An American Decade
Richard Aronowitz works for Sothebys where he heads the restitution Department, working as a Nazi loot-hunter and provenance specialist. He was formerly a director at the London Jewish Museum of Art. He lives in Oxford. He is the author of Five Amber Beads and It's Just the Beating of my Heart. His latest novel, An American Decade, connects the current political climate with that of the tumultuous 1930s. After the death of his wife, Christoph leaves Germany in 1930 and eventually finds success as a singer on Broadway. As the decade unfolds, he witnesses the rapid rise of American organisations sympathetic to Hitler. The ominous presence and popularity of these far right groups become a constant reminder of his inaction. As the human horrors of Nazism close in he is forced to act and sets sail across the Atlantic in search of a hidden piece of his history. Below, exclusively for Foyles, Richard talks about the darkness lurking in his past and its connection to his role as a Nazi loot-hunter at the auction house, Sothebys.
The mid-twentieth-century caesura of Nazism and World War Two has shaped much of my life, although where I come from and how I grew up would, at first glance, make the reasons for that difficult to fathom. Born as Richard Mercer in a now-closed maternity hospital in Cuckfield, Sussex in 1970, I moved in 1971 to the edge of the utterly beautiful village of Slad in Gloucestershire, made world-famous as the setting for Laurie Lee’s strongly autobiographical novel, Cider with Rosie. My later childhood was spent in the almost equally picturesque villages that orbit the not quite so charming former cloth-mill town of Stroud in the heart of the Cotswolds. To look at it, it was an absolutely idyllic childhood and a very outdoors one: building bonfires, playing in streams, shooting homemade bows and arrows… so far, so very Swallows and Amazons but without the water.
The thing was that there was always a darkness lurking there: when I was still quite young, I found out from my three much older brothers that I had been one of a twin, and that my twin had died at birth. Knowledge of his death haunted me for much of the rest of my childhood, and then the arrival of my aged, German-sounding great-uncle Isy from faraway Melbourne in Australia made me suspect that there was rather more suffering out in the world than this young life of Cotswold stone and collie dogs might suggest. For Uncle Isy, who – to complicate matters – had changed his first name to George when he moved to Australia after World War Two, had numbers tattooed in blue ink on the inside of his wrist. He also used to grab my porridge bowl off me if I did not finish it, and scrape the bowl down to the glaze so that no drop of the porridge would be wasted. What on earth was his story and why was he here in my apparently idyllic English childhood?
Slowly, other things began to emerge: a broken necklace of deep-red amber beads that my mother kept hidden away in her jewellery box; a set of silver-plated knives, forks and spoons that we ate with on special occasions and that had an initial on their handles that did not match our surname. And why did my mother sometimes come out with strange German exclamations? I had no idea what any of this meant. But slowly, very slowly, the truth always emerges like a splinter working its way to the surface of the skin. When I was perhaps around ten years old, my mother told me that she was from Wuppertal-Elberfeld in Germany and that she had come over to England before the war on her own when she was eight. Much of my teenage years were spent trying to piece her history together: I asked endless questions about it all and have never really stopped asking them since.
My mother Doris Aronowitz (whose surname I took as my nom de plume when she died), had – it became clear – come over on one of the Kindertransport trains from Germany very late indeed, in July 1939 a month or so before the outbreak of the war. She had never known her father and she had no siblings and had lost her mother in the Holocaust. Her aunt was also killed, while Uncle Isy survived the Lodz Ghetto, Auschwitz, Buchenwald and the Death March. All of this history, despite the appearance from time to time of Uncle Isy, had remained almost completely hidden from us boys, and it took my relentless pushing for our mother to begin to open up about what she and her family had been through. According to some theories, there is always one “memorial candle” in every generation descending from Holocaust survivors, and I seem to have been the one chosen. I have always believed that my mother’s having had four sons was a way for her to recoup something for herself, to bring back her lost family life.
My debut novel, Five Amber Beads, looked at this deeply personal family history in the form of fiction, albeit fiction very closely connected to reality. I used the device of a provenance researcher working in the art world and looking into the ownership history of works of art between 1933-1945 (the period in which countless objects of cultural and personal value were confiscated and looted from Jews, or sold under duress by them in order to survive) as a way of examining my own provenance, my own family history. As a complete and utter coincidence, I was invited to become head of the restitution department at Sotheby’s in London, looking into exactly these matters of cultural loss and plunder during Nazism, the very year that that novel came out. I have worked in this field since 2006 and it is a fascinating and utterly absorbing area of work, not least because I – very occasionally – get to reunite the heirs of the pre-war Jewish owners with works of art that their forefathers lost after Hitler came to power in 1933.
The provenance and identity of every work of art created before 1945 is checked by me and my small team before it is offered for sale at Sotheby’s and this fine-toothed comb approach is intended to winkle out any work amongst the many thousands consigned each year to the renowned auction house that might have an unresolved Nazi-era looting or forced sale history. The stakes are very high and the buck stops with me and the team: if we let an unrecovered item of Nazi loot into one of our sales, it can do unbound reputational damage to the auction house and raise questions of good title and moral and legal ownership with the owner and potential buyer. When we do spot a work that was looted or lost and not recovered after World War Two, we initiate a dialogue between the current owner and the heirs of the pre-war owner to try to bring about a latent resolution of the work’s tragic history.
An American Decade focuses on the emergence of rabid Nazi groups in America during the 1930s. I had no idea at all that such organisations had existed in America, let alone flourished there, before World War Two and the grainy black-and-white footage of twenty thousand Nazis parading in Madison Square Gardens, New York City in February 1939 sends a chill down my spine every time I look at it.