Emma Fis­ch­er, a for­mer house­keep­er in the author’s grand­fa­ther’s (Otto Kupfer) house in Wei­den, Bavaria, hold­ing the por­traits of the author’s great grand­par­ents Eduard and Fan­ni, which she had been safe­guard­ing for forty years. Pho­to tak­en ca 1980. Image cour­tesy of the author.

The fol­low­ing is adapt­ed from my recent­ly pub­lished book, The Glassmaker’s Son: Look­ing for the World My Father Left Behind in Nazi Ger­many (Ams­ter­dam Pub­lish­ers, Novem­ber 2022).

Much has been writ­ten about efforts to reclaim art loot­ed from Jew­ish fam­i­lies dur­ing the Holo­caust. Many of these sto­ries involve valu­able works by well-known artists such as Gus­tav Klimt and Camille Pis­sar­ro. But this is a Holo­caust art sto­ry of a dif­fer­ent stripe. The paint­ings in ques­tion have lit­tle com­mer­cial val­ue, but to my fam­i­ly and me, they are priceless.

My father, who immi­grat­ed to the US in 1937, rarely spoke about his life in Ger­many before the war. In 1979, three years after he died, I decid­ed the time had come to sat­is­fy my curios­i­ty about the world he had left behind. I want­ed to see the house he had lived in, walk the streets he had walked, per­haps even meet some of the peo­ple he had known.

Short­ly after vis­it­ing Dad’s home­town in Bavaria, I received a let­ter from an elder­ly woman named Emma Fis­ch­er, who had been a house­keep­er in my grandfather’s house. Frau Fis­ch­er wrote that when my grand­fa­ther Otto and his sis­ter Mina were forced to sell their house in 1939 under the Nazis’ Aryaniza­tion pol­i­cy and move to Frank­furt, they asked her to safe­guard a pair of oil paint­ings of their par­ents, Eduard and Fan­ni Kupfer, until they could return to reclaim them. Alas, Otto and Mina — along with six of their sib­lings and mil­lions of oth­er Jews — were deport­ed and died in con­cen­tra­tion camps (he in There­sien­stadt, she in Tre­blin­ka), and nev­er returned to Wei­den, the small city near the Czech bor­der where they had lived.

Fis­ch­er, who was nine­ty and near­ly blind, did not learn about my vis­it to Wei­den until after I had left. Had she known, she wrote, she would have invit­ed me to stay in her apart­ment. It would be a plea­sure to give you these pic­tures in per­son,” she added. I would like to speak to you per­son­al­ly because I have so much to say to you.” 

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, I wasn’t able to return to Wei­den for four years. By then Fis­ch­er had died and the paint­ings had been inher­it­ed by a niece, a woman I’ll call Frau S. When I went to see her, S. demand­ed 30,000 DM, or about $12,000, a sum she claimed was based on an appraisal by a Munich art dealer.

I tried to rea­son with her, point­ing out that my grand­fa­ther had entrust­ed the por­traits to her aunt with the under­stand­ing that she would return them after the war. More­over, Frau Fis­ch­er had clear­ly stat­ed her inten­tion to return the paint­ings to me. But S. insist­ed the paint­ings belonged to her and that she des­per­ate­ly need­ed the mon­ey. Besides, she added sharply, I came from a wealthy fam­i­ly and could well afford it. 

It was hard to believe that near­ly sev­en­ty years after my grand­fa­ther had been forced to give them up, Eduard’s and Fanni’s por­traits would final­ly be reunit­ed with their family.

While it was true that my father’s fam­i­ly had once been wealthy — the Kupfers had been impor­tant play­ers in the Bavar­i­an sheet glass indus­try for gen­er­a­tions and at one time owned a dozen fac­to­ries in the region — the Nazis had robbed them of most of their wealth and near­ly wiped out the entire family.

But even if I had been the rich Amer­i­can she thought I was, I was not going to pay her even a pfen­nig. The paint­ings belonged to my fam­i­ly, after all, and had end­ed up in her hands only because of Nazi per­se­cu­tion. Besides, accord­ing to an inde­pen­dent appraisal, they were worth far less than she claimed, no more than $2,000 each. 

After my vis­it, sev­er­al com­mu­ni­ty lead­ers, includ­ing the may­or, the head of the Catholic dio­cese, and the pres­i­dent of the local Lions Club appealed to Frau S. to return the paint­ings, but she adamant­ly refused.

As the years passed, I all but gave up hope of reclaim­ing the por­traits. Then, in 2006, while vis­it­ing Munich, I decid­ed to call Inge Roeg­n­er, a jour­nal­ist in Wei­den who had writ­ten sev­er­al arti­cles about my quest to uncov­er my fam­i­ly his­to­ry. Our con­ver­sa­tion soon turned to the sub­ject of the por­traits. Peter, we must find out what hap­pened to those paint­ings!” Inge exclaimed. She promised to inves­ti­gate and get back to me.

Sev­er­al weeks lat­er, I received an email from Inge report­ing that Frau S. had died many years ear­li­er and that the paint­ings were now in the hands of her son, a man I’ll call Hubert. Both paint­ings are hang­ing in his liv­ing room in Wei­den!” Inge wrote. Every day he and his fam­i­ly are admir­ing the pic­tures of Mr. and Mrs. Kupfer.

My cousin, Paul Sin­clair — anoth­er great-grand­son of Eduard and Fan­ni, who is flu­ent in Ger­man — wrote a let­ter to Hubert ask­ing him to return the paint­ings. Two weeks lat­er, Paul received a star­tling response from his wife, a woman I’ll call Audrey. Hubert had been killed in a motor scoot­er acci­dent a few days ear­li­er. But there was a sil­ver lin­ing to the trag­ic news. With a very heavy heart,” Audrey wrote, she would return the paint­ings to the Kupfer fam­i­ly so that they would again find a place where they belong.”

Franziska (Fan­ni) Kupfer and Eduard Kupfer portrait

The fol­low­ing year I met Paul and anoth­er cousin, David Man­gel from Paris, in Wei­den. As Inge drove us to Audrey’s house, chills dart­ed up and down my spine. It was hard to believe that near­ly sev­en­ty years after my grand­fa­ther had been forced to give them up, Eduard’s and Fanni’s por­traits would final­ly be reunit­ed with their family.

Audrey greet­ed us cor­dial­ly and led us into her liv­ing room. Set in match­ing antique gold frames, the por­traits were hang­ing above the sofa, com­mand­ing the atten­tion of any­one who entered the room. Eduard, sport­ing a neat­ly trimmed gray beard, a dark vel­vet jack­et with wide lapels, a high-col­lared white shirt, and a gold tie, looked every bit the cap­tain of indus­try that he had been. Fan­ni, wear­ing a ruf­fled black dress trimmed with white embroi­dery, looked equal­ly imposing. 

Con­sid­er­ing all they had been through, the paint­ings were in sur­pris­ing­ly good shape. Audrey explained that Hubert had had the paint­ings restored and placed in new frames. Save for a few cracks and blem­ish­es, one would nev­er have guessed that they had spent decades in hiding.

Audrey insist­ed that she hadn’t known who the sub­jects of the paint­ings were until she received Paul’s let­ter. But when we took the pic­tures down from the wall, we found some papers tucked behind one of them that told a dif­fer­ent sto­ry. They were pho­to­copies of arti­cles about the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty in Wei­den, with pas­sages about the Kupfers high­light­ed in yel­low. So clear­ly Hubert had been aware of the prove­nance of the paint­ings, even if his wife had not. 

We pre­sent­ed Audrey with five-by-sev­en repro­duc­tions of the paint­ings that Inge had made, along with a let­ter signed by Paul, David, and me thank­ing her and her fam­i­ly for car­ing for the paint­ings and agree­ing to return them. 

When we got back to the car, the three Kupfer cousins exchanged high-fives. Wun­der­bar!” Inge exclaimed. At last, the paint­ings are back where they belong.” Then we had a cel­e­bra­to­ry lunch and drank a cham­pagne toast to Eduard and Fanni.

That evening, as I stood alone on the bal­cony of my hotel room, I thought about the long jour­ney that had brought me back to Wei­den. It took more than a quar­ter-cen­tu­ry from the time I first heard about Eduard’s and Fanni’s por­traits to get them back. Amid all the loss­es the Kupfers had suf­fered in the Holo­caust, sal­vaging this piece of the fam­i­ly lega­cy felt like a small but impor­tant vic­to­ry. And, of course, I thought about my father. I pic­tured him look­ing down on me and smil­ing, and I felt clos­er to him than I had in a long time.

Peter Kupfer is a free­lance writer, edi­tor, and pho­tog­ra­ph­er. His sto­ries about busi­ness and tech­nol­o­gy, art and cul­ture, trav­el, and oth­er sub­jects have appeared in major news­pa­pers and mag­a­zines, includ­ing the Wash­ing­ton Post, the Los Ange­les Times, the New York Observ­er, and Metrop­o­lis mag­a­zine. He was a copy­ed­i­tor at the San Fran­cis­co Chron­i­cle for many years.