How my story about art looted by the Nazis inspired an opera – The Forward

It’s not often that a newspaper series becomes an opera — let alone a Holocaust-themed opus from one of America’s most revered composers.

But that’s about to happen with a collection of articles I published more than twenty years ago in the Chicago Tribunewhere I covered music from 1978 to 2021.

Later this month, Before it all happens, Dark – by composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer – is making its world premiere tour in Seattle, San Francisco and Chicago. Heggie is celebrated around the world for his opera Walking Dead man (based on the book by Sister Helen Prejean and the film of the same name), and for Moby Dick and other works he made with the similarly gifted Scheer.

The new opera will bring to the stage a story I wrote more than twenty years ago and had all but forgotten – until the night Heggie and I had dinner together in Chicago in December 2021.

That evening, Heggie told me that the Seattle-based Music of Remembrance, which commissions works on the Holocaust and other social justice issues, had asked him to create a new opera. Mina Miller, founder and artistic director of Music of Remembrance, wanted to celebrate the organization’s 25th anniversarye birthday was celebrated in a big way, and an opera seemed about the right choice.

But Heggie had no story yet.

So, as critics are prone to do, I offered unsolicited advice: I noted that while there had been several Holocaust-related operas, I knew of none that dealt with the fraught subject of looted art.

And then I suddenly remembered a story that had haunted me at the time, but had long since disappeared from my memory.

‘Before It All Goes Dark’ will be performed in San Francisco, Seattle and Chicago. Thanks to Verismo Communications

In 2001, I was working on an article about rare string instruments that had been seized by the Nazis and were now worth millions – but had ended up in the wrong hands.

When I called the Art Loss Register, which tracks stolen cultural treasures, to see if they had any leads on looted violins, they said no. But they soon offered another tantalizing possibility: They said that the Jewish Museum in Prague had recently proven that thirty paintings in the National Gallery there belonged to Emil Freund, a prominent Czech Jew murdered during the Holocaust.

The democratic government in the Czech Republic had commissioned the Jewish Museum to find heirs and return the art. But neither the museum nor the Art Loss Register could find out who the heir might be.

And so they asked: would I like to try to identify the heir? Because Freund had two sisters, the Art Loss Register wondered whether those siblings might have lived in Chicago, which had long had a large Czech population.

As the son of two Holocaust survivors, I decided to take on the challenge, and soon found obituaries of Freund’s sisters: Berta Sieben and Olga Hoppe. Lo and behold, they had indeed been living in Chicago since the 1920s. I then worked on finding the obituaries of their children and subsequent generations, from which I built a family tree.

That led me to a man named Gerald McDonald.

The Internet wasn’t nearly as ubiquitous as it is today, so even though voter registration showed he lived in the Chicago suburb of Lyon, I didn’t have his phone number. When I knocked on his door, the heavy metal music he was playing inside was so loud he couldn’t hear me. After a tense and seemingly endless twenty minutes, the door opened and I saw a large man in jeans and a T-shirt, his arms and neck covered in tattoos.

‘I’m Howard Reich from the Chicago Tribune,” I said. “And if you are who I think you are, you are heir to a priceless art collection looted in Prague during the Holocaust.”

I was a little surprised when this giant of a man said kindly, “Come in, please.”

Composer JakeHeggie and librettist Gene Scheer Photo by Stefan Cohen

I waited in his living room while he disappeared elsewhere in the small house; Then he reappeared with a small tin box in his hand. It contained birth, death, and marriage records for many of the people in the family tree I had created, which meant that Gerald McDonald—or “Mac,” as I soon learned everyone called him—was indeed Emil Freund’s heir.

As it turns out, Mac had his own tragic story. He served in the Navy in Vietnam and had been diagnosed with hepatitis C and post-traumatic stress disorder. He was married and divorced three times, awaiting a liver transplant, living on disability benefits and unaware of his Jewish heritage.

I spent the next few months corroborating Mac’s life story and expanding on the story, which appeared on the website Stand‘s front page on December 30, 2001.

Three weeks after I told the world that I could prove Mac was heir to the collection, the Jewish Museum in Prague received a letter from the Czech Ministry of Culture. The ministry said the ministry is considering designating the most valuable works in Freund’s collection as national cultural treasures. As such, they would not receive an export license and therefore would not leave the country or be sold on the international market.

In addition, the ministry warned the museum that it must protect the works against ‘misappropriation’. This was quite rich, considering that the paintings had been looted by the Nazis during the Holocaust, nationalized by the communist government of Czechoslovakia after the war, and were now about to be embezzled again.

Ryan McKinney stars in ‘Before It All Goes Dark.’ Photo by Jiyang Chen

The Czech Ministry of Culture quickly declared the fourteen most valuable works of the thirty as national cultural treasures, including Paul Signac’s ‘Riverboat on the Seine’ and Andre Derain’s ‘Head of Young Woman’.

Not surprisingly, Mac was outraged and would not let this slide. Although he was ill and poor, he decided to go to Prague to view his paintings and see if he could obtain them. He borrowed $688 from friends for the plane ticket, packed a suitcase of clothes and a suitcase of medicine, bought a new pair of blue suede boots and flew to Prague – with me.

At the Jewish Museum, Mac was overwhelmed to see his great-uncle’s artwork collected in one room; the brilliant impressionist, post-impressionist and avant-garde paintings said a lot about Freund’s taste and status in society. In fact, Mac made contact with a long-lost relative he never knew he had. Then Mac decided to go to Lodz, Poland, to see the ghetto to which Freund had been shipped and where he died in 1942, buried in an unmarked hole.

The Jewish Museum sued the Czech government for its apparent attempt to circumvent its own laws on returning Nazi-looted art, but unsurprisingly the government prevailed.

On our last evening in Prague, Mac bought $72 oil on canvas in the city’s Old Town, the only art he came home with.

After I told composer Heggie this story, he decided on the spot that this would be the subject of his opera Music of Remembrance, and it is.

Ultimately, Heggie, librettist Scheer, and I all came to the same conclusion: that while Mac never obtained the art of his persecuted ancestor (Mac died in 2005 at the age of 55, after his long-awaited liver transplant), he gained something perhaps more valuable: a family history he never knew and a connection to Judaism that he cherished.

I’ll never forget one of the last things he said to me as we boarded our plane to Chicago.

“From now on, I know what I’m going to say when someone asks,” Mac told me. “I’ll say, ‘Yes, I’m a Jew. I am a Jew. “Do you have a problem with that?”

Before it all gets dark plays May 19 in Seattle; May 22 in San Francisco; and May 25-26 in Chicago; For more information and tickets, visit Howard Reich can be reached at [email protected]

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