The Altarpiece – Prologue
Berlin. November, 1933
Fassbinder watched Hitler from the darkened shallows of the alcove off the main corridor. There were many such alcoves in this museum, where small pieces were hung or delicate objects were displayed in glass cases. Fassbinder was sweating despite the time of year and the draftiness of the old building, so he removed his wool coat and draped it over his right arm as he craned his neck to see what Hitler was gazing at. A Kandinsky—a large one. A riot of color, shapes, and angles. Geometric faces stared out from the corners of the canvas.
Hitler inspected the painting with the same intensity with which he did everything. His hangers-on hovered close to him, but not too close. The Führer must be allowed his time to reflect, after all, he too was a painter. Hitler shook his head several times while staring at the Kandinsky, then turned to an associate and said something that Fassbinder couldn’t quite hear, but that clearly impressed the surrounding crowd. Murmurs of approval rippled across the rows of invited admirers, even reaching Fassbinder in the alcove.
Then something strange happened: two museum officials produced two ladders, mounted them, and took the Kandinsky down from the wall. Hitler looked at it for another few seconds as it stood upright in their hands, then walked away followed by his handlers and the majority of the crowd. The museum officials began carrying the Kandinsky down the corridor toward the freight elevators, followed slowly by the director of the museum. As they neared the alcove, Fassbinder stepped out.
“Did our Führer object to the placement?” Fassbinder asked casually. He addressed this to the director, Hans Steiglitz, who was Fassbinder’s longtime acquaintance.
“I’d get out of here if I were you, Friedrich,” Steiglitz responded coldly.
“Why?” Fassbinder asked, shocked. “I was invited.”
“Don’t be obtuse,” Steiglitz said, facing him eye-to-eye. “You know the Führer’s tastes. This isn’t it. It’s being removed. Since everyone in Germany knows you specialize in collecting and selling Kandinsky, Beckmann, Klimt, and Junger…,” he trailed off, the color rising in his cheeks.
“Are you being serious?”
“Perfectly. Listen, I’m on your side.”
“We’re taking sides? About art?”
“The Führer is. Keep your head down. Tell your friend Junger to do the same. I admire him and I’d hate for anything to happen…,” he trailed off again and began walking after the painting.
Fassbinder watched his balding head recede down the darkened corridor. The museum wasn’t open to the public today, just invited guests. He had originally felt elated at receiving an invitation. He had taken it as evidence that his success in Bavaria was now noticed in Berlin. But now, and forever afterward, he saw this day as the mo- ment his eyes were opened. The day Germany decided to end its own phenomenal dominance in modern and expressionist art. Nothing was ever the same again.
As he waited on the train platform an hour later, Fassbinder felt the optimism he was known for draining away from him. He had always promised his friends and colleagues that Hitler wouldn’t interfere with art. He had assured them that the Nazis couldn’t dictate taste. He clenched his fists in frustration. He must speak to Junger immediately. Junger needed to be careful. He had Anke to think of.
When he was settled in his first-class seat on his way back to Munich, Fassbinder closed his eyes and recalled one of the happiest moments of his life…six years ago, at the Brosslers.
Munich. September, 1927
Mrs. Brossler told her son that if he asked about Anke Junger one more time he would be spending the party in his room. Her eyes were kind, but her tone was verging on anger. Erik knew better than to pester his mother when she was preparing for one of her parties. His father certainly did and had spent the day sequestered in his study, respectfully avoiding his wife.
To be fair, Lotte Brossler was known as one of the party planners in Munich. She had grown up amongst celebratory people; her father had owned a silversmithing empire that provided the flatware for all the best tables in Bavaria. Her maiden name, Klein, was delicately en- graved on the back of each piece, even the smallest sugar spoon. Lotte felt it was her duty to keep up the family tradition of hosting soirees, even after she married the relatively poor art historian, David Brossler. Lotte’s inheritance, including the house, kept them in style and David’s circle of artists, art dealers, writers, and other intellectuals kept a steady stream of interesting people, some even famous, flowing through her door. This more than made up for her husband’s dismissiveness of many of her former society friends. All considering, Lotte was content.
She glanced at her son who stood sulking on the stairs.
“I’m sure she’s coming,” she said, gently. “Dietrich always brings Anke. Why should tonight be any different?”
That seemed to do the trick and Erik skipped off toward his father’s study. Lotte returned to her task—arranging a massive display of flowers, including the hard-to-find birds of paradise, on the hall table. This wasn’t just any party. Tonight they would celebrate the fortieth birthday of Friedrich Fassbinder, art dealer to the rich and powerful of Munich. The turnout would be large, perhaps the largest ever for a Brossler event. A handful of well-known artists were planning to attend, as well as many patrons of the arts including several from as far away as Vienna. To be safe, 100 bottles of champagne had been ordered and a similar amount of Riesling and Bordeaux.
In his father’s study, the twelve-year-old Erik surveyed the scene from the worn leather divan. He peered out the windows that faced the back garden and watched the servants covering long tables with white tablecloths and setting them with the china and Klein silver from his mother’s considerable collection. The garden featured a wide, sloping lawn that spilled into a massive fishpond stocked with eels. Grand- father Klein once told Erik that the Romans used to build eel ponds behind their villas. “So, why shouldn’t we Germans have the same?” he asked. Their quiet neighborhood was fashionable and filled with stately homes with manicured gardens, but Erik’s grandfather boasted that his was the only residential fishpond of any size in north Munich.
Watching the servants, who were hired specially for the occasion, Erik only briefly forgot about the issue at hand. Was Anke coming? His mother had said she was, but this was most likely said to appease him and put an end to his questioning. He decided to ask his father.
“One never knows if Junger will come or not,” his father said not looking up from his book. “But if he does, he will surely bring Anke.” Anke was the only child of Dietrich Junger, the painter. Junger was just now achieving fame in Germany and France and had recently sold two paintings to a New York dealer who planned to sell them to a new museum called the Museum of Modern Art, which was open- ing in a few years time. Fassbinder had brokered the deal. Erik’s father was a professor of art history at Ludwig Maximillian University and a longtime friend and supporter of Junger. For years, when Anke was very young, Junger frequented the Brossler’s art parties, or “salons” as Erik’s mother called them, and brought his little girl with him. Her mother had died when she was just two, so she was usually cared for by the Brossler’s housekeeper, Trudie, who took her to play with Erik’s old toys and put her to bed in one of the guest rooms until Junger came to take her home. He often left in the early hours of the morning and bundled the sleeping girl to an awaiting taxi.
Sometimes Erik would stay up late listening to his parents and their guests from the back staircase. Junger was one of the most interest- ing because he was usually very quiet, which made the guests seek his opinion all the more. He rarely rejected other artists work or made negative comments, but he did occasionally dole out praise for the likes of Emil Nolde, Marc Chagall, and especially Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, who Junger very much admired. But what especially intrigued Erik was Junger’s attachment to his daughter. There were nights when he couldn’t bear to be parted from her and she slept on his lap as he sat on the red divan in the main parlor. Erik had even followed Junger on one of his trips to check on the sleeping Anke in one of the guest rooms and watched him gently kiss the little girl’s forehead, first brushing away her blond curls.
As Anke grew older, she and Erik began to interact and he showed her his toys and art supplies in his room. She loved to draw, so they drew together while their parents were downstairs until Trudie came to take Anke off to bed. The last time Erik had seen her, some months ago, Anke looked quite different. She had just turned nine and her hair had pretty ribbons in it, a gift from her father. She was moved to the same school Erik went to and was only two classes behind him despite being three years younger. He had heard his father and Junger discuss Anke many times and her “talent” for art history. Brossler had promised Junger he would tutor Anke and help prepare her for an eventual entrance to Ludwig Maximillian University. Erik was also planning to go there, so he and Anke would be together. Erik felt that was only right, that they would be together.
As the guests began to file in for Fassbinder’s party, Erik stood watch on the main staircase hoping to see Anke and her father emerge from one of the many black cabs lined up in front of the house. The servants raced up and down the stairs, carrying the capes, cloaks, and light jackets the guests had worn on this September night. They glared at Erik for being in their way. Finally, after what seemed like a hundred arrivals, he saw her. She was taller than the last time, and thinner. Her hair ringlets stuck out from underneath her black cap and her cheeks were pink from the fresh air. Her blue eyes were warm as she greeted him at the stairs and handed her jacket and hat to the awaiting maid. Erik said nothing so she spoke first.
“My father says I can stay downstairs for the entire evening if I want.”
This was indeed a major shift in policy and Erik needed a minute to digest. He had assumed she would accompany him to his room to draw and play with his telescope as usual. He was desperate to be alone with her.
“If that’s what you want,” he stammered, unsure. He followed Junger and Anke into the main parlor but lost his nerve and retreated briefly to the stairs. Finally he joined her on the divan, bringing her a cup of punch. After a long silence, she saved him.
“I am happy to go look through your telescope again, Erik. If you want to, that is.”
The look they exchanged was not unnoticed by the Brosslers, or Junger, and several smiles were suppressed as the youngsters bounded toward the stairs, hand in hand. Lotte fantasized for a moment about Erik and Anke being married and how wonderful it would be to be related to an artist like Junger, even by marriage. She soon forgot all about it when Max Beckmann and Paul Klee arrived and she hurried to greet them at the door.
Upstairs, Erik and Anke held hands for a long time. Eventually she broke away to look through his telescope, though the sun was only just setting and she couldn’t see very much. Outside, the torches were lit and the guests mingled in the warm September dusk. A delicate bell told them dinner was being served.
Anke and Erik ate sitting on opposite sides of the table, which had grown to forty people by the dinner hour. Junger watched his daughter watch Erik and felt himself relax slightly. It was too early to tell, yet he couldn’t help but feel that an association with the Brosslers would be a good thing for Anke. David was an art historian, one of the most prominent in Germany, and Erik had already shown an interest in me- dieval art, which was Anke’s budding passion as well. They were per- fectly matched. Anke’s mother was dead and Junger had never dared think about Anke’s life after his death. They had few relations, but as he looked around the table, many friends.
When dinner was done, Lotte carried out an enormous birthday cake and set it down in front of Fassbinder, who immediately stood up. He toasted his friends with tears in his eyes.
“Who has ever known such wonderful people?” he asked, truly moved. His wife, Jutta, stood next to him giggling and clapping. He kissed her tenderly and everyone applauded.
“Come help me cut this thing, Anke darling,” he said, wiping his eyes. She started toward him, but Lotte intervened, insisting that the cake would be cut in the kitchen and then served by the servants. Fass- binder laughed and deferred to the hostess, but wanted Anke to visit him anyway. Her father switched seats with her and she sat next to Fassbinder who was dabbing at his eyes with his handkerchief.
“Anke, darling. Are you enjoying the party?” he asked her, grinning.
“Yes, it’s wonderful.”
“Thank you for coming, it means so much to me. Your father and you…mean so much to me.” “I know.”
“You do?” Fassbinder looked surprised.
“You never had any children,” Anke said softly, as if it was a secret.
Fassbinder smiled and embraced her. “No,” he said. “But you are like my child and I will always be there for you. Do you understand?” “Yes,” she said smiling back. She glanced at Erik and he was watch- ing her. The flush came back to her cheeks. They felt hot to the touch.
Anyone who sees and paints a sky green and fields blue ought to be sterilized. —Adolf Hitler
Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1939
Professor David Brossler crossed Harvard Yard at a pace and did not stop to admire the new flowers. Spongy carpets of spring pansies had just been planted but failed to draw his attention, despite his recent interest in gardening. He simply felt that his aging body could not carry him fast enough to his destination, and yet his destination was one he was not sure he wanted to reach. A pit rumbled in his stomach.
Brossler was the head of Harvard’s art history department and well known for his gesticulating lectures and devastating exams. His passion was van Gogh, but he was truly moved by everyone from Rembrandt to Goya. He made no secret about his distaste for Caravaggio and there was a long running debate within the department over whether or not Brossler had allowed himself to be influenced by the seedy and allegedly murderous personality of the painter. Professors Quark and Williams thought he had. Professors Niven and Jameson thought not and accused the others of failing to accept the fact that not everyone admired Caravaggio. This debate vaulted back and forth for years and the students were amused by it. Despite his concrete opinions, Brossler was well loved and respected for his gentleness and his generosity. No question was too ignorant, no student too naive…that sort of thing. He spent hours with his students in the libraries and galleries to help them understand how to properly research and present an art history paper. He conducted one-on-one meetings with art history majors to discuss their thesis ideas, and art in general (and he did this each term, not just twice a year like most of the other professors). He adored teaching. But sometimes he committed himself to his students so completely in order to prevent himself from thinking too much about his past life. Or, that’s what his wife said anyway. Though he didn’t know it as he half-ran away from campus, his past life would rejoin him tonight.
He approached Richard Paulson’s stately colonial house, which was attractively set back from the road and semi-obscured behind a high black, rod-iron fence and very well maintained boxwood bushes. Once on the front steps, Brossler could see through the front windows a group of men sitting around the dining room table, a gray blanket of cigarette smoke hovering above them. Brossler straightened his glasses and rolled his tongue over his teeth just before he knocked on the front door. The lady of the house, Joanna Paulson, wore a tight and worried smile when she welcomed him in and took his brown sports coat.
“So glad you are here,” she said nervously. “We were not sure you were going to come.”
“I had a meeting…forgive my lateness.”
“They have not started yet. I’ll bring you some coffee.”
She disappeared down the hall leaving Brossler to make his own entrance. As he walked into the dining room, the men stood and offered their hands. One man remained seated at the table and a glazed and weary strain was evident on his face. His small body seemed dwarfed by the long cherry dining table, which was a grand antique carved in Paris in the eighteenth century. Brossler made his way toward the man, who seemed lost in thought.
“My God, Friedrich!” Brossler cried as they embraced. The others in the room turned away in respect. Fassbinder buried his face for a moment on Brossler’s shoulder.
“David…it’s been so horrible. I don’t know how to explain.” “You are here and you are safe. Jutta is with you?”
“Yes, she’s with me. She’s safe. How is Lotte?”
Brossler shook his head slowly. “It’s been too hard for her. Leaving Germany was not something she wanted. Even now, she’s very nostalgic and doesn’t find it easy to live here.”
“And Erik?” Fassbinder asked, regaining composure.
“He’s still in London working on his PhD at the Courtauld Institute of Art. Lotte is desperate for him to come home.”
“I can imagine.”
Brossler smelled the aroma from the coffee that had been silently slipped in front of him. He turned to thank Mrs. Paulson, but she had gone. He then realized that the others were waiting for the meeting to begin, so he took his seat, as did Fassbinder.
“Let’s bring this meeting to order,” announced Richard Paulson. This seemed overly formal to Brossler since this was not a meeting of a regular group or club, but a gathering of professors, art dealers and collectors in the area who were interested in hearing firsthand about the situation in Germany. Richard Paulson had made a fortune in rubber and was the greatest art collector in the Boston area. He had many connections to artists and dealers in New York and in Europe, and one of those men was sitting in front of them now, wiping the sweat from his forehead with one of Mrs. Paulson’s embroidered white linen napkins.
“As many of you know, this is Friedrich Fassbinder,” Paulson continued. “Fassbinder has been an art dealer in the Munich area for over twenty years. He and David were good friends.”
“Are good friends,” Brossler interjected, smiling at Fassbinder.
“Excuse me, are good friends,” Paulson continued. “He has obtained ten works for me and at least double that for my associates in New York. He has an interesting story to tell. Some things we already know, some we do not.”
Paulson sat abruptly and turned toward Fassbinder, who seemed to shrink even further under the expectation.
Brossler was grateful that Paulson recognized this meeting was the wrong venue for one of his speeches on art and conservation, two topics that Paulson alone esteemed himself qualified to speak about. “Just because one owns art, does not mean one understands it,” Brossler was fond of saying. Paulson liked to retort with, “you never own art, art owns you.” They sparred from time to time, but in general were good friends and the respect was mutual. Of course, Paulson had given quite a bit of money to Harvard, his alma mater, and a number of paintings, including a Monet, to the university’s Fogg Museum.
Brossler now turned his attention to Fassbinder, who had struggled to his feet. Suddenly something became deadly apparent. Fassbinder was thinner than he had ever been. He’d always been a small man, but now he looked almost childlike. Brossler didn’t understand why he hadn’t noticed it right away. A lump appeared in his throat.
“First of all,” Fassbinder began, “I want to thank Mr. and Mrs. Paulson for funding my voyage from Rotterdam and for hosting me here in their beautiful home.”
Paulson nodded graciously, accepting the thanks on behalf of his wife who was not in the room. He gestured for Fassbinder to continue. “I feel I have a story to tell you that will, I dearly hope, incite you to act.”
Fassbinder’s Bavarian accent brought tears to Brossler’s eyes. He had forgotten, or tried to forget, how much he missed Munich. The Brosslers had immigrated to America in 1933, the year the Nazis came to power and enacted the “Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service.” Many deemed politically opposed to the regime, or Jews, were fired from their jobs and this included a great number of academics. Not only did Brossler lose his lectureship at Ludwig Maximillian University, but he was personally attacked for his support of expressionist art in the Nazi newspaper Völkische Beobachter. After this, he was unemployable in Germany or Austria and they made the difficult decision to sell the house and the Klein silver collection (Lotte was devastated) and emigrate. When they sailed for New York, they left behind not only friends, but many relatives including his wife’s mother who said she couldn’t possibly leave her beloved Munich. Looking at Fassbinder, Brossler now realized how wrong she was to stay.
“Several years ago, in the summer of 1937,” Fassbinder began, “I attended the opening of the Haus der Deutschen Kunst (House of German Art) in Munich with my great friend and client, Dietrich Junger.”
There was a quiet murmuring at the table. Junger was one of the brightest stars in German modernist painting. Some said he was Chagall meets Kandinsky, though Brossler never thought so. He saw him more as an ultra-modern van Gogh (though Brossler thought all modern painters were more or less a version of van Gogh). Regardless, Junger was recognized, even in America, as an explosive talent. His abstract landscapes were captivating and his heavy use of layered paint gave some of them an almost three-dimensional feel. An art critic from The New York Times called Junger “unafraid and dismissive of both tradition and convention.” He meant that as a compliment. Three of Junger’s massive canvases now hung in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. A show of his work was a major success at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1935. A number of other museums, including the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, owned a Junger.
Brossler smiled, thinking of his old friend. He hadn’t heard from him in years. Brossler wondered often about Anke, and he knew Erik still thought of her. He knew their parting in Munich had been the hardest moment of his son’s life. There had been several attempts to tempt Junger and Anke to emigrate, but Junger had politely refused. Erik and Anke had maintained contact for a few years, but she stopped writing in 1936. The last they heard she was planning to leave Germany and continue her studies in Belgium, at the University of Ghent.
Brossler shrugged off his thoughts and returned to Fassbinder who was now standing and pacing back and forth. He looked right at Brossler.
“David, you should have seen the affair! Thousands of people parading through the streets, young women in formation, dressed as maidens from a Greek temple, escorting huge pieces of sculpture on floats…medieval knights on horseback with the swastika emblazoned on their shields….banners hanging everywhere and pine branches…it was unbelievable. A thousand years of Germanic cultural history paraded through the streets…it took hours! Junger and I started the day want- ing to laugh, wanting to find it all so hilarious…and why wouldn’t we? But then Hitler came to the podium to give a speech. I had only ever seen him in person once before. I jotted down some notes while he was speaking…here are some of the best bits:”
“Works of art” that are not capable of being understood in themselves but need some pretentious instruction book to justify their existence—until at long last they find someone sufficiently browbeaten to endure such stupid or impudent twaddle with patience will never again find their way to the German people…we will, from now on, lead an unrelenting war of purification, an unrelenting war of extermination, against the last elements which have displaced our art.
Fassbinder knew he had everyone’s attention. Coffee cups were left on their white porcelain saucers and cigarettes smoldered in the ashtrays. Nobody had even touched the vanilla Bundt cake.
“After that, I’ll admit, I wanted to go home. But Junger wouldn’t hear of it. He said it was our duty as humans to observe this. So we went inside the new House of German Art with the hundreds of others and let me tell you, it was one of the most ridiculous displays of art either of us had ever seen. With the exception of a few Cranachs, Holbeins, and the occasional Dutch or Flemish Old Master, most of the art was mediocre at best, downright amateur at worst. The propaganda paintings of the Nazi party were the dominant works, including many portraits of Hitler and even more of German soldiers. Hitler’s birthplace in Austria…lots of landscapes of that. Some decent paintings, some good technique, but mostly…romantic, folk art. Nothing by modernist painters, no cubists, no expressionists. No communists. No Jews.”
Another murmuring, but Fassbinder hardly paused, his heart was beating too fast.
“Junger and I left after about an hour, disgusted. But nothing would prepare us for what happened a few days later. I got a call from Junger early one morning and he was upset. He told me that men who called themselves “Nazi art representatives” appeared at his apartment in the middle of the night and demanded that he turn over his entire portfolio to them. They had four trucks waiting outside. He refused, but then his daughter, Anke, who was visiting from Ghent, appeared and the men threatened to arrest her. It worked because Junger opened his studio and let the men have the paintings. He told me that Anke slapped him across the face for allowing his canvases to go out the door. But she was all he had. Her mother died when she was a baby. He and Anke were very close.”
Fassbinder suddenly needed to sit down. Brossler was disturbed by Fassbinder’s use of the past tense but decided to bite his tongue. Instead, he got up and poured a glass of water from the elegant Italianate pitcher at the center of the table and handed it to the grateful man. Slightly revived, Fassbinder continued his story from his seat.
“Junger and I had known for several years that the Nazis were taking modernist paintings and sculpture out of German museums, but we hadn’t heard of an artist’s entire portfolio being confiscated from his studio. As it turns out, Junger was not the first, not by far, and would not be the last. I mean, the Gestapo confiscated one of Oskar Kokoschka’s canvases and cut it into four pieces! I was losing faith fast. But typical of Junger, he soon after insisted that we attend the opening of Entartete Kunst, the exhibit of so-called ‘degenerate art’ at the old archaeological building. Anke delayed her return to Ghent and came with us. None of you will believe me when I tell you what I saw on that day. For a start, the exhibition curators described expressionist art as,” Fassbinder again consulted his notes, “‘an inferno of Negro grimaces, crippled figures, and infantile demonic spookery.’”
Those around the table glanced at each other uneasily. Brossler’s skin was crawling.
Fassbinder continued, gesturing with his glass of water and spilling it slightly.
“When we entered the exhibit, we came first to a section entitled:
Works which insult women, workers and the farmers of Germany.
“Here was Marc Chagall, Paul Klee, Max Ernst, Emil Nolde…. Here was Max Beckmann and Pablo Picasso! The lighting was abysmal and the paintings were slapped up on the wall, crooked and crowded together. Everything was intentional and there was graffiti written on the walls…insults and propaganda. There was an entire room dedicated to:
A representative selection from the endless supply of Jewish trash that no words can adequately describe.
“Can you imagine? Junger, Anke, and I just wandered around…we couldn’t believe our eyes. Lots of people were shaking their heads, and I knew they were upset. We saw several people, friends of ours, but we said little to them. Nobody wanted to talk or say how they really felt. Junger’s own paintings were hung in a corner, four of them. Under one of his country scenes was written Nature as seen by sick minds.
“Sick minds! I couldn’t believe it. Junger was stoic but Anke was devastated. We left immediately because she said she felt ill.”
Fassbinder leaned over and wiped his eyes. Brossler placed a reassuring hand on his shoulder, despite feeling quite ill himself. He noticed, for the first time, that Fassbinder hadn’t lost his hair naturally, it had been shaved off. Small amounts of coarse, gray hair were now growing back.
“I’m sorry, David,” Fassbinder said, his voice trailing to almost a whisper. “I have wanted to tell this story for so long, but I still can’t believe what I am saying.”
“Don’t apologize, Friedrich. Just continue when you are ready.”
“Yes. I must continue, because the worst is yet to come.” He looked up at Brossler’s worried face.
“Within days of the opening of the degenerate art exhibit, most of the German modernist art professors were fired. Paul Klee was ejected from the Bauhaus School in Düsseldorf, Beckmann in Berlin…Walter Hofer too. Oskar Schlemmer was called a Jew by a former student, even though he is not. He is now painting camouflage on military buildings. Willi Baumeister has been forced to work in a varnish factory in Stuttgart.”
Fassbinder paused briefly for the gasps. He took a cigarette out of a silver case (a gift from Junger), and held it between his fingers without lighting it.
“Junger was arrested early in ’38. They said he had been ordered to stop painting, but had refused. New canvases were found in his studio. He was taken to the Dachau concentration camp north of Munich. Anke returned from Ghent to lobby for his release but nobody would even talk to her. She was threatened with imprisonment. I told her to return to Ghent and that I would write as soon as I had news. Two days later I was arrested myself and sent to the Mathausen camp in Austria. I was there for six months. I was beaten with a whip and forced to dig stone in a gigantic quarry. I…I…will not say anymore. I will say that had they thought I was a Jew or a homosexual, I would most likely be dead. But, I was just a lowly art dealer who had sold too many modern and expressionist works. I was released five months ago.
When I returned home, my wife told me that Junger had been sent home a month prior and was in very bad health. I went immediately to see him and did not recognize the man who stood in the doorway. He had lost nearly seventy pounds…he was a skeleton. I was malnourished and sick as well, but not as bad as Junger. Anke informed me that her father had gone on a hunger strike in protest of the arrests of artists and intellectuals. This, of course, had no effect on the Nazis who no doubt intended for him to die. This man was a decorated soldier…he fought at Verdun…it’s just incredible to me.”
Fassbinder blew his nose into a white handkerchief and returned it to his breast pocket.
“But he didn’t die. He survived. Anke nursed him night and day. By now, Austria had been annexed to Germany and everyone was talking about war. Junger felt it was too dangerous for Anke to stay in Germany and wanted her to return to Ghent, where she had friends. Not only did she refuse, but she insisted that her father begin painting again. She said it would make him well and I agreed. Junger could hardly hold a paintbrush when he returned from the camp, but he was getting stronger now. He sat up in his studio for hours, staring at a blank canvas. He could not paint. Anke tried sitting with him and she tried leaving him alone. This April, on the eighth of the month, she found her father hanging from the cord he used to bind his giant canvases together for transport. He was brought to the hospital, but could not be revived.”
The cracking in Fassbinder’s voice now melted into a soft sob. Brossler buried his face in his hands and wept, his shoulders shaking.
Moist eyes regarded them, though no one spoke out of respect. After a few moments, Brossler looked up at Fassbinder who was shaking his head at him.
“We knew there was nothing left to do but leave, David. I sold several paintings from my collection, the rest of which is now in the hands of the Nazis no doubt. My wife and I bought visas, with the help of Mr. Paulson, and booked passage on a ship from Rotterdam to New York. She is staying with friends in Manhattan, where I will return after our meeting here.”
“And Anke…where did she go?” Brossler asked, wiping his eyes with a handkerchief shifted across the table by Paulson.
“She went back to Ghent. I never really got to say goodbye, every- thing happened so fast after Junger died. There was no funeral. He was buried in the churchyard at the Peterskirche and I think Anke was the only one to attend the burial. She said that’s what she wanted. Before we left, I wrote her a letter with our New York address and sent it to the University of Ghent. I pray she received it.”
Fassbinder slumped backward in his chair, exhausted by the emotion. Then, as if he forgot something, he straightened up again.
“All ‘degenerate’ works were removed from German museums. Meanwhile, the degenerate art exhibit has been traveling around Germany. Millions have seen it, but it only represents a small percentage of the art that Germany has produced. The Nazis burned the confiscated art that they didn’t think they could sell. Over a thousand paintings and sculptures and nearly 4,000 drawings, watercolors, and other graphic prints were reduced to ashes at the Berlin Fire Department headquarters in March. And…there is talk of an auction.”
“Auction?” Paulson suddenly found his voice.
“Yes, an auction…to raise money for The Reich.”
Paulson’s mind raced. To buy art from the Nazis, even if it meant giving them money for their war effort, was surely worth it, especially if the art would be destroyed.
“We can’t possibly buy art from the Nazis,” Brossler said, almost in a whisper. Paulson’s face turned pink.
“One of the items up for bidding is van Gogh’s Self Portrait,” Fassbinder added, nonchalantly.
Brossler turned to him, astounded. “How can that be?”
“It was in Munich’s Neue Staatsgalerie. They removed it around the time Junger was arrested. No one has seen it since. They are going to sell it.”
“Where’s the auction going to be?” Paulson asked. “Lucerne.”
“In two weeks.”
“Lord! Two weeks? It takes two weeks to get to Switzerland!”
“Then you must leave right away,” Brossler commanded, shocking everyone.
Paulson ran his fingers through his thick, white hair. “You just said that we can’t buy art from the Nazis. Now you want me to go to the auction? Why, because of the van Gogh?”
“Yes. We must save it.”
“Someone will buy it. A Dutch dealer, surely.”
“You should go and see what is going on, we need someone to give a firsthand report.”
“Why don’t you go?”
The glaringly obvious answer to this question, that Brossler was Jewish, embarrassed Paulson and he immediately apologized. Brossler nodded, absolving him.
“Is this what we want to do?” Paulson asked, addressing the group at large. Williams and Niven said yes at the same time. Quark was more reluctant, but agreed. Jameson nodded but looked thunderstruck. The feelings of Brossler and Fassbinder were obvious.
The meeting broke up when Mrs. Paulson entered the room and insisted that Fassbinder be taken off to bed, since he was clearly exhausted. Even though it wasn’t expressed in so many words, everyone understood that Richard Paulson would get on the first ship heading east and attempt to make it to Lucerne to buy, at the very least, the van Gogh.
Brossler and Fassbinder embraced again and Brossler promised to see him tomorrow for breakfast. A sad silence passed between them as they parted, knowing each would shed more tears for Junger that night.
As Brossler walked slowly home though the darkened streets, he wondered if Erik knew about Junger. Perhaps it was reported in the British papers? Maybe this news would finally push Erik to come home to Cambridge like his mother wanted. London was too close to the action, too close to this evil that seemed to be spreading now. Brossler made a promise to himself that he would insist that Erik abandon his studies, for now, and return to America.
Brossler paused at his front door and sat down instead on the front porch swing. He took his hat off and ran his fingers across his balding head. His eyes filled again.
Junger wanted to die. It was all falling apart.
In late July, Brossler received a letter from Paulson. David,
This has been quite the eye-opening experience, to say the least. You will be pleased, I am sure, to know that I bought the van Gogh for a fantastic price. I also bought Matisse’s Bathers with a Turtle! I thought Maurice Sauval would be here, but he is apparently arranging a giant Picasso exhibit in Paris. I am going to take it in before I return, though I have shipped the pieces home already. There were a couple of Picassos, several Noldes and Chagalls up for bidding at the auction, many of them bought by a Belgian group. The German auctioneers were sarcastic and generally demeaned the art. Not surprising, I suppose. I spoke to one German dealer who was present, a Herr Groeben, and he seemed very conflicted about Rembrandt. He clearly thought of him as a Nordic painter, but he found fault with the fact that he chose to depict so many Jews. Can you believe these people? He also told me that there were more works up for sale in Berlin: Kandinsky, Klee, Beckmann. I might inquire….
Apparently Hermann Göring, the head of the Luftwaffe, is quite the collector. He isn’t afraid of degenerate art, it would seem, by the choices his buyers were making. I propose we organize an exhibit of exiled works, perhaps at the Institute of Contemporary Art? Sauval’s agents have bought a number of paintings here, I am sure he would agree to loan them.
I did manage to meet with your son, he came to see me at the Dorchester. He’s a thoughtful and highly intelligent young man and he does you great credit!
Take care and best to Lotte,
July 30, 1939