With so many terrible things happening in the world, does it make any sense to write about other terrible things that happened more than 60 years ago? A small incident in my life convinced me that it does. Waiting in a line to receive my drivers' license in one of Venezuela´s public offices, which, since the Revolution, are organized according to Cuban, communist rules, and listening to the commanding voice of one of its officers, suddenly I found myself back in my country of birth, Holland, then occupied by German military forces…. Fascism, I realized, under whatever name it goes, never changes and if we don´t denounce it in time, it will always pop up again in some part of the world.
I was born 2 years before the war. My father was the owner of a then very well-known chocolate factory, called Driessen. Besides being a successful businessman, he also was an intellectual, a lover of art, literature and music. He bought a small hunting lodge, the “Jagershuis”, in the woods overlooking the river Rhine in Doorwerth, near Arnhem, and transformed it into an enormous villa.
|Outside view of the "Jagershuis"|
Source: Helen Driessen
|Helen Driessen (seated) with her aunt|
Source: Helen Driessen
|The Jagershuis "music room" with the organ|
Source: Helen Driessen
As a child I remember playing among objets d'art of enormous value. On the few photographs that still exist, I recognize my usual playground of expensive Persian tapestries, ivory statues, beautiful elaborate lamps, chairs, poufs…..I even had my own miniature set of Meissen china from which I ate and drank while the others enjoyed their grown up version of it. In a very modern concept of nature, the trees and vegetation in my father´s woods were kept without any human interference: he had several gardeners tending to them, but he never altered the course of nature. On the whole, between drivers, gardeners, nurses, ladies for laundry and ironing, cleaning and cooking, we had a constant staff of 13 people in and around the house.
Then Germany declared war on Holland and everything changed. The Jagershuis, because of its important strategic position, became in September 1944 a centre of intense combat. In my father’s diaries which were recently rediscovered by the Dutch State Archives, we get an exact picture of how Allies and Germans fought around our house. The movie “One Bridge Too Far” was based on these facts. In the end, the Allies pulled back to one side of the Rhine, while we were on the other side. Germans took over our house. First they arrived in small groups, some Nazi officers lived with us and then came the troops and our house became a barrack, being constantly attacked by the Allies. One of the Nazi officers was an art lover and often stood looking approvingly in front of one of my father´s most treasured works of art: a triptych; “Purificatio Mariae,” by Marco d´Oggione, a pupil of Leonardo da Vinci, which my father had acquired after months of negotiations from an art gallery in Florence, Italy. (see April 20, 2011: "in search of a triptych 'Purificatio Mariae,' by Marco d'Oggione)
One day we were ordered to leave the house immediately, without taking anything with us. The Ortskommandant who was currently living in the house, told us that according to their espionage service, the house would be bombed flat by the Allies. We left with a wooden cart and nothing else and we stayed that night in our neighbors’ cellar. The next morning my father walked back to the house and to his enormous dismay saw how three big trucks were being loaded with all of our possessions and then departed, supposedly in the direction of Germany. The next day the Allies bombed our house with phosphor bombs and the only thing that reminded us of it, was an enormous hole in the ground.
After having spent several more nights in the cellar, my parents, 5 children and a dachshund on a cart, left and walked for three days to Utrecht, where we found a temporary home and where we spent the famous “winter of hunger”, living on a diet of tulip bulbs with which the Germans sustained the Dutch population.
After the war, and until his death, my father claimed and searched for his possessions. Unfortunately, these being protected by the Dutch Government, he never had them insured and so there does not exist a detailed description of them. His belief that they had arrived safely in Germany was strengthened after the war by the fact that he and my mother, in a hotel in Basel, recognized a Persian tapestry that had belonged to the Jagershuis. Not only was the pattern familiar, but my mother also recognized one of its corners which, regardless of the heavy object that she would put on it, would always flap up…..
For a long time my older sisters continued my father´s search but not being familiar with the complicated world of lost art, their search was not done in a professional way and at the end they gave up. They did however concentrate on one particular work of art, the Marco d´Óggiono tryptic, because, in my father´s factory, they were so lucky as to find its photocopy so that it was easy to recognize..
Now it is up to me, the youngest of the family, who, probably due to a very similar political situation in the country I chose to live in, Venezuela, has taken up the battle with renewed forces. I have many questions. Why are all ways of finding our possessions so full of hindrances and difficulties? Why does not there exist one general database where all stolen works of art are registered? How come there is so much resistance to assist people in recovering their legitimate property? Why is there only this blog dealing with the subject? Why should I live in a difficult financial position without any need? How sad that it is so much easier to find a stolen car than an important work like the Marco d´Oggione!
Here I sit with, in front of me, the only object remaining from all my father´s possessions: a Meissen plate, that was given by my mother to a friend to take a piece of cake home……