Up to the 1930’s, and particularly before the Anschluss , or Hitler’s annexation of Austria in March 1938, the Jewish people thrived in Austria. Of course, along with many other European countries, Austria experienced a rise in anti-Semitism during the 1930’s. The country was home to a significant population of Jews, nearly 200,000, most of whom lived in Vienna. They comprised about 9 percent of the capital’s population. When the Nazis marched into the city, numerous Austrians greeted them with enthusiasm. Once Austria became part of the Reich, following a rigged plebiscite that indicated 99 percent of the country was in support of this union, the Nazis hastened to implement anti-Semitic legislation based on the Nuremberg Laws already in effect in Germany.
The anti-Jewish rallies, pogroms and laws that took years to consolidate, gradually, in Germany swept over Austria in a matter of months. Jews were arrested on various pretexts, tortured and humiliated. Their property and stores were looted; many of their synagogues were burned. Hundreds of them were sent to the Dachau concentration camp in Germany and to Mauthausen, the newly established concentration camp in Austria. Many Jews tried to flee the country. Those who chose to stay or couldn’t escape in time were eventually deported to various Jewish ghettos in Eastern Europe–particularly Minsk, Riga and Lodz–from which they were eventually liquidated or sent to die in concentration camps. Thousands of Viennese Jews were also sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp in Czechoslovakia, from which they were eventually deported to Auschwitz. By 1942, fewer than 10,000 Jews remained in the country, most of whom were saved by the fact that they were married to non-Jewish Austrians.Right after the Anschluss, both Eichmann and Göring came to Vienna to speed up the implementation of anti-Semitic legislation. In a speech delivered on March 26, 1938, Göring stated that the Aryanization of Austria—which entailed, among other things, the confiscation and redistribution of Jewish property to “Aryans”—must occur immediately and be carried out in an “absolutely systematic manner” (The Holocaust, 105). As Leni Yahil explains, the term “property” included “assets of all kinds: works of art, jewelry, even all types of commercial and social benefits” (The Holocaust: The Fate of European Jewry, 1932-1945, translated from Hebrew by Ina Friedman and Haya Galai, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990. 105).
This is the historical era that the newly released film, The Woman in Gold, captures magnificently. The movie, which is based on a true story, follows the legal and emotional struggles of an elderly Jewish Austrian woman living in the U.S.., Maria Altmann (played by Helen Mirren), to reclaim a painting of her aunt Adele. This portrait is executed by none other than the famous Art Nouveau painter Gustav Klimt. In 1907, the artist was comissioned by Adele’s husband, Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, a wealthy industrialist working in the sugar industry, to paint several portraits of his beautiful young wife.
When Adele died from meningitis in 1925, her husband discovered in her will that she wished to donate the Klimt painting to the Austrian State Gallery. Years later, to save himself from the Nazis, Ferdinand fled to Zurich. After the Anschluss, the Nazis took over his property, including the Klimt portrait of his wife. In 1941, the portrait of Adele was transferred to the Belvedere Palace in Vienna, owned by the Austrian State Gallery.
Over the years Klimt’s gilded and elegant portait of Adele Bloch-Bauer became one of Austria’s most prized artistic possessions, with an estimated value of well over 100 million dollars. When Maria tries to reclaim the painting, she finds that the Austrian government is not willing to part with it. Despite her reluctance to revisit the past and open old wounds, Maria does just that. She hires a young lawyer, E. Randol Schoenberg (played by Ryan Reynolds), to help her fight for her family’s treasure. This battle, to her, represents far more than a sentimental attachment to her aunt’s portrait: it represents justice, decades later, for the countless Jewish people robbed by the Nazi regimes.
After several court battles in the U.S. that carries the case of stolen art to the Supreme Court, in 2006, Maria is able to win a binding arbitration battle in her native Austria. On June 19, 2006, Ronald S. Lauder, the President and co-founder of Neue Gallery in New York City, announced that he acquired the Adele Bloch-Bauer portrait. It sold for 135 million dollars. Mr. Lauder stated: “With this dazzling painting, Klimt created one of his greatest works of art. We are overjoyed to be able to give Adele Bloch-Bauer a permanent home at the Neue Galerie. Her presence will enrich the museum immesurably.”(http://www.neuegalerie.org/museum/press-releases/klimt-bloch-bauer) While some critics interpret this legal dispute for Klimt’s famed portrait as an exercise in greed, I think that the movie rightly emphasizes the greater historical dimensions of this magnificent work of art.