Off the Shelf: Collectors and the war, in fact and fiction

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

The Oxford Languages English Dictionary defines the term collector as “a person who collects things of a specified type, professionally or as a hobby,” and uses the phrase “art collector” as an example. Jewish art collectors were of particular interest to Nazi Germany during World War II. How better for the Nazis to collect – or rather loot – their art by either offering pitifully small amounts for exquisite and priceless works of art (for those who knew they had no choice, but to sell) – or to wait until owners had been arrested or deported, and simply take the paintings, drawings and sculptures that were now considered ownerless. Two recent works look at these collectors from different angles: in “Pollak’s Arm” (New Vessel Press), Hans von Trotha offers a fictional dialogue detailing the story of the real life Ludwig Pollak, who was an archaeologist and antiquities dealer who lived in Rome. In her memoir “The Vanished Collection” (New Vessel Press), Pauline Baer de Perignon tries to not only learn about the artworks the Nazis may have taken from the home of her grandfather, Jules Strauss, but about his life in Paris before and during the war. 

“Pollak’s Arm” consists of a series of dialogues, which take place in the Vatican in October 1943. A man known only as K. tells Monsignor F. about his visit to Pollak. The remaining sections of the novel rotate between this conversation and K.’s narrative of his conversation with Pollak, during which Pollak reminisces about the twists and turns his life has taken. While Pollak’s words take a leisurely course, K.’s visit is anything but calm. The Vatican has learned that the Nazis will be rounding up all the Jews in the city for deportation that night. For services rendered to the Catholic Church, Pollak and his family are being offered shelter and safety in the Vatican. K. has been sent to rescue Pollak and his family, but time is of the essence. The question becomes, will Pollak accept shelter or remain in his own home? 

Although K. urges Pollak to wake his family and escape with him to safety, Pollak seems disinclined to leave. Pollak, who was born in Prague and has lived almost 50 years in Rome, talks about how the doors of academia were closed to him because he was Jewish. He tells how he came to live in Italy, in addition to narrating his love of Goethe and his relationship to such art collectors as J. P. Morgan. The life he’s lived is one filled with art and beauty, something that stands in stark contrast to the barely mentioned events occurring outside his door. Pollak also shows K. the Judaica he’s collected, which seems his one connection to the Judaism he doesn’t practice. The novel leaves many questions unanswered, but that seems fitting since Pollak himself doesn’t know what the next day will bring. 

The novel spoke about works of art with which I was not familiar, something that led me to search the Internet in order better appreciate the intricacies of Pollak’s discussions. Seeing those works and learning the story behind them added depth to this short novel. While it contains little plot and motion, “Pollak’s Arm” does offer a rare view of a forgotten world.

While “Pollak’s Arm” is fiction, de Perignon looks to uncover her family’s history in her memoir “The Vanished Collection.” At one time, the Strauss collection numbered nearly 500 works of art, including paintings and drawings by Renoir, Monet and Degas. The story the author heard when growing up was that the collection had been sold because of the stock market crash in 1929, which left members of the Strauss family verging on poverty. She is surprised when a cousin suggests that the story of the sale is false and that at least part of the collection had been confiscated by the Nazis. De Perignon slowly becomes obsessed with her search for answers to learn more about these works and why her family never talked about what occurred. It also now strikes her as odd that her grandparents remained in Paris during the early war years while the rest of the family scattered.

Her search is not easy. It doesn’t help that most members of the generations that lived through the war have either passed away or are unwilling to revisit unpleasant memories. Nor does it help that the family erased its Jewish past. De Perignon herself has difficulty defining her research as connected to her grandparents’ religion. Although she knows that Jules Strauss was Jewish, she has no idea what his Jewish practice was or if he felt Jewish. She does note that her father converted to Catholicism at the age of 18, but now questions whether his conversion was based on true belief or as a result of what occurred during the war. 

What does become clear is that the organizations that keep track of art taken by the Nazis, and the museums and other institutions that house these works, have little to no interest in helping families reclaim them. The roadblocks and number of hoops they require people to jump through would discourage most people from pursuing reclamation. But de Perignon, who comes across as insecure and unsure of herself, refuses to give up, even when it looks like her work will be futile. Fortunately, she does manage to recover at least one work, but most remain out of reach. By the end of the memoir, she has returned to her regular life, but while she will never truly know her ancestors, she has achieved a sense of peace, feeling that at least one wrong has been righted.