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Family's cherished heirloom survived the Nazis

Given that it's around 300 years old, the cherry secretary is in fine shape. It's a beauty, a Bavarian baroque creation of wood marquetry and inlaid silver with a fold-down writing surface and dozens of drawers, many cleverly concealed. The three brass keys and locks are works of art; each one unique, each still working perfectly.

The secretary does have its flaws. There at the bottom, the finish is marred from a steam-heat problem in a Pittsburgh apartment years ago.

More noticeable is an odd gash running through the ornate silver crest, a wound inflicted during a horrific night of violence in Nazi Germany. It was repaired by experts in Chicago more than a half-century ago, but now it is slowly reopening. The secretary's owner, who uses and admires the piece every day, has thought about having it fixed. But she is ambivalent.

When it comes to the most cherished possessions, memory and history outweigh cosmetic perfection.

• • •

Most of the recent documentary The Rape of Europa looks at the Nazi theft of great art treasures. One segment is devoted to humbler objects, the furniture stripped from Jewish homes as their owners were sent to their deaths in the camps.

"The looting was like nothing anyone had seen, because it was total and because it took both valuable items and worthless ones,'' Annette Wieviorka, a leading French historian of the Holocaust, says in the film.

"So the goal was material, but it was also intended to help erase a people and their memory.''

Powerful words to describe household furnishings. But they capture well the saga of that grand cherry secretary, a family heirloom that survived the Nazis and came down to my friend and stepmother, Hannah Green Sutton. Hannah told me the full story when I visited her and my father in North Carolina recently and gave me her English translation of the meticulous diary her mother kept of the pogrom and its aftermath, including the journey of that secretary.

• • •

On Nov. 9-10, 1938, in cities and towns all over Germany, 91 Jews were murdered and more than 25,000 were arrested and sent to concentration camps during the pogrom that came to be known as Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass.

At 74 Parkstrasse in Dusseldorf, the elegant townhome of Walter and Luise Oppenheimer and their 3-year-old daughter, Hannah, more than a dozen brown-shirted thugs with axes, hatchets and iron bars laid waste.

"All kaput,'' Hannah whimpered over and over, her mother later wrote, physically unharmed but terrified. Luise, blood streaming from the crack on the head she suffered from one storm trooper, cradled her daughter. "Be calm, your Mama is with you and nothing will happen to you,'' she kept telling Hannah as her own blood soaked the girl's pajamas. A badly beaten Walter crawled into the nursery on his hands and knees.

Downstairs, a storm trooper sank his hatchet blade into a grand old cherry secretary, so loved by the Oppenheimer family they called it Das Museum Stueck. Museum piece indeed; made in Bavaria between 1700 and 1750, it was fine enough for most any decorative arts collection.

There was no time to mourn it, or any of the smashed glass, china and other items piled so high it was impossible to get into the kitchen. Walter, a chemist, was arrested and sent to Dachau. Luise spent weeks in a hospital, shielded by nuns who refused Nazi orders to expel Jewish patients. Friends cared for Hannah and took her to see her mother for the permitted half-hour visits.

• • •

Luise hired a lawyer, working frantically to get Walter out of Dachau. He did get out on Dec. 2, half-starved, his head shaved. The couple set to work on getting out of Germany. "They bought new everything, because you could take things out of Germany if you were a Jew then, but you couldn't take out money,'' Hannah explained. Everything they could salvage from the ruined house, including the splintered Stueck, was packed up and shipped out of the country.

After weeks of negotiating the Nazi bureaucracy and paying exorbitant emigration taxes targeted at Jews, the family had the documents they needed to flee to Holland on Feb. 19, 1939. From there, they sailed to England. Luise recounted in her journal that "miraculously, in spite of the war, our lift van arrived from Rotterdam, Holland, where it had been sent from Hamburg. We just looked at our earthly possessions (having left Germany with 10 marks each in our pockets, about $2.50) and repacked them, since it was too expensive to send them to America at the time.''

• • •

By 1940, the family was in Chicago, where Walter had found work.

To their amazement, they learned midway through the war that their goods had survived the Blitz and could be shipped to America. Luise wrote that she sold most of their things in order to pay the shipping for the most precious items, including the Stueck.

It arrived in 1943. Luise paid professional restorers at the Art Institute of Chicago to repair the damage to the Stueck, which traveled with the family when they moved to Pittsburgh, where Luise taught German at the University of Pittsburgh and Walter resumed his career as a chemist at the U.S. Bureau of Mines.

• • •

The Stueck came down to Hannah, by then a biochemist in Durham, N.C., after her mother died in 1978. Hannah tends it lovingly, carefully polishing its many surfaces. My dad installed UV-filtering film in the windows to protect the Stueck from the bright sunlight of the North Carolina mountains.

It's a cherished, respected item, and the niches at its top display treasures such as the brass menorah presented to Hannah's father by Dusseldorf's Jewish community when the family fled.

The Stueck is in daily use. Hannah's three grandchildren, who are allowed to open the secretary under close supervision, love to hide little surprises in the drawers for her; we found a pretty postcard from their recent visit when we poked through the drawers together.

Hannah is a great reader and spends hours with her books in the sitting room. She glances up at the Stueck, and thinks of so many things.

"It's a symbol of my family history, which as I get older is more and more interesting to me,'' said Hannah, who is tracing her family's history using family documents that stretch back seven generations, about to the time the Stueck was made.

But as the Holocaust historian remarked in The Rape of Europa, household items like the Stueck have a special role in preserving family history.

"It was something my family always enjoyed having because it was beautiful. I look at it a lot,'' Hannah said. "I appreciate it.''

Charlotte Sutton can be reached at or (727) 893-8425.

Family's cherished heirloom survived the Nazis 01/19/09 [Last modified: Monday, January 19, 2009 2:56pm]
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