Gerald McDonald was sick with Hepatitis C, awaiting a liver transplant and low on cash.

Living alone in a tiny frame house in Lyons, just south of Chicago, he was playing out his last days watching cable TV and listening to heavy metal records, another decorated Vietnam vet squeaking by on disability checks.

But when he learned that he was heir to a multimillion dollar art collection looted by the Nazis in Prague - and that the Czech government was going to take it from him before he even laid eyes on it - he figured he couldn’t sit around the house anymore.

So over the summer Mac, as everyone calls him, borrowed the $688 plane fare from friends, packed one suitcase with clothes and another with medicine, bought a crisp new pair of blue suede boots and went to look for his art, his bloodline and his family’s unspoken past.

Never mind that his legs often swelled up, his vision frequently blurred, his limbs usually ached and his energy level generally hovered near zero.

He had to go because, he said, the Czechs were trying to put one over on him.

For 60 years, they had allowed most of the art collection of Emil Freund, a Prague Jew killed in the Holocaust, to gather dust in storage at the National Gallery. But once Mac was identified as Freund’s great-great-nephew, the Czech government decreed that the valuable pieces in Freund’s collection had become “national cultural treasures” that could not leave the country.

“Basically, the Czechs told me to get lost,” said Mac, who never has shrunk from a fight and has had more than 20 broken bones to prove it.

But it wasn’t just the millions that led him to take a plane across the ocean for the first time since his flight home from Vietnam, where he acquired Hepatitis C.

Art always had held an inexplicable allure for him, the walls of his Lyons home covered with Vietnam-era posters and funky “outsider” paintings, his body itself a gallery of blue-green tattoos - of devils, spiders, skulls and chains - from neck to toe.

Yet Mac ultimately could not predict that the journey he was about to take - first to Prague, then to the decaying, nearly forgotten Jewish ghetto in Lodz, Poland, where Freund died in 1942 - would change him far more than it did the Czechs.

All Mac knew was that something that once belonged to his family had been stolen by the Nazis, nationalized by the Communists and now, after the fall of Communism, was being robbed a third time.

And he had to do something.

Gerald McDonald, 53, was baptized as a Lutheran and never knew he was a Jew. His parents denied it, his grandparents denied it and, as far as he could tell, their parents denied it too.

“I don’t know if they were afraid or ashamed or what - I sure asked plenty of times,” said Mac, who suspected as much.

Since childhood, he had heard his family whisper that some ancestor owned an art collection that had been stolen during the Holocaust and never had resurfaced.

If the paintings had been looted, Mac figured there was a good chance someone in the family was Jewish. But as a youngster, Mac never knew that Emil Freund’s sisters - Berta Sieben and Olga Hoppe, who had moved to Chicago in the 1920s - tried to reclaim the art that had belonged to their brother, a victim of “racial persecution,” according to Czech court documents. In 1950 the new Communist government flatly refused to return the art and, ever since, the family’s Jewish roots were buried deep.

So deep, that in 1970, when Mac got out of the Navy and vowed to pick up the search that his relatives had long since abandoned, his family insisted that it was a waste of time, that the art and the relatives were gone and that the past was best left forgotten, anyway.

That’s just how Mac’s family always regarded its history - as something to be discarded as quickly as possible. His mother didn’t tell him until he was 30 that he had an older sister who died at birth. When he found out, he says he smashed his fist into a plaster wall, then went to his sister’s grave and wept.