|CHICAGO-Simon Geldwerth, whose
family fled Austria during the Holocaust, lost his prized Stradivarius.
David Katz, whose family died in concentration camps, left behind a roomful of precious fiddles.
And Chicago Symphony Orchestra violinist Francis Akos, who was forced into the Hungarian Army, never again saw his centuries-old Italian Gagliano.
Each of these men felt blessed to have survived the Holocaust and considered the loss of an instrument a relatively small sacrifice. But none knew that the instruments he lost-worth relatively little at the time-would be valued in the millions a few decades later. Nor did the thousands of Jews and other non-Aryans whose instruments disappeared during the Holocaust realize that their violins were targeted by the Nazis, who conducted a secret operation to seize the best musical instruments ever made, according to newly declassified documents located by the Tribune in the National Archives.
Though overlooked until now, these instruments represent the forgotten loot of World War II: dozens of priceless Stradivari, Guarneri and Amati violins, as well as lesser-known models nevertheless prized by collectors, dealers, musicians and investors around the world.
The Nazis' haul of some of the world's most coveted violins stands to become the next area of inquiry by those seeking reparations for Holocaust-era losses.
"This is right now in the earliest phase of our work, but it may be one of the most fascinating areas of exploration," said Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress, a New York-based organization formed in 1936 to protect Jewish lives and property during the Holocaust. In recent years, the World Jewish Congress has been at the forefront of negotiations regarding all forms of Holocaust-era loot, from stolen bank accounts to unredeemed insurance policies.
But the details of the Nazis' thefts have been buried in classified documents for decades. And weighing the full impact of the looting on today's market has been complicated by the secretive ways of the rare-instruments industry, which historically has shown little need for documentation in the sale and purchase of violins.
Any quest to win back the rare stolen instruments-or at least to gain appropriate compensation for the victims of the thefts-will encounter hurdles of a sort unimagined when looted paintings or sculptures are at stake. For while art museums around the world belatedly have taken pains to notify the public about works procured under questionable circumstances during or immediately after WWII, the international violin trade generally operates well outside public scrutiny.
Art museums from Chicago to Berlin in recent years have created Web sites detailing what is known about the provenance or ownership history of works that may have been looted during the Holocaust. After decades of looking the other way, these institutions now encourage anyone who recognizes a stolen work to step forward.
Holocaust survivors, who were fighting to stay alive, were in no position to preserve the documentation needed to prove ownership of a rare instrument, such as a bill of sale or certificate of authenticity. In addition, some of the survivors have retained only faded impressions of their instruments.
Because violins are far more difficult to identify than works of art-which have titles, dates and subjects-an owner whose instrument was looted will be hard-pressed to identify definitively any missing violin.
The Chicago Tribune has pieced together the Nazis' seizure of the world's most precious violins by searching newly declassified U.S. military war records, captured German documents and post-Holocaust claims at the National Archives; wartime correspondence located at the Centre de Documentation Juive Contemporaine in Paris; and Nazi and private documents at Cambridge University in England.
Many of the victims of these thefts-including schools, museums, musicians and instructors-placed claims for the instruments, most to no avail. Others realized the futility of trying to prove ownership of a rare musical instrument after the tumult of a world war and simply went on with their lives.
They could not have known that the instruments stolen from them would represent cash losses in the millions.
Though many Holocaust survivors presumed their rare violins simply disappeared amid the anarchy of war, the instruments in fact were the objects of a massive Nazi hunt.
As the Nazis invaded Europe, they were followed by cadres of German musicologists, captured German documents show. These musical scholars carefully evaluated, cataloged and prepared for transport to the Music Office in Berlin the best stolen instruments and other musical ephemera.
The operation was conducted under explicit instructions from Adolf Hitler, who authorized an "action team," or M-Aktion, to grab rare musical instruments wherever they could be found.
"I hereby order the action team to proceed with execution," read Hitler's order, as drafted by his chief ideologue, Alfred Rosenberg.
A follow-up memo penned by Rosenberg on Hitler's instructions explained the reason for the thefts.
"Jews, freemasons and similar ideological adversaries of national socialism are to blame for the present war against the Reich. The deliberate spiritual battle against these forces is a necessary part of the war effort," read the 1942 memo, ordering confiscation of any and all forms of Jewish property. "The same regulation applies to cultural items, either in the hands of or owned by Jews, whether abandoned or of questionable origin."
Rosenberg created a Special Task Force for Music, or Sonderstab Musik, to collect the best musical instruments and scores for use in a planned university in Linz, Austria, Hitler's hometown, after the Germans won the war. The school would embody the crowning achievements of European culture, which meant rare violins by the master craftsmen of 17th and 18th Century Italy-Stradivari, Guarneri and Amati, among others-were essential to procure.
The mission of the Special Task Force for Music was to concentrate only on the most valuable stolen instruments, those that were "artistically of high value" and therefore "should be transported immediately" to Berlin, according to a Nazi memo located by the Tribune.
The musicologists' training enabled them to determine the make, year and authenticity of each instrument, then conclude which were best suited for the planned university.
Indirectly, the thefts of instruments stoked the war effort, giving Nazi troops a form of amusement and emotional balm. When Nazi submarine crews emerged from the depths off Bordeaux, they were welcomed by a band playing looted instruments, records show.
The Nazis' campaign to loot Europe's greatest Old World violins ran for five years, beginning in 1940, but only one document survives to detail the fruits of their labors.
Located by the Tribune amid thousands of rolls of microfilm crammed with captured German documents, the nine-page, typewritten list is a Nazi inventory of the best of its stolen violins stored in occupied Paris in 1942.
Comparable documentation that had been kept in Berlin, Leipzig, Amsterdam, Brussels and other European cultural capitals were destroyed during the Allied bombing of Europe, according to Nazi correspondence stored at the Centre de Documentation Juive Contemporaine in Paris. The lost documents make it impossible to know in full how many top-notch instruments were stolen by the Nazis.
The sole surviving list of stolen instruments-drafted by some of Germany's finest musicologists-offers terse descriptions of the violins, generally naming only the maker, year and condition of the looted instrument. It includes two Stradivari violins, of 1724 and 1734; one Amati violin, of 1671; valuable Stainer and Klotz instruments; plus historic copies of Stradivari and Amati fiddles-in all, 75 antique stringed instruments.
But the crown jewel on the list of stolen fiddles is a 1742 Guarneri del Gesu violin, which is now worth millions.
Though Stradivari's name has become synonymous with superior violinmaking, the instruments of Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesu often are worth more, in part because he made only about 250, compared with Stradivari's 600.
Moreover, Guarneri del Gesu-who lived from 1698 to 1744-built upon Stradivari's achievements, producing instruments that typically are deeper, darker and more penetrating in tone than Stradivari's brighter sounding fiddles.
Among Guarneri del Gesu's masterpieces, the 1742 instruments stand out, with revered violinists from Niccolo Paganini to Jascha Heifetz to Pinchas Zukerman all having owned Guarneri del Gesus of this vintage.
Guarneri del Gesu is known to have made no more than 13 instruments in this year, and a Tribune survey of all his 1742 violins known to exist shows that at least two have incomplete provenance during the Holocaust era. One of the instruments lacks documentation concerning owners during the Holocaust; the other was owned by a partly Jewish family whose assets were seized by the Nazis.
Both instruments attest to the difficulty in proving ownership of an instrument in the cloistered and secretive world of rare violins.
In the 1950s, the eccentric British collector Gerald Segelman-who hoarded dozens of rare violins from at least 1943 until his death, in 1992-obtained a Guarneri del Gesu from London-based William E. Hill & Sons, according to dealers who handled Segelman's collection.
But Segelman treated this instrument differently than he did his other fiddles. He kept no known insurance records for this violin nor any documentation on when he bought the instrument or how much he paid for it, as he did for his other major violins. Nor is Segelman known to have held any information on the violin's provenance, except for the certificate of authenticity he received at the time from Hill & Sons, according to dealers who handled Segelman's collection.
Andrew Hill, one of two brothers carrying on the Hill legacy today in London, said the firm's records "are private and not for public consumption." David Hill, the other brother (who does not speak to Andrew), said, "The records have been destroyed."
When Segelman sold the instrument, in 1988, it was badly dilapidated, but it also had one other, curious feature: Its original label had been tampered with, the date changed from 1742 to 1734, according to [unnamed Chicago violin dealer] the Chicago dealership that acquired the violin.
[unnamed Chicago violin dealer] subsequently restored the 1742 date and fixed its cracks, added a neck and scroll and brought the instrument to a high polish. The firm's owners came to their conclusion on the date by studying the wood grain and other details of the instrument, which matched another Guarneri del Gesu fiddle made in 1742.
Is it possible that this instrument was stolen, the date having been changed from 1742 to 1734 to obscure its identity?
"It's possible," said [unnamed Chicago violin dealer], co-owner of [unnamed Chicago violin dealer] whose shop repaired the instrument and sold it to a California collector. "It's also possible that there was confusion about the correct date, and somebody earlier on believed the instrument was a 1734."
The other 1742 Guarneri del Gesu with questions surrounding its Holocaust-era provenance once belonged to the partly Jewish Wittgenstein family of Vienna, which was forced to turn over money and possessions to the Nazis. This was the same family whose ranks included the brilliant 20th century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and his brother, the esteemed concert pianist Paul Wittgenstein. Their father, the industrialist Karl Wittgenstein, in 1897 purchased one of the most famous instruments ever made-the 1742 Guarneri del Gesu played by the Italian composer-violinist Antonio Bazzini.
The violin was the least of the Wittgenstein family's concerns when the Nazis in 1938 classified the Wittgensteins as having "mixed blood"-they were partly Jewish. Several family members fled Vienna, but two of the daughters of Karl Wittgenstein accepted an offer made by the Nazis, according to documents located by the Tribune in the Wittgenstein Archive of Cambridge University in England.
By turning over to the Nazis the Wittgenstein fortune, which Karl Wittgenstein had invested in the United States, as well as some musical instruments and manuscripts, their classification as Jews was modified to allow them to remain safely in Vienna.
"You could say the violin is a casualty of the war," said Gerhard Eisenburger, an heir of the Wittgenstein family, speaking in his Vienna home.
Survivors of the Wittgenstein family do not know how the family lost possession of its 1742 Guarneri del Gesu instrument, or whether the violin was part of the negotiations with the Nazis.
The family never has filed a claim for the instrument, and it's possible the Wittgensteins maintained possession of the instrument and sold it themselves.
The Guarneri del Gesu ended up in Paris in the violin shop of Emile Francais, according to Francais' nephew, New York violin dealer-restorer Gael Francais. Upon Emile Francais' death in Paris in the 1970s, his unsold instruments were divided between his two sons, one of whom was the noted New York violin dealer Jacques Francais.
But Jacques Francais will not acknowledge owning the instrument for the past several decades, nor will he say where, when or from whom his father acquired it.
"I don't remember if we have the `Bazzini'," said Beatrice Francais, speaking for her husband. She has declined to speak further about the instrument.
Without information from the Francais family, the Wittgenstein heirs will find it nearly impossible to learn how the instrument left the family's hands and whether they are entitled to get it back.
Immediately after WWII, claims for stolen instruments began to pour in to U.S. and Allied authorities, records at the National Archives show.
The Music Society of Belgrade wanted back 3 violins, 3 violas, 2 cellos, 4 pianos, 2 harmoniums and 20 wind instruments hauled off by German troops who had invaded their building.
Benko Kolomus of Belgrade complained that his Stradivarius violin, a family heirloom since 1880, was "looted in the course of the war from Skoplje, Yugoslavia, (and) sent to Germany for expert valuation" but never returned.
The French government alone compiled a list of 88 looted precious violins, including 10 Stradivaris, 6 Amatis and 2 Guarneris. Among them was a 1725 Guarneri owned by a Monsieur Le Tac, a French Resistance fighter.
None of these instruments was returned. Their cumulative value in today's market is in the millions of dollars. And this is just a partial sum, because any list of claims "overlooks the inability of most Jewish owners who died in the war to claim stolen property," musicologist Willem de Vries wrote in "Sonderstab Musik," a book that reports on stolen pianos, harpsichords and other instruments of comparatively small value.
Occasionally, the U.S. military located a confiscated rare violin, as in the case of a 1719 Stradivarius, according to documents located by the Tribune.
During the war, the staff of the Polish National Museum in Warsaw tried to hide the instrument behind a display of X-ray equipment, but it disappeared after SS officer Theodor Blank took charge of the museum in 1940. Blank was killed in the war, but afterward the Polish government filed a claim. The U.S. military police then went to Blank's home in Alzenau, Germany, in 1948 and retrieved the violin from his widow.
In Blank's defense, his widow showed authorities a "receipt" that her late husband had saved, noting that Blank had traded his own, worthless violin for the Stradivarius.
But that was the exception.
Today, half a century removed from the horrors of the Holocaust, the victims who lost their instruments have not recovered their precious violins. Nor have they forgotten.
"I used to play a wonderful Italian Gagliano violin," recalled CSO violinist Francis Akos, who in 1939 won use of the fiddle as first prize in a violin competition in Budapest, Hungary.
But Akos, who is Jewish, was forced to do manual labor in the Hungarian Army with the outbreak of WWII and later was sent to a Nazi concentration camp. In the process, he lost the Gagliano.
After the war, Akos understood that the loss of the instrument symbolized a greater toll.
"When I came back from the concentration camp, I tried to find my friends," said Akos, 79, referring to the benefactors who had provided him with the Gagliano.
"They weren't around anymore. None of them survived the war. And their instruments disappeared somewhere, too. Everything was gone."
Simon Geldwerth, 87, a retired tool-and-die maker in Brooklyn, has all but given up hopes of finding the Stradivarius violin that he held as a child growing up in Vienna. The instrument belonged to his grandfather, but the family had to flee during WWII, leaving most possessions behind.
The Geldwerths deposited the fiddle with an Austrian national, Rudolph Mueller, their complaint in the National Archives shows. But after the war, Mueller asserted that the Stradivarius either was destroyed by firebombing or taken by the Nazis.
Geldwerth realizes that he cannot prove that anyone's Stradivarius once belonged to his family, though he said he would recognize his instrument in an instant.
"There is very little possibility that it will ever be found," Geldwerth said. "We never had it appraised, because an appraisal is costly. But we showed it to a dealer once in Vienna, and he said it was authentic and very valuable."
If the instrument was made during Stradivari's early period, in the 1680s and `90s, it could be worth several hundred thousand dollars, or more, violin experts estimate. If it was made during Stradivari's "golden period," from about 1700 to 1720, it could be worth millions, depending on its condition.
For David Katz, 71, the loss may be greater, because his family owned several valuable instruments.
"My whole family were professional musicians, but by 1937, they weren't allowed to practice their art because they were Jewish," said Katz, recalling his early years in Leipzig from his home in Chesapeake, Va.
Katz's father was a composer-conductor who ran a Jewish music school that was stocked with several violins, violas, cellos and pianos.
"There were quite a few valuable instruments there," Katz said. "At the start of the war, we fled to Germany, then to Belgium and France, with only one of our instruments-a violin.
"But my parents were sent to Auschwitz, and the violin was lost. I was the only one in the family who survived, and when I came to the States after the war, when I was 15, the instruments were the last thing on my mind."
For survivors such as Katz, Geldwerth and Akos, the loss of these instruments pales alongside the deaths of those close to them.
And yet the instruments made centuries ago in Cremona, Italy, had lives and personalities of their own that also are mourned.
"There is something more emotional and personal when you start to talk about items such as musical instruments," said Steinberg, of the World Jewish Congress. "A bank account, an insurance policy-those are material assets. A violin was played by someone.
"So what we have involved here is not simply the stealing of property but the stealing of memories and humanity. In a very real sense, this is more brutal than financial theft. It's about erasing identity."
(c) 2001, Chicago Tribune.
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Tribune, Aug 28, 2001