No Amber Eyes

A couple of years ago I read “The Hare with Amber Eyes” in which author de Waal softly narrates the fate of the House of Ephrussi, his family. He ties the generations of his forbears together with a richly embroidered silken ribbon, from their origin as Ukrainian grain merchants through the establishment of an aristocratic banking dynasty in Vienna and Paris to their utter destruction at Nazi hands, as if he was fastening each one of his Ephrussi antecedents with netsuke to an obi sash, using these tiny Japanese carvings, the only surviving objects of an immense collection of fine art, as fingerposts in the dispersal of art and family members to the four winds.

The hare with its amber eyes struck a chord with me because the fate of the Ephrussi family parallels another banking family’s horror. A family of Jewish bankers, operating mostly in a small German-speaking region, nevertheless equally well educated and cultured, and equally as supportive of the arts as patrons and collectors, as the Ephrussi had been. And they too suffered annihilation at the hands of the same tyrants, which devastated such wide swaths of Europe. Sometime after these tragic events, which still blight the lives of subsequent generations, one member of this family became connected with mine.

This banking dynasty wasn’t quite as glamorous, as the cosmopolitan Ukrainians. Several generations of bankers had already served their profession well, though solely within the confines of the then Kingdom of Saxony; the family was proud and accomplished, but not well known. A bit more provincial, you might say, compared to their Parisian counterparts. However, they should soon become no less important to global banking, than their better know metropolitan cousins. In 1872 the family patriarch, Eugen Gutmann, became a founding member of the Dresdner Bank, an enduring institution, which was only recently absorbed by an even larger house. The Gutmann family gained in prominence after Eugen established the bank’s new headquarters in Berlin. In the next generation, two sons followed in the family banking tradition, a daughter married an Italian diplomat, and the Gutmanns became shining stars in Berlin’s social scene. Until “the crazy wild ones on the far right” took over and changed the world forever. Already in 1931, Eugen Gutmann’s elder son, Herbert Maximilian, was forced to resign his positions from the Dresdner Bank under political pressure, to appease those wild ones. He ultimately had to flee to the United Kingdom. Herbert’s younger brother Friedrich “Fritz” Bernhard Eugen Gutmann had, at this point, already settled in the Netherlands with his family, where they tried in vain to stay below the radar of the ever-increasing power of the NSDAPIronically, Herbert’s eldest son became the second generation of Gutmann man to be interned on the Isle of Man as a hostile foreign national, as Fritz had been interned there during WWI. The Gutmann family had converted to the Lutheran faith in 1889. A step that quite a number of secular German Jews undertook toward the close of the 19th century. When Chancellor Bismarck succeeded in establishing a united German Empire under Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1871, a sense of citizenship and belonging grew very strong among German Jews and many sought to assimilate through conversion. 

Sadly, this step to demonstrate loyalty to their country proved to be an illusion in case of the Gutmann family. 

Enter Benny. Also known as Bernie or, more formally, Mr. Bernhard Goodman. My father, who was a great aficionado of swing *, called him Benny and it stuck. Bernhard Goodman, using the anglicized form of Gutmann, was Fritz’s son. Bernie came into our lives as my aunt’s partner in the 1980s.

[* Big Bands under bandleaders like Benny Goodman produced dance music in the ‘swing style’ of jazz, which my father loved dearly. He was an excellent dancer, too!]

I had already moved to the US, so I never had an opportunity to truly get to know him, but Bernie became a well-loved member of our family. He got creamed in billiards by my mother and shared many a family celebration, including the sad event of my father’s sea burial off Husum in 1994. 

Benny with my aunt & grumpy looking dad in a bow tie

Dad (still grumpy) & a great-niece with
Benny at his home in Tübingen, Germany

My last photo of Benny, May 1994

That year proved fateful for Benny as well since he died only three months later in August of 1994 while celebrating this 80th birthday with my aunt in Venice. So the two sisters sitting on the bench with Benny in my picture above became widowed in the same year. 

While Benny was with us, we certainly knew of his long and desperate quest to find his family’s treasures, to restore a measure of honor to his murdered parents, even though he himself never mentioned any of it. The immense burden he carried was private and forever unspoken. We just knew that he had spent all of himself, his emotion, his capacity of endurance and his funds, to make post-war authorities aware of the cutting injustices done to innocent people, out of which scores of others, innocently or not, profited.

Let’s backtrack a little. Our Benny, Bernhard Goodman, Eugen Gutmann’s grandson, was born in England in 1914, while his father Fritz Gutmann worked there at the behest of the Dresdner Bank. The outbreak of the first World War sent this German banker to a camp for the first time. As a hostile foreign national, Fritz was imprisoned on the Isle of Man during most of WW I, while his wife Louise Gutmann Baroness von Landau and their infant son Bernhard were expelled and returned to Berlin without him. An exchange of political prisoners freed Fritz, but the agreement between the governments didn’t allow him to go home. He was forced to settle in a neutral country. His family selected the Netherlands, where Louise and Bernhard soon joint him, and where Bernhard’s sister Lili was born. In the Netherlands Fritz and his wife expanded their art collection to include works of newly fashionable impressionist artists. Meanwhile, Fritz Gutmann was also named custodian of the Gutmann family collections of antiques, Islamic art, Old Masters and assorted precious household goods in its entirety, which placed him squarely in the glaring spotlight of the powerful and greedy leaders of the Third Reich. With the Netherlands under Nazi rule, the Gutmann family was no longer safe. They had become targets of a regime with an insatiable hunger for their possessions.  

Fritz and Louise long denied the obvious, but at least their children were out of reach of the Nazis. Their daughter Lili was married in Italy, while Benny attended college in Cambridge, England. Even though the Gutmann family was officially Lutheran, they were still regarded as Jewish by the Nazi regime. Banker Gutmann, who was ordered to wear the yellow star on his clothing, identifying him as a Jew, which he refused to do, was no longer allowed to work and his bank was put under the supervision of a party bureaucrat. Ultimately he couldn’t even access his personal accounts.

Benny’s parents finally realized that they had to get out of occupied Holland. They wanted to move to Italy, where their daughter Lili had gained permission for them to live. Before the Netherlands suffered Nazi occupation, the Gutmanns had sent several paintings, including their Impressionists, and antiques to be stored in the vault of an art dealership in Paris for safe-keeping, … original sentence removed for this correction by my aunt:

“Fritz and Louise Gutmann were not trying to sell their art in order to pay for their emigration to Italy but were forced to the signing over of their complete household in the Netherlands as well as their valuable art collection to Hitlers art-dealer Karl Haberstock”

Their stored possessions in Paris were also stolen when the dealership had to hand over the entire content of their vault to Hitler’s minion. This theft ultimately led to the groundbreaking legal proceedings Benny’s sons and his sister fought for endless years, documented both in the US (60 Minutes) and the UK (BBC) – see also LA Times article linked below.

Finally in 1943, believing to have gained safe passage to Italy, Fritz and Louise Gutmann were put on a train by two Gestapo officers. However, instead of reuniting with their daughter in Florence, as promised, they were transported to their final destination in Theresienstadt

Since Fritz Gutmann was the custodian of his family’s vast art collections, he was pressured to sign them over to the Führer. The Nazis wanted it all, but Fritz refused to sign the papers, because, as he explained to them, they weren’t his to give. The interrogation squad kicked him to death in anger and Louise Gutmann von Landau was subsequently gassed at Auschwitz.

The Gutmann family mausoleum in Berlin
Benny’s parents Fritz & Louise have memorial plaques here
Photo property of Clemensfranz
[CC-BY-SA-3.0 (

Benny served in the British Armed Forces during the war and Lili survived in Italy. Immediately after the war it quickly became apparent that Fritz and Louise had perished in the camps. Their parents lost forever, the need to restore at least their possessions to the family became Benny and Lili’s mandate.  

What I didn’t know, until I saw this LA Times article, my aunt shared in a Facebook post, was the extent of valor, with which the next generation has picked up the gauntlet, despite legal hairsplitting, indifference and often open hostility. The emotional consequences suffered through Nazi atrocities continue through the second generation, yet their fighting spirit remains strong and their demand for restitution continues.           

4 thoughts on “No Amber Eyes

  1. Thanks for helping me to get the facts straight, Ev!!! I never saw the documentary, but I read everything I could find online re the Searle suit, including the original filing papers in NY. I hope Simon's book will also be published in Kindle-format, the only way I can take a book with me on our travels these days! Keep me updated on his progress, please.


  2. Dearest Claudinha,
    I am very touched by your blog remembering my late dear friend and partner Bernie
    and telling the sad story of the murder of his parents by the Nazis, and his and now his sons 70 years long quest for their family 's lost art.
    Please note one important correction: Fritz and Louise Gutmann were not trying to sell their art in order to pay for their emigration to Italy but were forced to the signing over of their complete household in the Netherlands as well as their valuable art collection to Hitlers art-dealer Karl Haberstock .
    Bernies son Simon, living in LA , is actually writing a book about his family and his now 20 years long search for his familys lost art collection, It should come out this summer or fall in the US.
    Have you ever seen the documentary made by Ann Webber, BBC in 1998 about the law suit Gutmann versus Daniel Searle for the little Degas “landscape with smokestacks” , one of the impressionist paintings stolen by Haberstock, which after the war had found its way into the US ?
    Thank you for remembering Bernie so well!


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