Nazis Obliterated His Legacy. Now Berlin Honors a Promise Made to Its Greatest Museum Patron

James Simon's wanted his gifts to be displayed in their own room in Berlin for 100 years. Then the city's museums became part of the Nazi machine and its anti-Semitic madness

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The restored James Simon Cabinet.
The restored James Simon Cabinet.Credit: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin / Antje Voigt
New pic Hendler
Sefy Hendler
New pic Hendler
Sefy Hendler

BERLIN – Just before the official inauguration of the James Simon Gallery in mid-July, Dr. Neville Rowley, curator of early Renaissance art at the Berlin State Museums, suggests that we visit the old Jewish cemetery in the eastern part of the city. On this summer morning in the German capital, the cemetery, now well-maintained after years of neglect following the destruction wrought by the Nazis, has few visitors. We are standing next to the elegant tombstones of James Simon, his wife Agnes and their daughter Marie-Luise, on which only their names and dates of birth and death are engraved. A few stones placed on the black marble slabs are mute evidence of the visitors who preceded us. Even now, one can only wonder about the oblivion consigned to Simon, the greatest donor of all time to Berlin’s museums.

Like the father of the Jewish enlightenment movement, Moses Mendelssohn, who is also buried here, Simon (1851-1932) was a prominent product of the Emancipation, by dint of which Jews hoped to become citizens with equal rights. His family arrived in Berlin in the mid-19th century from the Pomerania region, then split between Germany and Poland, and made a fortune in the textile business. Unlike Mendelssohn, however, Simon was forgotten by history. His name is almost completely unknown even in Israel, where he was active in helping to establish Haifa’s Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, through the Aid Association of German Jews, and contributed large sums to other philanthropic projects. He helped underwrite Jewish societies at home, funded Germany’s first public swimming pool and supported archaeological excavations.

Nevertheless, there was no area in which his contribution was more significant than as a collector-philanthropist. Simon donated thousands of items to Prussian museums, which in time became the Berlin State Museums: Italian Renaissance paintings and sculptures, German medieval sculptures, an extremely impressive collection of coins and medals from the Renaissance, and of course antiquities, among them the famous bust of Queen Nefertiti, the “Mona Lisa” of the museums.

How did Simon, the son of Jewish textile merchants, become one of the greatest collectors and benefactors of his day? The answer to that is complex, says Dr. Olaf Matthes, a historian who has been researching Simon’s riveting biography for more than two decades.

“James Simon was unique as a patron because he was personally interested in the needs of Berlin’s royal museums and, together with the directors and curators, tried to fill gaps in the collections,” says Matthes.

Simon. A greatest donor to Berlin’s museums. Credit: Privat

Underlying this philanthropic fervor was Simon’s desire to acquire social status. “He certainly saw this as an opportunity to become actively involved in the cultural sphere without being directly and personally attacked by anti-Semitic circles,” he adds.

Even if the most admired work that Simon donated to the Berlin Museums is undoubtedly the bust of the Egyptian queen, wife of the Pharaoh Akhenaten, the peak of his philanthropic effort lies in the gift of his Renaissance art collection to the Prussian museums in 1904. Simon was in touch with Wilhelm von Bode, the legendary director of the Berlin museums and a close friend of Emperor Wilhelm II. At Bode’s advice, Simon acquired stunning works by some of the Renaissance giants, including Andrea Mantegna, Giovanni Bellini and Agnolo Bronzino. Upon the opening of the Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum of Renaissance Art in 1904, named for the emperor’s father, Frederick III, Bode encouraged Simon to donate his collection to the new institution. The emperor himself authorized the gift, which drew high praise at the time. It was a prelude to additional contributions by Simon during the next two decades, whose peak was his underwriting of the archaeological mission to Egypt that unearthed the Nefertiti bust in Amarna. The statue was initially brought to Simon’s house in Berlin and transferred to the museums a few weeks later.

Still, the most singular donation remains the Renaissance collection, in particular because Simon insisted that it continue to be exhibited “for one-hundred years, in a separate room in the museum.” Simon died shortly before the Nazis’ ascension to power, and the James-Simon-Kabinett – the name of the room in which the collection was displayed, in accordance with the donor’s terms – became a thorn in the side of the new rulers. Under the Nazis, the new director of the Gemäldegalerie museum tried to expunge the name of the Jewish philanthropist, and when World War II broke out, the Simon collection was dismantled and swallowed up within the national collection.

The name Simon remained familiar in the Nazi hierarchy, however, although the circumstances surrounding one of the stories relating to his granddaughter Dorothee Westphal are obscure to this day.

According to Matthes, it is known that “some of the Berlin Museum officials, especially the curator [and archaeologist] Walter Andrae, tried to help the Simons.” Westphal, he says, wrote to the officials, emphasizing her grandfather’s contribution, but “it is not really clear to what extent [these] letters helped secure the lives of her parents and herself – though other family members were deported to Auschwitz or Theresienstadt, some went into exile.” Nor is it clear, adds Matthes, whether the Nefertiti bust, which was a favorite of Hitler’s, was instrumental in the fact that these relatives were spared. There is also no proof that Hitler himself was involved in any of this, but “what is clear,” Matthes says, “is that this part of the core family were in possession for a time of something like a letter of safe conduct. However, when that no longer helped, they had to go underground.”

The original James Simon Cabinet in 1904.Credit: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin / Zentralarchiv

‘Expensive cloakroom’

Even though a sculpture of Simon stood at the entrance to the sculpture collection in the Bode Museum, the current name of what was formerly the Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum, he was not significantly commemorated in the decades after World War II.

“There were many reasons for this,” notes Matthes, who has studied the subject ceaselessly in recent decades. For example, he points out, many of the works that Simon donated were now in East Germany, where the government had a “special kind of non-relationship to the Jewish community in that country. That changed somewhat only in 1982, when an exhibition devoted to James Simon was held there, but there was no money at the time to reconstruct his famous room.”

Only now, three decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall did the German authorities decide to rectify the situation. The James Simon Gallery was built on Museum Island, a Unesco World Heritage Site and the space that more than any other symbolizes Berlin’s cultural revival. In many senses, Museum Island, beyond being the historical cultural center of Berlin, is also the place where many of the concepts, architectural and others, that dictate the way all of us visit museums originated.

The first museum built on the island, the Altes Museum, in 1830, a masterpiece designed by architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel, made it possible for Prussia to try to compete with the Louvre. Over the years it was joined by the Pergamon Museum, which contains the remnants of the well-known Greek temple in Asia Minor along with an extremely important collection of Islamic art; the Neues Museum, a gallery for modern painting and also the home of Queen Nefertiti; and the Bode Museum, which houses one of the finest collections of Renaissance sculpture in the world. Altogether, these institutions, with their plethora of gorgeous treasures, constitute the world’s most important campus of museums in a defined and distinct territory.

The new Simon gallery, the first structure built on the island since 1930, functions as the entryway to the entire complex. The prize-winning British architect David Chipperfield, who restored the Neues Museum – which had remained partially destroyed since 1945 – was also commissioned to design the James Simon Gallery, at a cost of $94 million. Critics mocked the elegant white structure, branding it “the world’s most expensive cloakroom,” because it serves primarily as the entrance pavilion to Museum Island. Tourists can buy tickets there, store their personal belongings and choose which museum to proceed to, much in the same way that the pyramid entrance of the Louvre leads to that museum’s three wings.

The bust of Nefertiti.Credit: AP

The decision to name the structure for the forgotten Jewish philanthropist and collector is a political act, of course, and a moral and historical gesture of homage. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who attended the inauguration of the new structure, described Simon as a “great Berliner and a Prussian patriot.”

“Until a few years ago, very few people knew who James Simon was,” Timothy Simon, a descendant of the collector and benefactor, said at the ceremony. He added that he, with his wife and children, had chosen to move from San Francisco to Berlin – a particularly meaningful act in a city that is still grappling with the absent presence of its Jews.

Belated victory

Along with this large-scale celebration, the heads of the Berlin Museums acceded to a modest but moving suggestion by curator Rowley to reestablish the “James Simon Cabinet.” The elegant room has been resurrected in what many consider to be the most splendid of the institutions on the island, in eastern Berlin: the Bode Museum, founded 115 years ago as the imperial museum for Renaissance art. The Bode’s director, Julien Chapuis, placed a special emphasis on researching the provenance of the collection and its sources, and allotted the lost “cabinet” a room worthy of it.

Naturally, Rowley’s initiative entailed various challenges, not least because works from the museum disappeared during World War II: Some were lost in fires, others remain in Moscow, after being taken by the Red Army. Meticulous research, however, enabled the museum to locate all the objects of the James Simon Cabinet and led to the decision to repaint the walls in their original red – though this was not apparent from the historical photographs. Rowley also decided to install photographic reproductions of works that were lost in the war, such as a tondo of the Madonna and Child and two angels by Raffaellino del Garbo.

Why bother to recreate a room that was disbanded and was in large measure forgotten after the promise to perpetuate it for 100 years was violated so long ago? Would it not be enough to make do with Simon’s name on the magnificent new structure on Museum Island?

The new gateway pavilion to the institutions on Museum Island in Berlin.Credit: Ute Zscharnt for David Chipperfield Architects

In reply to that question, Rowley cites both a writer and a filmmaker: “I am convinced, along with Faulkner and Godard, that ‘the past never dies, it does not even pass.’ From the point of view of the Berlin Museums, the past is that glorious moment at the end of the 19th century and the early 20th century, when the exceptional collections were amassed and the magnificent buildings were erected. The past is also the period between 1933 and 1945, when the museums became part of the Nazi machine and its anti-Semitic madness. The James Simon Cabinet is the heir of all these. It was inaugurated in 1904 and disbanded on the eve of World War II, for the sole reason that James Simon was a Jew. To rebuild it is not only to recall the injustice that was done, but also to tell a complex, tragic and moving historical story of Berlin and its museums covering more than a hundred years.”

We are visiting the James Simon Cabinet a moment before its official opening, together with a dozen of Simon’s descendants, who have gathered here from across Europe and the United States. Entering the new-old room, one is struck by a festive yet also highly charged feeling. Even the small bronze sculptures have been removed from the storerooms and placed in the center of the room in honor of the event – they will be returned to storage until a solution can be found that will allow them to be displayed safely in the heart of the small, packed space. Bronzino looks down from one wall, Bellini from the wall opposite.

These dozens of works bring to life Simon’s exquisite taste and his generosity, which the Nazis brutally swept away. The two experts, Rowley and Matthes, provide detailed explanations and answer questions from the relatives. One cannot help seeing the tears in their eyes and the great pride they take in their philanthropic ancestor, to whom a promise was made that was breached, then forgotten, and is now being fulfilled.

I ask Rowley about the difficulty of the reconstruction. “Despite everything, it was surprisingly simple,” he says. “Surprising, because a few of my predecessors tried to do it after Germany’s unification, but unsuccessfully. For me it was a question of common sense and morality.”

Is this a temporary exhibition, or is the cabinet here to stay?

Rowley: “The original room was inaugurated in October 1904 and shut down by the Nazis in August 1939 – in other words, it existed for 34 years and ten months. Another 65 years and two months remain to meet the promise of one hundred years. Accordingly, we need to preserve the renewed room until 2084 – but why not beyond that as well?”