22. “War – Never Again”

By Peter Fraenkel

The students’ representative council occasionally invited an outsider to deliver a lecture. Doctor Mahler came to talk about modern German art. He was introduced as a well-known art dealer and collector and a frequent lecturer at the university.  His accented English made it obvious where he came from.  I went up to him after the lecture to ask a question. He responded with enthusiasm –no doubt he spotted that my accent resembled his own. The conversation turned to Kaete Kollwitz, the lithographer and sculptor. Did I know her poster ‘War – never again’, he asked. Instead of replying I stretched high my right hand with two fingers extended – as if swearing an oath.

He laughed. “I see you know it. Have you ever seen one of the originals?”

I hadn’t. My parents only had a small volume of reproductions. He immediately invited me to visit his apartment. He had one of these rare original posters – among other interesting art of the time of the Weimar Republic. Could I come the following evening? I asked whether I could bring a friend who would be interested. He smiled “Only if he’s good-looking”. I found this reply vaguely uncomfortable. The wicked idea of bringing a girl did occur to me but I found that Sharon was otherwise engaged so the following evening I persuaded Paul to come with me. He was, indeed, handsome.

Dr Mahler showed us several interesting works – even a little Rembrandt etching. “That’s not one of those pulls number 120. See the number? Six! Unfortunately they continued to pull copies long after the great man’s death. Some had been re-engraved. They are greatly inferior.”

Lots of German emigres had arrived penniless – the Nazis had plundered their houses and their bank accounts. Some, however, had managed to bring out art works, often hidden among underclothes in their suitcases. Mahler himself had managed to get away with this, he told us, but one of his closest friends had ended up in a concentration camp. In Africa, he, Mahler, had had to sell many of his art works so now he was selling mainly for other people – in return for a small percentage. “Unfortunately I too have to eat …. and drink. Which reminds me: Would you lads like a brandy?  A good one …. not one of your rot-guts.”

He pointed out a painting on his wall. He was hoping to sell it for a widow who needed the money. There was a ready market among the mining magnates. Newly rich! Vulgarians! This old lady, he told us, had brought out a superb Liebermann portrait. He had advised her to hang on to it – unless she was facing starvation. He had persuaded her to sell some minor works instead. “She really appreciates that Liebermann but I doubt whether any of those fat cats could.” he confided. “I can get her a good price for works that are …. how shall I put it? Modest.” He laughed. “These people know nothing about art. Nothing! But do they give themselves airs …..especially their wenches! Most of them think the larger a painting is, the more valuable it must be. You saw that wonderful little Rembrandt etching of mine? That type wouldn’t look at it…. not even look at it. Too small. Of course, I wouldn’t dream of selling it Not unless I faced starvation.”

“Does your name help in this business?” I asked.

“Certainly. I told them that Gustav Mahler was my cousin…. my second cousin.”

“And was he?”

He gave a roguish laugh. “I wish he had been. I might claim some of his royalties!”

Among the paintings on his wall I noticed a fine photo of a naked youth – Greek kuros, he explained. There was also a water colour of naked boys playing. It confirmed my suspicions. So did his insistent invitation to the handsome Paul to come again. His invitation to me was polite but less insistent.

A week or two later I went home for my vacations in the far north. A while later a letter from Paul arrived.

“Scandal!” He had underlined the word. Dr Mahler had been arrested but had managed to be released a day later. He had borrowed expensive art books from the national library but when he returned them there were pages missing. He was accused of cutting out reproductions of etchings, having them framed expensively and selling them as originals. He was fined for defacing national property. Numerous civil actions were expected to follow. Defrauded buyers would, no doubt, sue for repayment. Paul doubted that Mahler could ever pay up.

I awaited further letters. Two weeks elapsed, then three. Eventually a letter did arrive. I tore open the envelope expectantly:

“You won’t believe this!” wrote Paul “Nobody has sued …. Not one – not so far anyway. I paid him a brief visit yesterday. Do you remember that wicked laugh of his? He says they’re too ashamed. Those stuck-up wenches of theirs – they won’t let their menfolk sue.”