Saturday, April 18, 2015

"Remember us"

is the only thing Maria Bloch-Bauer Altmann's father asked of her on the last day she hugged them goodbye before leaving Vienna forever for Cologne on her way to a forced new life in America with her young husband, Fredrick "Fritz" Altmann at the beginning of the Nazi occupation of that city. I was so touched by that scene in the movie, I cried right along with Maria, excellently played by the great Helen Mirren. She was held by her attorney nephew, Randol Schoenberg, played very well by Ryan Reynolds, after he won their case against the Austrian government to regain ownership of the famous Klimt portraits of her aunt, Adele Bloch Bauer. This movie is a powerful portrait of love, loss and remembrance.

The Bloch-Bauer family were well-to-do aristocrats living in a beautiful home in Vienna. They supported and entertained many famous artists, including Gustav Klimt. After a modest beginning there and working hard, they amassed a small fortune in beautiful things. When the Nazis occupied Vienna and began persecuting the Jews there, Maria's father, Gustav, an accomplished cellist, tried to pretend life remained normal. He soon regretted ignoring the warning of his brother, Ferdinand, who fled Vienna with his wife, Adele, a week after Maria's wedding to Fritz seeing the figurative writing on the wall of impending Nazi occupation. Denial is truly a powerful thing. The two brothers and their families shared the home in Vienna until that time. Aunt Adele was like a second mother to Maria, who was a timid child that Aunt Adele tried to encourage to be more assertive. "I wonder what being a woman will be like when you are older," she said. "Will you also be required to entertain yourself with trivialities?" (I am paraphrasing this last line.) In the movie, we are led to believe Aunt Adele was not a happy woman even with all her wealth.

Maria, now living in a small apartment in Los Angeles and running a small clothing shop of her own, inherits letters from her sister, Adele, along with the remainder of her belongings. "I must keep the memories alive," she said. These letters led her to believe that she could once again reclaim the Klimt portraits hanging in the Austrian State Gallery (Bellevue Museum in the movie) in Vienna. In fact, we were told that "Woman In Gold" was the Mona Lisa of Austria, and authorities would never give it back. But, in 1998, the Austrian Green Party passed a law for art restitution of works taken from Jewish families by the Nazis. Holding the government to the word of law proved daunting, however, as Maria and Randol discovered.

This movie touched me at a time when I am spending many hours researching my family's history; that of my husband and my son on I have been living in the past all week, and then the line was spoken by Gustav Bloch-Bauer to his daughter on the day of her departure from his life, "Remember us." In that moment, I realized I have been wrestling with this idea of living in the past versus the present. So many of us are driven by our past. I have avoided this dilemma because I became "enlightened" and strive to live in "the Now". The past is the past, right?

Back in the last 1970s, I attended the University of New Mexico. In my freshman year, I took a class in Philosophy 101. In it, we learned that the Yoruba tribe of Nigeria believes that nobody dies until the last person who remembers them dies. I'm sure there are many cultural philosophies that believe in this prospect. "Remember us" reminded me that in exploring the history of my family, I am remembering those who came before. Those who came before share genes with me, my husband and my son, and contribute to who we are today. I am remembering them by learning about them, even if it is for the first time. In so doing, I am also honoring them and their memory because my research is causing me to explore facts about events and fashion of each era I discover. And, I think about my own sixty-five years of history.

When Maria Altmann chose to stand toe-to-toe with her ghosts living in Vienna by agreeing to return with Randol to meet with those in charge of her portraits, she was in some way speaking to me to face my own ghosts. I have begun my memoir a hundred times over the past four decades, and each time I face such pain, I quit. This move made me cry partly because maybe it is time for me to stand firm in the face of my own painful memories and put them to rest once and for all.

This move is a must see for everyone. It is a period of WWII, like the movie, The Monuments Men, that introduced me to events I was ignorant about. Instead of all the art and precious memories stolen from all the Jews by Adolph Hitler and his army, this movie focuses on one family's losses and the pain of their personal experience during the war. There was a victory won in this story, that helps heal a small bit of that horrendous time in our human history.

But in my mind, any victory; any justice received is a step towards healing the pain inflicted on us all through the atrocities inflicted on one particular group of our human family. This movie takes one more step towards personalizing one family's painful experience, so that we all can experience a sense of justice and healing at some level. At least, that's what this person took away from this powerful movie.

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