic. Reading these women’s stories, including their struggles with a mitzvah that they find both important yet difficult, I realized I had more company than I would have expected.

When Vermeer saw Grete’s beautiful, naked locks, it added a level of intimacy to their relationship. It took me years to realize this, but eventually, I found that reserving my hair only for the closest of family members — and especially for my husband — has done the same for me, too.

Judy Gruen is a columnist for Religion News Service and an award-winning author of two humor books. Read more of her columns at www.judygruen.com.