Almost 80 years ago, two paintings were separated. One was traded for a visa to escape Nazi Germany; the other came with its owners, Jakob and Paula Engelberg, as they fled to the United States. Now, an exhibit at the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education commemorates the paintings and the family’s story.
Growing up, Stephen Engelberg — the grandson of Jakob and Paula — was familiar with the story of his family’s escape.
The painting that eluded Nazi occupation maintained a prominent position in the family living room. Centered and well lit, Engelberg’s father called the portrait of a young woman, “My Mona Lisa.”
Stephen Engelberg said the painting offered a tangible reminder of the other piece that was traded to ensure the family’s freedom. “It’s probably one of my most predominate childhood memories. It was just always there looking at us.”
Specific details surrounding the exchange of the lost painting remain unclear. As the story goes, about two weeks after Nazi officials destroyed Jewish businesses and synagogues on Kristallnacht, also known as “the night of broken glass,” Paula Engelberg left her family’s Munich apartment with a painting in hand.
“What we know for certain is that she left with a painting and came back with a visa,” Engelberg said.
The Swiss visa Paula acquired was used to free her husband Jakob, who had been imprisoned at the Dachau labor camp. Once he was released, the family left for Switzerland and eventually immigrated to the United States.
It wasn’t until 2010, when Engelberg shared the story with Christian Salewski, a German journalist, that he began pursuing the lost portrait.
“When we started all this we were not exactly sure who the artist was,” Engelberg said. Through a German art expert, Engelberg learned the artist was a man named Otto Stein.
Armed with this information, Salewski and Engelberg launched an international art hunt in search of the painting. After nearly a year of investigating, the lost painting — or something very similar to it — was found in the possession of a Munich art collector.
Engelberg said there’s no way to be certain if this is the exact painting his grandmother traded, but indications suggest that it could be — most notably, his father’s memory.
“He was visibly moved,” Engelberg said of his father’s reaction to seeing the painting.
The painting had sustained some damage throughout the war, but it was otherwise as Engelberg’s father remembered.
Even though it’s impossible to prove this is the same painting, the Munich art dealer decided to gift the painting to Engelberg’s family.
Engleberg’ father, Edward, died last year, not long after the second Stein painting was found. Engelberg said his father retold the story of their escape from Nazi Germany often. “He was very much conscious of being a refugee. … When we talk today about not allowing refugees into the United States. We need to be aware of these are the kinds of people we’re saying no to.”
The two paintings are on view in the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education’s East Gallery.
To hear more from Think Out Loud’s conversation with Stephen Engelberg, including the story of the family’s escape, click the “play” button at the top of the page.