Ms. Geek Speaks: War and stolen art

Last week, I viewed “Woman in Gold” several times, including one viewing of the whole movie with commentary with Director Simon Curtis and Producer David M. Thompson. “Woman in Gold” is a very Los Angeles story because the real Maria Altmann fled Vienna with her husband and eventually ended up in Los Angeles. It was again in Los Angeles that she found the son of two other Austrian refugees, who was a lawyer, E. Randol Schoenberg.

Schoenberg won her case for her and remains in Los Angeles and is very active in the Jewish community in Los Angeles and he teaches about law and art at USC.

There is another California story about art that we haven’t really spoken about. Each time I think about “Woman in Gold,” I think about one of my uncles. He has now passed away, and I didn’t speak with him much as he lived in Chicago, but when I interviewed him for an article about the Japanese American internment, I very clearly remember the anger in his voice when he recalled one thing: All of my grandmother’s fine lacquerware from Japan had been stolen from the place they had stored it in. Imagine leaving the camp in the Arizona desert and returning home to it had been vandalized and your most precious things stolen.

My grandmother came from a merchant family who are doing well enough now in current day Osaka. She had five kids, three boys and two girls. Now only the girls–my mother and my aunt survive. The kind of things that were lost then–the lacquerware, photos and the items tied to family history and events, cannot be replaced.

Yet that was the way with most of the Japanese and Japanese Americans who were in California at the time of World War II. They were only allowed to take what they could carry before they were taken away from their homes, rented or owned. Are there any records or photographs? I don’t know. Many sold things they could not take with them.

I know that from both sides of my family there should have been items brought as dowery and gifts, but those heirlooms are gone and perhaps exist now in antique stores.

In my own lifetime, the two thefts that hurt the most were things that my parents had made me–the handcrafted coin purse with the image of a horse carved into the leather that my dad made for me before he died and the walnut desk my mother gave me.

Sentiment and value do not always go hand in hand, but the loss of family heirlooms is part of the unresolved ache the remains and touches every succeeding generation. And sometimes a theft is not just a theft. Certainly, the lost heirlooms that resulted from the Japanese American internment is less widespread that of the European WWII Holocaust and except for those men who died as WWII soldiers, most of the Japanese Americans who were relocated did live and they did return to their homes and cities to live again among the very people who took their treasures. Like my uncle, most of the people are now gone and the memory of the things lost will be lost with them as well.


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