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Family Trees

I have received another family tree from a scholar in Rome. It isn’t the first and probably won’t be the last. Someone Googles me, finds something I’ve written, finds out that my father had a valuable art collection (Egon Schiele), decides to be helpful, or cannot resist sharing years of meticulous research. This person may or may not be a relative though usually they claim that they are. I need only study the tree, they suggest, to find us both on a branch connected by squiggly or straight lines.

I should be interested but I’m not. I glaze over and barely look at the carefully researched trees. I usually send a thank you note and that’s it. Maybe some day, I tell myself, when I am writing one thing or another, I’ll be able to make use of that tree. I do save them, or gmail does. And if the historian/researcher turns up in New York, I graciously suggest that we meet for a coffee.

Most people adore genealogy—there are websites and TV programs devoted to it. So why don’t I care? Or, put another way, why do I shut down?

It has to do with ghosts. And having just finished Erik Larson’s masterpiece, “Dead Wake,” about the last Atlantic crossing of the Lusitania in 1915 before it was torpedoed by a German u-boat in the Irish Sea, I am even closer to an explanation. After that ship went down, killing more than 1,000 people, one of the survivors described a vision of his heavily pregnant mother giving birth in the water. That was the last he saw of her; he was haunted by the vision for the rest of his life.

I feel the same way when I glance at a family tree, especially as it nears the 20th century. Most of the people on that tree—on both sides of my family—were murdered. I never knew them, I could not save them, they are, simply, gone. Their names on a piece of paper, no matter how accurate or well drawn, will never bring them back to me.

Now I can say to myself, as I often do, that the unsolicited gift of a family tree has brought a new person into my life—perhaps a relative, perhaps not—who I did not know existed before. And that’s a good thing, for which I am grateful.  Read More 
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Woman In Gold; Why This Is a Good Movie

Art restitution was still on my mind. I’d published “Egon Schiele, My Father and Me” in The Jewish Forward on February 11th about the restitution of one of my father’s Schiele paintings. The response had been interesting. Some readers were concerned that any Jewish misdeeds would once again and forever stir anti-Semitism. Some tried to disprove it—it never happened. How could Jews—Holocaust survivors no less—deliberately, or unwittingly, buy and sell looted art?

The doubters/deniers offered me documents. Would I like to see them to prove innocence of malfeasance? Others congratulated me on the brave article I had written. Though I do not consider myself brave, I do know that—thanks to my parents, their education, their early lives in a cultured pre-Nazi Vienna—my moral compass is strong. I stand by what I wrote in the article.

And now we have the film, “Woman in Gold,” with Helen Mirren playing Maria Altman, niece of Adele Bloch-Bauer, the subject of the painting by Gustav Klimt hanging in the Neue Galerie in New York. This gorgeous, valuable painting was restituted after many years of legal action by E. Randol (Randy) Schoenberg against Austria, and then bought by Ronald Lauder for his gallery. Lauder, the president of the World Jewish Congress, has bought other restituted paintings, a great gift to the families after so many years of heartache and struggle.

I am what the Germans call a “zweiter,” a Second Generation. According to Helen Epstein in her seminal work, “Children of the Holocaust,” it is my generation that does the “emotion-work,” which often means that we pay attention to issues as they arise and feel obligated to speak out about them. Our parents—the survivors—were too busy escaping and then surviving—beginning again, trying to be happy, and raising their children as best they could despite the distortions of their agonizing trauma. There have been other genocides in history—many are still going on today—and I worry that we are becoming numb to them. As a writer and a child of the Jewish Holocaust, I feel that it is my mandate to remain alert to these new atrocities and, more immediately at home, to discrimination and the protection of American freedoms. Indeed, I am very pleased to be an American.

In a line at the end of “Woman in Gold,” Altman says that she had thought the restitution of the painting would make her feel better; it didn’t. And why not? Because she had left her parents behind.

I had already been crying, but this scene took me over the edge. In my efforts to understand my mother’s pain, I had always fixated on her mother—my grandmother, Nanette, who was killed in Auschwitz—and had written about her often in memoir and fiction. I had imagined my mother’s farewell scene with her parents before her escape with my father and his siblings. The exactitude of the script startled me, as did Mirren’s performance which so perfectly embodied the elegant, dignified, undefeated hauteur of the Viennese refugees I had grown up with. The film is a tribute to them and I loved it.  Read More 
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