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.