When Emil Freund was killed in the Jewish ghetto of Lodz, Poland, in 1942, he left behind an extensive art collection that sat forgotten in a Prague warehouse. For nearly 60 years the portraits and landscapes by some of the most renowned French artists of his day were kept from public view and from their rightful heirs.
Now a Vietnam veteran named Gerald McDonald, who lives in west suburban Lyons, plans to claim the collection as Freund's great-great-nephew.
"My relatives spent most of their lives trying to find this collection, but nobody knew where it was or how to get it," McDonald said of the paintings that recently resurfaced at The Jewish Museum in Prague, in the Czech Republic. "I never even was sure it existed."
Though separated by generations, Freund and McDonald are linked by blood, history and art. Their story--a tale of loss and repatriation--spans the 20th Century, several wars and radically different lives.
Freund belonged to Prague's social elite, while McDonald worked with his hands, toiling at a southwest suburban chemical plant. Freund collected rarefied landscapes and portraits of the post-Impressionist period, while McDonald covered the walls of his two-bedroom ranch home in Lyons with inexpensive folk art and posters.
Though the restitution of Freund's collection, potentially worth millions of dollars, holds out the possibility of newfound wealth for McDonald, it already has fundamentally altered McDonald's view of himself.
"I never even knew I was partly Jewish," said McDonald, who was baptized Lutheran but, like his family, never practiced religion. "Whenever I asked my family if it was possible [that they had Jewish roots], they always said no."
Earlier this year, Freund's art collection belatedly went on public view at The Jewish Museum in Prague, which despite continued efforts had been unable to locate heirs of Czech Holocaust victims whose art was looted by the Nazis. The museum estimates that it holds hundreds of such works.
Hoping to jump-start the process of restitution, officials at the museum asked the Art Loss Register, a clearinghouse for stolen art, to help find Holocaust victims' heirs.
In a last-ditch effort to learn the whereabouts of Freund's relatives, the Art Loss Register contacted the Tribune, suspecting that Freund's siblings might have lived in Chicago's large Czech community. The newspaper searched public records and death announcements to piece together a family tree, which indicated McDonald was a living heir. Voter registration records led to him.
McDonald had heard his relatives talk about the collection but doubted its existence. At one point he contemplated launching his own search but was dissuaded.
"After Vietnam, I wanted to go to Czechoslovakia and look up my family and anything I could find, but my relatives in Chicago said, `Don't go, it's all gone, forget about it,'" McDonald said.
"Some of my relatives kept on hoping they might find the collection, but the rest of us gave up on it," said McDonald, who believes he may be Freund's last surviving heir.
While McDonald could use the money from selling the valuable collection--"I just spent $72 on a fish tank, and I was feeling guilty about it"--he expressed doubts that he will want to part with it.
"How do you set a price for something that represents someone else's suffering?"
Officials at The Jewish Museum in Prague believe they are in possession of only a fraction of Freund's collection, with some of the 30 works worth $1million or more each.
The return of Freund's paintings may open the door for other restitution cases, museum officials say.
"If we can return the art to the heir, we will be showing the world that some justice can happen, and maybe people will start coming forward to make claims," said Michaela Hajkova, curator of paintings, drawings and graphic art at the museum, which took possession of the Freund collection from the Czech government late last year.
McDonald's claim will be made easier by a new Czech law, which says that art stolen by the Nazis must be returned to heirs even if they are not Czech citizens, as was previously required. In turning over looted works to The Jewish Museum in Prague, the Czech government mandated the institution to find heirs like McDonald.
Emil Freund, the second of four children born to Karel and Regina Freund near Prague on April 29, 1886, was trained as a lawyer, worked as an insurance attorney and rose to become chief executive of Prague's leading insurance firm, Sekuritas.
Smitten with contemporary fine art, Freund invested in an art collection that he stored in his Prague apartment at 9 Manesova St., where he displayed important modern works, including Andre Derain's "Head of a Young Woman" (c. 1920), Paul Signac's "Riverboat on the Seine" (1901) and Charles Dufresne's "Three Nudes in a Garden" (1924).
In addition, Freund collected oil paintings by noted Czech artists, including Jan Bauch's "Sitting Nude" (1926), Zdenek Rykr's "Dancing in the Cafe" (1930) and two Cubist-style still-lifes of Emil Filla (1931).
But when the Nazis invaded Czech territory in March 1939, they established laws authorizing the government to round up Jews and seize their property, with deportations starting on Oct. 16, 1941. Freund, a prominent Jew whose corporate position and personal wealth made him a prime Nazi target, was booted out of Prague in the first wave of deportations, on Oct. 21, according to Nazi records on file in Prague.
Freund was placed aboard a train that the Nazis called Transport B. 126, German deportation records show, his cultural property first deposited at the Nazis' warehouse in Prague, then in the Central Jewish Museum where thousands of looted objects were stored during the war.
The elders of the Czech Jewish community, which operated the Central Jewish Museum under Nazi supervision, kept records of this property on approximately 101,000 inventory cards written in German.
The cards are rich in detail, as in this description of "Riverboat on the Seine": "Oil on canvas ... wide, calm river, partly befogged, painted in the style of pointillism. Trees on the left bank, some houses on the right, a steamboat in the middle of the river. Signature at bottom right: P. Signac 1901. In a clear-cut gilded wooden frame, under glass."
Freund died in the Lodz ghetto in 1942, records show. His art was stashed in the Central Jewish Museum for the duration of the war. Afterward, the collection was deemed property of the communist government and stored in a dank warehouse belonging to the National Gallery in Prague.
Two of Freund's sisters, who had lived in Chicago at least since the early 1920s and for a time shared an apartment on West 26th Street, went to great effort to try to retrieve their brother's treasures.
"Dr. Emil Freund ... was imprisoned and subsequently died after mistreatment by the Germans," wrote Berta Sieben, Freund's sister and McDonald's great-grandmother, in an undated postwar letter to the American ambassador in Prague.
A carbon copy of the correspondence has been stored in a small tin box in McDonald's home. In the letter, Sieben urged the government of Czechoslovakia to return Freund's furniture, personal effects and "a rare collection of oil paintings."
Sieben and her sister, Olga Hoppe, also engaged a Czech national and former friend of Freund's to request a death certificate for their brother and to draw up an inventory of his cultural property. The sisters obtained the death certificate, which cited Freund as "a victim of racial persecution," but in 1950 they were denied restitution of their brother's collection.
"In this manner, a collection of paintings of a great artistic and material value is saved for the State," reads the letter from the Czechoslovak Ministry of Labor and Social Care.
There was nothing more that Freund's sisters could do, so they went on with their lives in Chicago. Sieben and her husband, George, eventually had one daughter and one granddaughter, both now deceased, and a great-grandson, Gerald McDonald.
Because Freund's American heirs married non-Jews, the family veered from its Jewish roots. And though McDonald suspected that the family's tales of a looted art collection suggested that his forebears might have been Jewish, his relatives consistently denied it.
McDonald said he doesn't know whether Hoppe, his great-great-aunt, also had children, which would raise the possibility of additional heirs.
A restless teenager who dropped out of Downers Grove High School at age 14, Gerald McDonald enlisted in the Navy three years later in 1966 with the written permission of his mother, required because he was not yet of age. He signed up for the first of two tours of duty, working as an engine man on a medical boat along the eastern coast and canals of South Vietnam.
The memory that still haunts him is the sight of an airborne U.S. helicopter under fire near where he stood. The soldiers jumped out to save their lives, "trying to fly, but finding out that they couldn't," McDonald recalled. "Everyone died, and I still can see it."
The carnage persuaded McDonald to re-evaluate his life. Regretting that he had dropped out of high school, he began immersing himself in books, took a GED test and passed.
Before receiving his honorable discharge and several commendations, in 1969, McDonald learned he had contracted hepatitis. He had few physical symptoms then, but the war experience left him emotionally "lost and confused," he said. He drifted between jobs, girlfriends and wives; he has been married and divorced three times and has a 28-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter.
Eventually McDonald settled into a job at Universal Oil Products, where he worked at tasks involving physical labor and computer skills. His career there lasted 27 1/2 years. Along the way, he earned an associate's degree in liberal studies from Morton College in Cicero.
Recently, however, hepatitis began to sap his energy and damage his liver. He is waiting for a liver transplant and has been unable to work since January.
His connection to Freund means a great deal to him, McDonald said, particularly "where I am now in my life, because I don't know how much longer I have to be healthy. I would like to see these artworks of his, if I can."
When communist Czechoslovakia fell in 1993, the leaders of the new Czech Republic began writing democratic laws, including statutes mandating that the state return property stolen by the Nazis and then held by the communists. These laws are among the most liberal of their kind in Europe, according to experts in the field.
Last year, scholars at The Jewish Museum in Prague found part of Freund's art collection and three months ago put it on public display in an exhibition titled "Restituted Works of Art," though none of the works has been restored to its owners.
"They're precisely the kind of works the Nazis loved to steal," said Paul Gray, a noted Chicago art dealer, "in that they're pretty pictures and not avant-garde. They're relatively conservative works."
Many of the paintings, watercolors and gouaches in the collection range in value from about $25,000 to $250,000, Gray estimated. It's worth noting, however, that some works by Derain have sold for millions of dollars in recent years.
The exhibit will be open to the public through Jan. 6, 2002, in the Robert Guttmann Gallery of The Jewish Museum in Prague, which serves a Jewish community decimated during World War II. Though 120,000 Czech Jews flourished in and around Prague before the Nazis invaded, today that population is down to 3,000.
Officials at the museum estimate that it will take about a year to clear all of the paperwork involved in returning Freund's collection. In addition to verifying McDonald's family history, the museum will search for any other possible heirs. Claims for any artwork held by the museum must be filed by the end of 2002.
McDonald insists the collection "has to stay together" as a testament to his great-great-uncle's sacrifice.
"That way," McDonald said, "people always will remember what happens to people in wars."