Rembrandt's Shadow

By: Janet Lee Berg

HOW REMBRANDT

SAVED MY FAMILY’S LIFE

An Introduction by Bruce Berg

(Husband of Janet Lee Berg, Author of Rembrandt’s Shadow)

It is October 20, 1942, and my Opa, Benjamin Katz, and his frightened family stood at the train station in occupied Holland, unsure if the train doors would open and take them to freedom or a death camp. My sister Alma, who was six years old, would later recall the madness, as they were surrounded by armed soldiers on the platform barking orders as they wondered if a desperate last-minute escape had worked. They were accompanied by a German officer who, when he, received the order to allow the escape commented, “I would have much rather been given the order to kill all of you.”

Opa’s brother, Nathan and business partner, both well-established art dealers, had been working on a big trade- a Rembrandt “Portrait of Dirck Jansz. Pesser” in exchange for 25 Jewish lives.

My telling this story gives away the ending of their harrowing escape along the tracks through Paris and on to the Spanish border where they would depart on a boat, the Marque de Comillas, which took them further away from Auschwitz, and closer to the island of Jamaica where they would wait out the war in a British internment camp.

But many other members of my family were not so fortunate. Benjamin also tried to arrange for his in-laws escape, but was not able to do so and they perished in the camps.

Even though I was born in America after the war, I was long aware that my grandfather and his brother, Nathan, were art dealers of considerable reputation, but I had no idea as to the extent of their prominence in the art world. They were considered the foremost experts in the field of Dutch painting, especially Old Masters. They possessed the works of such esteemed artists as Vermeer, Jan Steen, and Nicholas Maes and at one time, acquired more Rembrandt’s than anyone in Europe. It was that collection that had long made them a prime target of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi henchmen.

My mother would only tell us stories haltingly, and with little detail, except she repetitively told me about seeing people holding bars of soap at the train depot.

But only in the last few years, as I have worked to trace what became of that Rembrandt and so many other works of art my family once treasured, have I learned the terrifying details of what happened after the Nazis invaded the Netherlands in May of 1940 and appeared on the doorstep of their comfortable home in the village of Dieren.

Nathan’s son David, who is still alive, recalls those days, and describes a house once filled with much joy. “The residents of Dieren, who knew my grandfather, still speak with so much affection of my grandfather ‘s family and how their home was a magnet for Friday night Shabbat dinners.” According to David, conversations turned tense with “the growing anti-Semitic movement and what to do with the children.”

After the invasion in May of 1940, my grandfather testified that they were forced to sell almost their entire inventory of 500 paintings. He stated that they “would never have parted with so many paintings at one time.”

The abstract questions turned deadly real when Nazi agents, who had long targeted the art in the Katz gallery, came to pay a visit in August 1940.

“Eventually, Hermann Goering, the head of the Luftwaffe and Hitler’s chief art collector, arrived. Surrounded by armed goons, he stood in our family’s living room and conducted “business” with Nathan. All the children were ushered into another room and ordered to stay there. They were not even allowed to use the toilet. The visit left everyone shaken, including my mother, who soon fell ill.”

(STORY CONTINUED IN AFTERWARD)





PORTRAIT OF RAMAN





Portrait of Dirck Jansz. Pesser

REMBRANDT HARMENSZ. VAN RIJN - HOLLAND, CIRCA 1634





ONE

QUEENS, NEW YORK

1971

Sylvie Rosenberg Beckman resealed the letter and placed it on top of the pile. She carefully retied the lavender bow that held the stack of mail, so nothing would be detected, and she tilted her head at the sight of Michael’s wavering script. “Angela” was written on the outside of each envelope; the capital “A” cradled between sketched wings. She clapped her hand over her quivering lips. Sylvie never recalled her son as being artistic.

She thought about when she was a young girl, drawing train tracks in her journal the day the German soldiers had lined them up at the depot. She was trying to teach herself perspective in drawing, the illusion of the train tracks getting further away in the distance. After so many years, Sylvie’s life was anything but a straight path. Her memories vacillated between euphoric and tragic without order, without making sense.

Then Sylvie snatched up the receiver and dialed Angela’s number.



Angela was grateful for her Friday morning slumber without the interruption of college classes, until the shrill ring of the telephone woke her. She realized her parents were both out, and stretched her slight torso in her four-poster bed.

“Hello?” She yawned.

“Angela? Is this Angela Martino?”

“Yes. That’s me,” she said in a fog.

“This is Michael’s mother. Sylvie Beckman.”

Angela was quiet. Mrs. Beckman? Her eyes opened as she recognized the woman’s thick glottal accent and felt a powerful jolt in her half-sleep. She hadn’t heard the woman’s voice for over two years now. Not since that dreadful summer night they met.

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