Metro Views: A painting tells the story

The fate of 2 Berlin art dealers in the 1940s is now related during tours of California's Hearst Castle.

hearst castle (photo credit: )
hearst castle
(photo credit: )
Hearst Castle, halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco on a mountain overlooking the Pacific Ocean, is due to become one of the most unusual venues in the US for Holocaust education. The castle, a California state park also known as Hearst San Simeon State Historical Monument, will integrate a small, but significant segment of the Holocaust into its guided tours of the site. Built by William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper tycoon who lavishly entertained Hollywood movies stars and political elites at his private retreat, the property includes the castle and guest houses with more than 150 rooms and 40 fireplaces, dramatic pools, gardens and terraces. There also is a magnificent art collection, three pieces of which once belonged to Jakob and Rosa Oppenheimer, Jewish art dealers from Berlin. The Oppenheimers fled to France in 1933. Their Galerie van Diemen was liquidated in 1935, during a "judenauktionen," a forced sale in which the proceeds paid for flight taxes and other Nazi levies. Jakob Oppenheimer died in Nice in 1941. Rosa was deported from France and died in Auschwitz in 1943. Hearst Castle was donated to California in 1957, and it was the state that returned the art to the Oppenheimer heirs during Pessah. "Of course, a wrong cannot be fully righted when the victims have long since passed away," the Austrian-born governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, said during a ceremony with the Oppenheimer heirs earlier this month. "This theft of Jewish property was an early stage of the Nazi plan and the beginning of far greater offenses against the innocent and against humanity." Under their agreement, the heirs took two Renaissance portraits. The state kept "Venus and Cupid," a 16th century oil painting attributed to the school of Paris Bordon, as well as reproductions of the portraits. The painting and reproductions will be on display. Instead of merely discussing the art, guides at Hearst Castle will relate the story of the paintings, the seizure of Nazi-era assets and the efforts to return the assets to the rightful owners. "More than one million people from all around the world visit Hearst Castle every year," Ruth Coleman, director of California State Parks, said in a statement. "We are proud to honor the memory of Jakob and Rosa Oppenheimer and share this story that touches countless families affected by the Holocaust." EVERY TIME SOMEONE tours the site, there is the chance to tell the story of Jakob and Rosa Oppenheimer. More than a million times. Imagine that - Holocaust education reaching an entirely different kind of audience in such a powerful way. These people did not set out for Yad Vashem (or to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum), where visitors chose a solemn experience. Instead, touring the castle of an iconic American figure in sunny California, amid such immense grandeur, visitors will be confronted with the Shoah. The unexpected appearance of Nazi-era looted art amid such Hearst opulence also seems to illustrate how the destruction of Jewish life in Europe was woven into the fabric of daily life of the time. While the Jewish artworks were confiscated or sold under duress, the art trade blithely auctioned them, other dealers bought them and happily sold them to prominent collectors across the ocean. Hearst, who died in 1951, filled his castle with treasures. The State of California would not have missed these artworks, had the authorities simply returned them to the Oppenheimer family. The state is to be commended, not simply for honoring the claim but for going beyond what was just. By seizing the opportunity to use these works to teach about the Nazi era, California has done a great service to the Oppenheimer heirs and brought credit to itself.