Koh-i-noor - a tale of two brothers, a famous painting, and the Holocaust

Radio Prague 29 July 2011
By Rob Cameron

Two years ago, representatives of 46 governments gathered at the former Nazi concentration camp in Terezín, an hour’s drive north of Prague. Among the many pledges contained within the pages of the Terezín Declaration was a promise to expedite the return of private property seized from Jews during the Holocaust and still not returned. Many descendants, however, are still waiting to get their family's property back.

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The Koh-i-Noor haberdashery factory in the Prague district of Vršovice was founded in 1907 by two Jewish brothers, Jindřich and Sigmund Waldes. They built a hugely successful business empire, conquering the world snap fastener market with their famous Koh-i-Noor brand, and becoming multi-millionaires in the process.

Then, in 1939, Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia. The Waldes family lost everything – their property ‘Aryanised’, stolen in other words, under the Nuremberg Laws. Sigmund Waldes fled to New York with his family. Jindřich, a Czechoslovak patriot to the end, stayed, and was interned in Buchenwald. In 1941 he managed to get out, but he died in uncertain circumstances en route to America.

There the story should have ended, like so many others – a Czechoslovak Jewish family broken up and forced to flee for their lives, their property lost forever. Now, 70 years later, Sigmund Waldes’s grand-daughter Jiřina Nováková is trying to win it back:

“I would like this factory back not because I think I must have a factory, but because I think things should be done correctly. This property wasn’t transferred properly. And I think if we want to change your country socially, politically, economically, we must also do these things correctly.”

Koh-i-Noor factory in Vršovice, PragueKoh-i-Noor factory in Vršovice, Prague
In the beginning Jiřina Nováková wanted just one thing – to get back a famous painting by the Czech artist František Kupka, showing a young woman wearing a Koh-i-Noor fastener like a monocle. Kupka painted the work as a gift to the Waldes family, and it was later adapted as the company’s logo. But it was lost to the family when the factory was seized first by Nazi Germany, then nationalised by the newly-liberated Czechoslovakia, then seized again by the Communists in 1948, before finally being privatised after the fall of communism in 1989.

Mrs Nováková was told in order to win custody of the painting, she’d first have to win back the factory. So in 1994, she went to court. After fifteen years of litigation, she won a pyrrhic victory, being awarded one half of the factory’s buildings and one half of all of its property – including one half of the famous painting. Koh-i-Noor’s owners appealed, and last year the Constitutional Court ruled in their favour. Koh-i-Noor’s management declined requests for an interview, but Oldřich Choděra is the company’s lawyer:

“The Koh-i-Noor factory was nationalised under the so-called Beneš Decrees in 1945 – in fact it was decree number 100/45. That particular decree applied to metal-working enterprises employing more than 500 people. So in Koh-i-Noor’s case this was the overriding criteria – the fact that it was a metal-working enterprise employing 500 people, regardless of whether the rightful owners were German, Czech, Jewish or anything else.”

Jiřina Nováková says the Constitutional Court verdict is flawed – for a start Koh-i-Noor didn’t have 500 employees in 1945, and anyway her family made it abundantly clear in 1994 they were claiming the property, and so it should never have been privatised in the first place. So far that argument has fallen on deaf ears, but Jiřina Nováková hasn’t given up the fight – a fight she says her grandfather and his brother would want her to carry on to the end.
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