Tuesday 19 March 2019

How the little girl in the pink dress escaped from Hitler's dark shadow

NAZI LEADER: Hilde and Hitler
NAZI LEADER: Hilde and Hitler

Justin Huggler

Hilde Schramm, the daughter of Adolf Hitler's favourite architect, was nine years old when she had her photograph taken with the Nazi leader.

The image, showing the girl smiling in a pink dress while the author of the Holocaust's arm rests on her shoulder, would have overshadowed many lives. But Schramm has refused to be defined by her past.

For the past 25 years, she has worked to give back to Germany's Jews a little of what was stolen from them by the Nazis, and now she has been honoured with an award from the Obermayer Foundation, set up by an American Jewish philanthropist to recognise those who keep Germany's Jewish legacy alive.

At a time when governments face criticism for not doing enough to restore artwork looted by the Nazis to their rightful Jewish owners, Schramm (82) has shown the way. She set up Zuruckgeben - meaning Restitution, or Giving Back - five years before the declaration of the Washington Principles, an agreement by 44 countries to work for restitution.

Her work stands in contrast to the bitter struggle many Jewish heirs still face to get back artworks looted by the Nazis. Last year it emerged that a collector had asked a Jewish family for €1m "compensation" for the return of a Degas that was rightfully theirs. Several German museums have still not catalogued their collections for possible looted works.

For Schramm, restitution began in 1993 when she inherited part of the art collection of her father, Albert Speer, who worked with Hitler.

"I didn't want to have the paintings because they might have belonged to Jewish people," she said. "It was a powerful feeling."

None of the paintings were by major artists and it wasn't possible for Schramm to research their history, so she sold them and use the money to give something back.The paintings raised around DM160,000 - "Not a lot of money to start a foundation," she says in flat in south Berlin.

She used it to set up Giving Back, which encourages anyone who feels they might own, or have benefited from, something that was looted from Germany's Jews to make a donation. The money is used to fund bursaries for artistic or creative work by Jewish women in Germany.

Schramm later discovered the paintings she inherited were almost certainly not stolen from Jewish owners. But, she says, that doesn't matter. "From the beginning I was chilled by the idea that he had bought the pictures with money he made from being in a leading position in the National Socialist government. For me, it was contaminated money."

Speer was the architect of the Nuremberg rally grounds and Hitler's planned - but never fulfilled - redesign of Berlin. He was also minister for armaments and war production. After the war, Speer claimed he didn't know about the Holocaust, but historians have cast doubt on that. He pleaded guilty at the Nuremberg trials but was spared the death penalty.

Schramm freely admits part of her motivation in setting up Giving Back was to escape his shadow. "I wouldn't let myself be identified by my father," she said. "So many women are defined by their fathers. I didn't want my father's history always to be the centre of my life. It isn't."

Giving Back's work is about more than just stolen art works, she says: "So much was taken from Jewish people in so many ways. Germans who were bombed were given free furniture by the National Socialist government. Often, that furniture had been taken from Jewish families."

Unlike many of those honoured by the Obermayer Foundation, her work is not focused on the memory of Germany's lost Jewish heritage, but on its living Jewish community.

Sunday Independent

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