Confronting the ghosts of a looted past

Chicago Tribune 17 October 2002
By Howard Reich

Gerald McDonald was sick with Hepatitis C, awaiting a liver transplant and low on cash.

Living alone in a tiny frame house in Lyons, just south of Chicago, he was playing out his last days watching cable TV and listening to heavy metal records, another decorated Vietnam vet squeaking by on disability checks.

But when he learned that he was heir to a multimillion dollar art collection looted by the Nazis in Prague -- and that the Czech government was going to take it from him before he even laid eyes on it -- he figured he couldn't sit around the house anymore.

So over the summer Mac, as everyone calls him, borrowed the $688 plane fare from friends, packed one suitcase with clothes and another with medicine, bought a crisp new pair of blue suede boots and went to look for his art, his bloodline and his family's unspoken past.

Never mind that his legs often swelled up, his vision frequently blurred, his limbs usually ached and his energy level generally hovered near zero.

He had to go because, he said, the Czechs were trying to put one over on him. For 60 years, they had allowed most of the art collection of Emil Freund, a Prague Jew killed in the Holocaust, to gather dust in storage at the National Gallery. But once Mac was identified as Freund's great-great-nephew, the Czech government decreed that the valuable pieces in Freund's collection had become "national cultural treasures" that could not leave the country.

"Basically, the Czechs told me to get lost," said Mac, who never has shrunk from a fight and has had more than 20 broken bones to prove it.

But it wasn't just the millions that led him to take a plane across the ocean for the first time since his flight home from Vietnam, where he acquired Hepatitis C.

Art always had held an inexplicable allure for him, the walls of his Lyons home covered with Vietnam-era posters and funky "outsider" paintings, his body itself a gallery of blue-green tattoos -- of devils, spiders, skulls and chains -- from neck to toe.

Yet Mac ultimately could not predict that the journey he was about to take -- first to Prague, then to the decaying, nearly forgotten Jewish ghetto in Lodz, Poland, where Freund died in 1942 -- would change his world.

All Mac knew was that something that once belonged to his family had been stolen by the Nazis, nationalized by the Communists and now, after the fall of Communism, was being robbed a third time.

And he had to do something.

Gerald McDonald, 53, was baptized as a Lutheran and never knew for sure he was anything else. His parents denied their Jewish lineage, his grandparents denied it and, as far as he could tell, their parents denied it too.

"I don't know if they were afraid or ashamed or what -- I sure asked plenty of times," said Mac, who suspected as much.

Since childhood, he had heard his family whisper that some ancestor owned an art collection that had been stolen during the Holocaust and never had resurfaced. If the paintings had been looted, Mac figured there was a good chance someone in the family was Jewish. But as a youngster, Mac never knew that Emil Freund's sisters -- Berta Sieben and Olga Hoppe, who had moved to Chicago in the 1920s -- tried to reclaim the art that had belonged to their brother, a victim of "racial persecution," according to Czech court documents. In 1950 the new Communist government flatly refused to return the art and, ever since, the family's Jewish roots were buried deep.

So deep, that in 1970, when Mac got out of the Navy and vowed to pick up the search that his relatives had long since abandoned, his family insisted that it was a waste of time, that the art and the relatives were gone and that the past was best left forgotten anyway.

That's just how Mac's family always regarded its history -- as something to be discarded as quickly as possible. His mother didn't tell him until he was 30 that he had an older sister who died at birth. When he found out, he says he smashed his fist into a plaster wall, then went to his sister's grave and wept. But last December, when a Tribune investigation identified McDonald as heir to Freund's collection (see accompanying story), Mac knew, once and for all, that he was a Jew, at least in part.

"Actually, I always suspected it," said Mac, who's named McDonald because Freund's American heirs were women who changed their names when they married.

"But everyone lied to me, so I never knew what to think.

"I'm not exactly a religious guy anyway, so I didn't worry too much about it," added Mac, who had been in a synagogue once in his life, for a friend's wedding.

Yet Mac was intrigued by his newfound ancestry, eventually deciding to explore it. He knew that he had to learn about his family's past, for now he was linked by blood and art to the man whose legacy he was claiming, a long-forgotten Czech who apparently died because he was a Jew.

So Mac started looking up looted art and the Holocaust on his home computer and began sending e-mails to the Jewish Museum in Prague, where Freund's stolen art was being stored.

After a couple months, Mac made an appointment with a local rabbi, who gave him a stack of books to read.

Eventually, Mac realized that he had to go to Prague.

"I want to be able to die with one more piece of the puzzle in me," said Mac, before he left.

In retrospect, he always had been looking any clue that might help explain the chaos of his life. Ever since he was a hellion growing up in a tough stretch of blue-collar Lyons -- in the shadow of old Route 66, where he and his friends threw rocks at passing 18-wheelers -- Mac had been trouble.

As soon as he was big enough to ride a bike, "That kid would circle around the block throwing lit matches onto people's lawns, one after another," remembers Ralph Mitchener, a neighbor. "The kid was out of control. I feared what might happen to him."

So did the Lyons police, which kept a file on him and the rest of the gang that terrorized the neighborhood.

In 5th grade, Mac cracked his teacher in the jaw, after she said he was no good. That earned him a quick trip to military school in Park Ridge.

"My parents were so busy hating each other that I think I fell through the cracks," said Mac, as the only explanation he could come up with for why he was a hell-raiser from Day One. With no brothers or sisters to watch over him when his parents were at work, he was on his own.

In his mid-teens, Mac went to Lake Geneva, Wis., on weekends to get the first of his tattoos -- a red devil on his upper right arm -- because they didn't check IDs closely there. Eventually, his body became a canvas of increasingly gothic designs. By the time Mac was 17, his encounters with the law had become so serious that a judge gave him a simple choice: Go to the military or go to jail, so he enlisted in the Navy. After boot camp in California and a stint at the Naval Air Station in Whidbey Island, Wash., Mac was shipped to Danang, South Vietnam, in '67.

"Within 30 hours, I went from a being a kid who couldn't legally buy a beer in the States to a kid in a uniform who could get anything he wanted, any time," said Mac, referring to booze, drugs and sex.

If Mac was out of control in Lyons, he was flying high in Vietnam, reveling in the vices with which GIs fought the boredom and terror of the war.

Even by the standards of Vietnam, however, Mac lived on the edge, getting himself court-martialed more than once (he says he has forgotten how many times) for destroying military property and otherwise doing as he pleased. One of the court-martials -- on June 28, 1967 -- earned him 45 days of hard labor, 60 days of confinement to his base and more than $10,000 in fines.

Yet, remarkably, amid the recklessness and sorrow of Vietnam in the '60s, Mac also distinguished himself as a soldier, winning several commendations, including one for bravery when a steam pipe blew up on the U.S.S. Sanctuary, the hospital ship on which he was stationed as an engineer. After the pipe exploded, Mac and another crewman jumped into the boiler room and spent a couple hours in crushing heat diverting the steam before it could blow a hole in the side of the ship.

He signed up for another tour in '68 because "even Vietnam looked a lot better than Lyons," said Mac, finally getting his exit physical and leaving Southeast Asia forever in '69.

That's when the Navy gave him the news: He had contracted an exotic malady strangely named "Hepatitis not A, not B," years before it was christened Hepatitis C. Mac didn't know if he had picked it up from the blood he often was soaked in on the hospital ship or from the hookers who hustled guys like Mac in every saloon from Bangkok to Subic Bay.

"Don't worry about it," the Navy doctors said of Mac's new disease, shortly before he got his honorable discharge, in 1970, after spending his last few months in the military stationed in Long Beach, Calif.

With the anti-war movement gaining momentum in the States, Mac did not expect to be greeted as a hero back home in Lyons. Nor did he consider his time in and around Vietnam particularly well spent.

Nevertheless, he was startled by how badly he and his friends were treated -- even by other veterans.

Shortly after he returned to Lyons, he walked into the VFW post in Downers Grove, where the silver-haired veterans of World War II whiled away their days.

"Two older guys drinking a beer told me that if I didn't leave they were going to crush my skull," recalled Mac. "After two tours in Vietnam, that was what I came home to."

Mac drifted through several jobs and three marriages, his life a haze of booze and disappointment, with glints of hope coming in the form of a son, born in 1972, and a daughter, in '89. Because of them, he kept steady employment loading chemical reactors at a petrochemical company.

In 1995, while attending the Indianapolis 500, he collapsed in the stands and slipped into a coma for three days. That's when his doctor told him he had better start worrying about Hepatitis C -- it was killing him.

By 1999 he was too sick to work and figured "that's about it, end of story," he said. "I'm going to sit in this house waiting to die."

After Mac's plane landed in London, he bought a box of Cuban cigars at the duty-free shop and waited for the hourlong flight to Prague.

By evening, he was in a Czech cab heading to the Hotel Florenc, a dive "that gets three stars in Prague but wouldn't rate as a whorehouse in the U.S.," Mac said, as he trudged up two flights of stairs to his room, which was about the size of a walk-in closet back in the States. At $80 a night, though, Hotel Florenc was at the outer limit of his budget.

The next morning, he took a cab to the Jewish Museum, a complex of ancient synagogues in Prague's centuries-old Jewish Quarter. The Jewish Museum had wrested possession of Freund's paintings from Prague's National Gallery, thanks to the efforts of a clever curator named Michaela Hajkova. Herself a grandchild of Holocaust survivors, Hajkova had burrowed through the Jewish Museum's records and found documents proving that 30-plus works in the collection of the National Gallery (most of them decaying in storage) had belonged to Freund.

Specifically, she located 30-odd index cards among more than 101,000 that had been painstakingly typed by Prague Jews during World War II. They worked as prisoners of the Nazis, cataloging thousands of art works the Germans had looted from affluent Czech Jews, such as Freund. In impeccable detail, the workers noted the title, artist, dimensions and estimated value of the art works (in Reichsmarks), as well as the transport number of the Jew who owned the work before he was sent to die.

In 1945, the men and women who did this work were dispatched to concentration camps, where most perished.

But the product of their labors survived, showing that famous paintings such as Paul Signac's "Steamboat on the Seine" and Andre Derain's "Head of a Young Woman" had belonged to Freund. Forced to acknowledge that these and other works had been looted by the Nazis, the National Gallery in 2000 began handing them over to the Jewish Museum, which began searching for a Freund heir.

Two years later, on a sweltering Tuesday morning in Prague, that heir finally walked in.

Mac was greeted like an old friend, his relationship with Hajkova forged through countless e-mails during previous months and through their joint desire to restore Freund's art to its rightful owners. In a few minutes, Hajkova led Mac into the Jewish Museum's vaults and asked if was ready to see his great-great-uncle's art.

Mac said that he was, but once Hajkova opened the door, he realized he was wrong. When he first saw the art -- all of it collected in one place, six decades after Freund's death -- Mac doubled back a step or two. He stood there for a few beats, before heading inside.

The spectacle was overwhelming. There in a narrow, brightly lit room, more than two dozen paintings had been placed on counters, leaning against the wall at eye level. Pulled together in a single place, the paintings conveyed the personality and vibrancy of the man who owned them, the eclecticism of his tastes and even the level of comfort and affluence at which he lived. There were portraits of women painted in astonishingly vivid colors, Impressionist landscapes that exquisitely blurred earth and sky, even avant-garde pieces in which angles were askew and perspectives radically altered. Many of the pieces were set in gilded frames, some the originals that Freund himself had chosen.

"I want to touch them," Mac blurted out, and Hajkova promptly gave him a pair of white gloves, so that the oils of his skin would not smudge the frames and, perhaps, so that Freund's fingerprints, which still might linger somewhere on these works, would not be disturbed.

One by one, Mac picked up the pieces, lingering over Signac's "Steamship on the Seine," which looked like so many tiny bits of color close up but -- when Mac drew back a few feet -- delicately evoked the image of a riverboat floating on the water.

"Man, this painting has been around," said Mac, checking out the cities and galleries listed on the back of the Signac, which had traveled as far as New Delhi.

"We are trying to take very good care of your art," responded Hajkova, who in truth was doing more than that. A couple months earlier, the Jewish Museum had filed suit against the Czech government, asserting that the eleventh-hour designation of these works as "national cultural treasures" was a transparent grab at art that belonged to a man who had been killed. That suit is pending.

"Look at the condition of these pieces," added Hajkova, pointing to the torn, battered, taped-over cardboard frames in which some of the works had been stored at the National Gallery.

"Is this how they treat national treasures?"

After more than two hours of nearly caressing the paintings, Mac said he was ready to leave.

"I bet when the Nazis dragged Emil Freund out of his apartment, those paintings were the last things he saw," said Mac, whose education had just begun.

Hajkova made him promise to return to the Jewish Museum the next day, and when he arrived she walked him to the Pinkas Synagogue, which was built in 1535. She handed Mac a yarmulke, or skullcap, which he placed on his head as he began climbing the stairs behind her, into a huge sanctuary.

When he stepped inside, he viewed four walls stretching two stories high, and on each a sea of red and black ink. As he got closer, he realized that the walls were covered with tiny names and dates, each representing a Czech Jew killed in the Holocaust.

Mac quickly started searching the "F's" for about five minutes, but his blurry vision failed him until Hajkova pointed to the word "FREUND" in red, and a couple of lines down, this phrase: "Emil 29.IV 1886-21.X1941."

This was Emil Freund's only epitaph, a single word and a series of numbers showing that he was born on April 29, 1886, and died on Oct. 21, 1941, one of more than 80,000 Czech Jews killed during the Holocaust because of the accident of their birth.

Hajkova left Mac alone, and he stood there for at least 20 minutes, his body occasionally shuddering. No one dared approach him, other visitors to the synagogue steering clear of this large, motionless figure. In the background, the voice of a cantor singing some ancient prayer echoed in the room. "I have private thoughts about that place that I can't talk about, but I'll tell you this," Mac said later, after leaving the synagogue.

"At that moment when I was looking at the walls, I did have hate in my heart.

"I always swore I'd never look at a wall like this," Mac continued. "That's why I've never gone to the Vietnam wall, because people I know are on that wall."

Mac never was quite the same after that visit to the synagogue. Already worn down by the stress of the trip as well as the progress of his disease, he started to fall as he walked down the street, his knees and ankles occasionally giving out. The tension of the occasion, the change of his diet and the lack of sleep from the nightmares he said he was having made his legs swell. His complexion was turning gray, and the sweat that accumulated in his socks from walking in the summer heat caused his feet to blister, a memento of his Vietnam days that the vets call "jungle rot." The buffet of Hepatitis C medicine he had brought with him was not doing much to interrupt his decline.

"I'm worried about holding it together, but I guess I've got to deal with this," said Mac, whose hopes for the trip were starting to change.

If he had come to Prague to take on the Czech bureaucrats who were robbing him of his art, he had stopped talking about that. Now he had a new priority -- to find as many traces of Freund as he could.

So Mac took a cab to Manesova 9, in the plush Vinohrady district, where Freund lived. The building, an ornate stone tower, befitted a man who had prospered as a lawyer and chief executive of Sekuritas, Prague's largest insurance firm before WWII.

"This is the kind of building you see in Chicago, on Lake Shore Drive," said Mac of a massive edifice on a small hill overlooking downtown Prague. "He lived like a king."

But in October 1941, the Nazis came to Freund's apartment, records show, made an inventory of his art, then hauled it to the Treuhandstelle, where the property of Prague's Jews was piled high for inventory. Then the Nazis ordered Freund to the Veletrzni Palac, where Jews soon to be deported were told to bring one suitcase, stand in line to be registered and wait.

On Oct. 26, Freund was placed on Transport B-126, a train that was headed to one of the most terrifying, isolated Jewish ghettos in Europe, in Lodz, where Freund's life ended. But neither Freund nor the others on the train had any idea where they were going, or if they ever would return.

"I've got to go to Lodz," Mac said, one afternoon in Prague, clearly moved by having come into such close contact with Freund's art and, therefore, with Freund himself.

"I think I ought to see what happened to him."

Mac was in no shape to make a trip anywhere except back home to Lyons, and certainly not in the way he wanted to travel to Lodz -- by train, just as Freund had been forced to do.

The idea seemed preposterous, considering Mac's condition, but he had made up his mind. So he grabbed a cab to the train station, bought a ticket for the next morning and prepared to go to bed early.

"I'm going to find Freund's grave," said Mac. "If I don't do it now, I doubt I'll ever be well enough to do it later."

He did not imagine how arduous the trip would be, or what somber truths awaited him.

An unlikely turn of events

Gerald McDonald learned that he is heir to the art collection of Emil Freund -- and therefore of Jewish ancestry -- through an unusual process.

While researching an article on rare violins looted during World War II, Tribune arts critic Howard Reich contacted organizations that track stolen cultural property. A representative for one of these firms, the New York-based Art Loss Register, mentioned that researchers were trying to find an heir for the art collection of Freund, who died in the Holocaust.

The Art Loss Register knew the names of two of Freund's sisters, Berta Sieben and Olga Hoppe, and surmised that they might have lived in Chicago, because of the city's large Czech population.

Using public records and newspaper death notices, Reich found that Sieben and Hoppe indeed lived and worked in Chicago, then built a family tree, which led him to McDonald.

Because McDonald held various birth, marriage and death certificates for his ancestors, there was no doubt that he was Freund's heir.

After the Tribune's first report on the Freund case was published, last December, two additional Freund heirs contacted the Tribune and the Jewish Museum in Prague, where Freund's art is being stored.

Since McDonald's trip to Prague over the summer, the paintings were subjected to a potential disaster -- the floods that swept through Europe. But the Jewish Museum brought the Freund collection -- as well as the rest of the museum's holdings -- to high ground.

To date, ownership of the collection remains in dispute, with the Jewish Museum having sued the Czech government over its decision to deem the most valuable pieces "national cultural treasures" that cannot be taken out of the country.
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