An unexpected phone call two weeks ago surprised and moved Elisheva Gilad. On the other end of the line was her lawyer, Yoel Levy. He gave her the good news. The mayor of the German city of Leipzig, Burkhard Jung, had called him and said the city had agreed - after years of legal wrangling - to return to Gilad's family pictures painted by her mother's uncle, the Jewish painter Eduard Einschlag. Jung also said he would come to Israel to return the paintings in a ceremony to be held this Thursday at the German ambassador's residence. Yesterday Jung arrived in Israel.
Einschlag was born in Leipzig in 1879 and studied at the local art academy and later in Munich, Berlin and Paris. He was a central figure in Leipzig's art scene and led a movement of impressionist painters.
With the Nazis rise to power, Einschlag was declared a painter of "degenerate art." Despite being born in Leipzig, Einschlag was not a German citizen. His family was originally from Poland, but had been in Germany for generations. He was deported with 5,000 other Jews from the city to Poland, along with his wife, three sisters and brother-in-law. He left behind property and the artwork in the studio in his apartment. After two years in the Warsaw Ghetto he and his entire family were sent to the Treblinka death camp and died there. His brother Martin reached Palestine in 1947, after spending the war in hiding in France. Martin's daughter, Ruth, arrived in Palestine before the war. She was the mother of Elisheva Gilad and Yael Lifshitz, who inherited the paintings.
Gilad had little information on her great-uncle the painter until about 10 years ago. All she had was a portrait of herself, which hung in her mother's house and is now in her living room. Einschlag drew the picture of Gilad when she was 2 years old and went with her mother on a visit to Leipzig. The family managed to save a few other pictures, too.
"My mother, Ruth Einschlag," said Gilad, who was born in 1937, "like many Holocaust survivors after the war, chose to cut herself off from the past and forget what happened. At home we did not speak at all of Germany during that period. Despite that my parents spoke German at home.
She said the family knew of the existence of an uncle who had been a well-known painter in Leipzig, but "my mother steadfastly refused to talk about him and certainly not to make any effort to return the paintings," said Gilad. After her mother's death, she decided to learn more about German culture and how Jews lived there. She studied German at the Goethe Institute and tried to find out more about her great-uncle.
And that is how, 50 years later, Gilad, with the encouragement of her son, started to look into the history of her uncle. She burrowed into two cartons of family documents left by her deceased mother - and found nothing. Then with the help of an acquaintance from Leipzig, she made contact with the municipal museum and discovered that several of Eduard Einschlag's paintings were there.
She visited Leipzig in 2001, and in the museum found two large oil paintings, one a self-portrait of Einschlag, as well as a number of black-and-white sketches.
The museum director told her, knowing who she was, that he did not know where the paintings came from. She then filled out forms to reclaim the paintings, which are valued at tens of thousands of euros each. "I even had to pay for copying the sketches," she said.
In 2005, Gilad decided to start a legal battle to force the city of Leipzig to return the artworks. She hired Levy, who specializes in the return of property to survivors.
The city refused to return the pictures, saying she could not prove how the art reached the museum and who were its original owners. Therefore, the city argued, it was possible that Einschlag himself donated the pictures to the museum, and the art may belong to the city.
Now, after years of legal struggle, the city has decided to return the pictures. The mayor says the city will also research other works of art in its possession to return them in cases where they were stolen.
"Despite all that," said Gilad, "we still have not been informed if all the pictures will be returned, and what the mayor of Leipzig will give us." Nevertheless, Gilad feels a chapter of her life has been closed, and that the mystery surrounding the painter who created her portrait as a little girl has been solved.
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