Author brings “truth and light” to the little known story of stolen art and the persecution of artists during the Holocaust era
By Judie Jacobson
Lisa Barr has been a journalist for more than 20 years. She served as an editor for the Jerusalem Post for five years, covering Middle East politics, lifestyle, and terrorism in Jerusalem. She later served as managing editor of Moment magazine.
Most recently, Barr worked as an editor/staff reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times, and has contributed to numerous publications worldwide. She is also the creator and editor of the popular Mom blog “GIRLilla Warfare: A Mom’s Guide to Surviving the Suburban Jungle” (http://girlillawarfare.com).
In 1937 alone, more than 16,000 works of modern art were confiscated and labeled “degenerate” by the Nazis. On March 20, 1939, they ordered more than 1,000 paintings and almost 4,000 watercolors and drawings burned in the courtyard of a fire station in Berlin. Other works were auctioned off to the highest bidder, including Van Gogh’s “Self Portrait,” which was sold to the winning bidder for $40,000 at an auction house in Lucerne, Switzerland. The proceeds of this painting and hundreds of others were directly deposited into the Reich’s bank account. The Nazis’ unstoppable quest to rape Europe of its modern art and use the money to benefit the Reich was a grandiose master plan that nearly succeeded. Many of these “degenerate works,” sold illegally, are still hanging in prominent museums and in private collections worldwide.
Fugitive Colors recently won the IPPY (Independent Publishers Book Award) gold medal for “Best Literary Fiction 2014”, has been optioned for movie development by Hollywood producer Arthur Sarkissian (Rush Hour trilogy, While You Were Sleeping), and won first prize at the Hollywood Film Festival (Opus Magnum Discovery Award).
Lisa Barr will discuss her new book at an event hosted by JCC Greenwich on Wednesday, Dec. 3, at 10 a.m., at The Drawing Room, 5 Suburban Ave. in Cos Cob.
Barr lives in the Chicago area with her husband and three daughters.
Recently, the Ledger spoke with Lisa Barr about her new book, as well as her experience as a Middle East journalist.
Q: What prompted you to tackle this topic in your first novel?
A: I was in my 20s, serving as the managing editor of a woman’s magazine in Chicago and was sent on an assignment in 1991 to cover the “Degenerate Art” Exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago. Entering the museum, I literally stopped in my tracks – I had found my story. What I saw at that exhibit would later morph into the historical-fiction tale of my first novel, Fugitive Colors. Even as a daughter of a Holocaust survivor, I never knew about the Nazi’s relentless mission to destroy the avant-garde – particularly painters. Hitler and his henchmen went after the German Expressionists with a vengeance never seen before. I needed to – had to – explore this in depth.
Q: Do you have a personal family history linked to the Holocaust and/or to Nazi stolen art?
A: My father is a Holocaust survivor, so I grew up with a deep knowledge about the Nazi era, the Holocaust, and family survival against all odds. It truly affected the course of my life – turning me into a fighter, and molding my spirit. My family history, coupled with Solomon Schechter Day School, were the impetus for me to become a journalist – to seek truth and bring to light those stories that needed to be told. Stolen art and the persecution of artists during the Holocaust era fascinated me. Now it’s front-page news, but when I started to explore this topic no one had yet talked about it. I was fascinated by the fact that Adolf Hitler could be both a murderous madman and a painter, and by the priority art played in the Third Reich once the Nazis rose to power. I had to write about it. My goal was to teach a relatively unknown part of Holocaust history juxtaposed with a good story of love, lust and revenge.
Q: Nazi seizure of artwork is a very timely topic. Did you draw on any of the recent court cases dealing with the return of stolen artwork to their rightful heirs?
A: At the time I started writing the novel, court cases were being discussed and restitution was just “coming out.” Now, incredible things are happening in this arena. Last year’s “accidental” discovery of the Gurlitt Collection in Germany was a cultural bombshell: a cache of 1500 masterpieces worth more than $1 billion was discovered due to tax evasion in a German apartment owned by one Cornelius Gurlitt, whose father was an art-dealing Nazi who had left his reclusive son – an art collector and a hoarder – everything. It’s almost too unbelievable to be true: Matisse, Rodin, Degas, Picasso, Chagall, the list goes on… Gurlitt literally had a museum stashed in his food cupboard. There are numerous lawsuits currently active related to this particular collection. You’re going to hear a lot more about this in the coming months. There are an estimated 10,000 works of stolen art still “out there” worldwide, hanging secretly in major museums and private collections. I believe, like everything else, the truth will emerge – it’s just a matter of time. I always say, if only art could talk … thousands of stolen paintings have a hidden past just waiting for the truth to be exposed.
Q: Tell us a bit about the research that went into the construction of this story.
A: I spent more than four years of research, reading books, testimonials, interviewing sources, before I began writing. When I was pregnant with my eldest daughter – 17 years ago – I was put on bed rest for nine months (yes – you read that correctly). At the time I was an editor and a reporter for The Jerusalem Post. Anyway, it was there, in my bed, in Jerusalem, that I began writing the first version of Fugitive Colors. It has been a long literary journey with lots of twists and turns, albeit a labor of love — between raising three kids, a divorce, a remarriage, moving to different countries, and my work as a journalist.
Q: In 1995, following the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, you wrote a profile of the late Leah Rabin. Can you tell us something about her?
A: I remember the assassination 19 years ago as though it were yesterday. I had the honor of covering “The Handshake” at the White House between the late Prime Minister of Israel Yitzhak Rabin, President Bill Clinton, and the late PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat. As you know, soon after Yitzhak Rabin was gunned down by an extremist Jew. My profile of his wife Leah took place just a few weeks after the assassination. This will always be the story that means the most to me. Leah was considered the Lioness of Israel – taking care of a country whose dreams of a peace had been shattered. It was an intimate interview in her home. We sat across from each other, coffee in hand, with just enough emotional distance: Leah Rabin was nobody’s victim. I recall asking her a particular question – “Is he proud of you, the way you have stepped inside his shoes – mothering an entire country, when you yourself are in such deep pain?” She looked at me – this stoic woman and began to cry. She cried, I cried, we held each other. There was no journalist separation … we stayed in contact until her death.
Q: As an editor with The Jerusalem Post, you covered Mid-East politics and terrorism in Jerusalem. Any thoughts on the frightening rise in terrorism in that city in recent days?
A: I lived in Israel from 1992 to 1999. I witnessed the beginning of the peace process and when everything fell apart – all hopes were dashed. Horrific acts of terrorism were weekly, particularly the bus bombings in Jerusalem. It was extremely tough and emotionally devastating as a reporter, a mom, and a Jew. The massacre at the Jerusalem synagogue is beyond tragic and traumatic to those living in Israel and to Jews worldwide. It puts Israel once again in a very difficult position – there is no way not to retaliate, especially in a world that is rooting for your demise. I was in Europe this past summer – and the anti-Semitism was raging. The anti-Semitism especially on college campuses in the United States is going to get fierce. Jews and those who are our friends and support Israel need to unite, stay strong, and lose the illusions: This is not going away any time soon. I wish it were a different reality, but the fact is Hamas, ISIS & company are here to stay. Anti-Semitism is de rigueur and celebrated. As Jews, we need to be on top of our game, not behind it. I believe this is our ‘Never Again’ moment, and we must keep our eyes wide open.
Q: Now that you’ve had a taste of fiction writing, which form of writing do you prefer?
A: I have been a journalist for 25 years and I love the immediacy of journalism – to write something, do an interview, and have it published the next day. It’s my daily shot of mocha. Fiction, on the other hand, is my fabulous bottle of Cabernet – I relish the long form of writing, the research, the freedom to explore, expand, and weave a tale filled with colorful characters and an intriguing plot. So I don’t have a preference – because the beauty of writing is I can do both simultaneously. I’m now half way through another novel, more contemporary but suspenseful. I love the feel of a nail-biting read, so I’m hoping to produce another one. Buckle your seatbelt.
Q: The press material for Fugitive Colors notes that the book asks the reader: “How far would YOU go for your passion?” So, how far would you go?
A: Everything I do has an element of passion to it – ask my family – Is Mom emotional? Oh, yeah. When there is something I believe in or “have” to write, you can’t stop me. I must go the distance, and then take it a step further. Passion – a profound belief in truth and love – is truly what makes me tick. Writing is breathing. My family is everything to me. For them, and for a good story – it’s all the way, baby.
Lisa Barr, author of Fugitive Colors, at The Drawing Room, 5 Suburban Ave., Cos Cob; Wednesday, Dec. 3, 10 a.m., hosted by JCC Greenwich. For tickets and/or information: (203) 552-1818, firstname.lastname@example.org.