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May 2007 Journal

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A restoration comedy

It’s a good thing we weren’t rich. It cut our losses when the Nazis robbed us. They came to take my father, but he had left an hour earlier, so they killed his dog instead. My father was a forgiving man, but that was one murder too far. Like the Nazi big shots deciding who was a Jew, he had strong views on who was a Nazi. His life-long allegiance to Wagner and his circle tested his faith but he came through with flying colours, holding aloft his friendship with Wagner’s grandson Wieland and the medal that proclaimed him A freeman of Bayreuth.

Another of his heroes was Goethe. He (my father, not Goethe) was an example of that fatal attraction exerted by German culture on Jews seeking intellectual self-improvement - the wonderful flowering that went up in flames.

Goethe was at the heart of my father’s collection of first editions and manuscripts. When the Gestapo shot the dog, they vandalised the library, ripping out pages to use as lavatory paper (mainly Faust, Part II), playing football with suitably shaped objects, and leaving the rest for the runners of Hitler’s thief-in-chief to pick over for the Führer’s mega-museum to be built in Linz in celebration of the 1,000-year Reich. I have the letter from a local ignoramus in which he humbly enquires which of the surviving possessions of the ‘Jew Rosenfeld’ might be worthy of consideration. There is no mention of the inroads made by crapping and scrapping since there were still a few thousand volumes to choose from. Those which did not merit grand larceny were distributed to minor libraries and museums, some finally finding their way into the Austrian National Library (ONB).

My father never talked about his lost possessions and I only learned many years later that he had made an attempt to recover some of his favourite pieces. The ONB had taken a casual look at its shelves; they excused their lack of success by explaining that the intake of ‘confiscated goods’ had overwhelmed the staff at the time, so that to their eternal shame their high standards of record-keeping had slipped. They did find a few books, identified by my father’s ex libris, which they defaced with a rubber stamp before returning them as the ‘rightful property’ of my father, no longer Jew Rosenfeld but with his full name, title and honorifics restored.

My father never built up his collection of books again. But being a collector at heart, he dabbled in records (Wagner) and, for a time, even in postage stamps showing musical subjects (Wagner).

My mother had her own collection of books, mainly relating to the works of Freud, having been one of his disciples. I particularly wanted to recover a first edition of his collected works, bound in leather, which the professor had inscribed to her. No trace of that, as you can imagine. So I asked a distant cousin of mine, Randol Schoenberg, to help me. He was not only the grandson of the noted 12-tone Schoenberg but had recently distinguished himself by winning a David v. Goliath battle against the State of Austria before the US Supreme Court, which resulted in the rightful owner getting back some $170m worth of Klimt paintings. Just the man, I thought, to get me my Freud.

Randol told me that he did not do single books, not even collections bound in leather, but he thought that with the right evidence, he might get me Austria.

My quest continues. I have found the most delightful of pen pals with whom I correspond about the pain of loss. Mag. Lessing is full of sympathy and understanding. She sends me enchanting letters from Vienna, sometimes in English, sometimes in German. Her English is impeccable, which immediately brands her as a non-native. I also get letters from a Sir Franklin Berman which are neither as elegant nor as eloquent. Most surprising of all, I have been inscribed on the Roll of Honour of the Viennese Kultusgemeinde, attested by a document signed by Dr Ariel Muzicant, quite possibly another Wagnerian. My father, who was more deserving of such an honour, merely had an offer of having his driving licence restored without payment of the usual renewal fee. This concession arrived too late to be useful - some ten years after his death.

The message from both Mag. Lessing and Sir Bernard is the same: we are on the cusp of restitution. Only a few formalities stand between me and justice being done. Or more likely 12.5 per cent of justice, since I must realise, which Maggie Lessing is confident I do, that I am going to be paid out of a pot shared with 20,000 other hopefuls, so that no one can actually get anything until the last claim has been assessed and the respective entitlements apportioned. This could even work to my advantage if other claimants give up or die - unless I die first, in which case the advantage is nullified. All this is, of course, subject to no further problems arising and taking due account of the fact that I have already had a lump sum sufficient to pay for documenting and xeroxing my claim.

I have no idea if Mag. Lessing has other pen pals. I like to think I am the only one, but if you have heard from her, you are one hell of a privileged victim.
Victor Ross

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