A small, brown, glass perfume bottle with a neat gold trim is causing excitement at Sydney’s Jewish Museum. This piece, recently donated by heritage consultant, David Logan, becomes the first artwork in the museum that was taken from a Jewish private collection by the Nazis and subsequently restored to its rightful heirs some 80 years later.
The bottle comes from the collection of Logan’s grandfather, Wilhelm Perlhoefter, a prosperous merchant in Breslau who had a passion for glass, particularly for pieces made using the lithyalin process invented by Bohemian master craftsman, Friedrich Egermann (1777-1864). This process, which remained a closely guarded secret, enabled Egermann to create glass objects that resembled marble or semi-precious stone.
In a collection of over 1,000 objects Perlhoefter accumulated 400 pieces by Egermann. Museum directors and connoisseurs would call in to see these treasures, which were arranged in glass cases spread throughout a spacious apartment. “As a child,” Logan says, “my mother felt embarrassed about inviting friends home because the family apartment looked like a museum.”
Everything began to change when the Nazis came to power in 1933. Perlhoefter’s business would be “Aryanised” in 1938, and on 9 November that year – the notorious Kristallnacht – he would be arrested and imprisoned in Buchenwald. During four weeks in the camp Perlhoefter almost died of a kidney infection. “My mother said that one more day would have killed him,” says Logan. The condition for release was an amnesty that was applied when people turned 60 – a policy not destined to endure under the Third Reich.
Perlhoefter and his wife, Helene, would be allowed to migrate to England, but at the price of letting German museum directors take whatever they wanted from the collection. The remainder was packed up by an art dealer friend, German but not Jewish, and taken to the docks. When war broke out before the crates could be shipped he managed to conceal them in a safe haven where they would remain for the duration of hostilities.
The collection would not arrive in London until after the war, and by then Wilhelm had died from the infirmity he acquired at Buchenwald. His widow would stay in London for the rest of her life, selling off items from the collection to survive, until she was left with only 50 pieces which would eventually be distributed among the family.
Logan’s mother and aunt had managed to escape to England at the beginning of 1939 on domestic servant visas. His father had gotten away in 1938, having secured a visa for the weekend so he could play his accordeon at a fictitious family wedding in Belgium. From Belgium he went to London, where he would join the British army. When he went back into Berlin as an intrepreter with the British forces, he acquired the name “Logan”, which seemed impeccably Anglo-Celtic.
Like so many Jewish families, the Perlhoefters would be scattered across the world. Two of Logan’s cousins live in Buenos Aries, one in London. His own parents migrated to Melbourne in 1948 and moved to Sydney in 1956, the year David was born.
While searching for information about her grandfather in 2018 one of the South American cousins came across a notice about an exhibition of Raubkunst (looted artwork) at the Goerlitz Museum. It said there were four pieces from the Perlhoefter collection that had been taken from the family in 1939 and the museum was searching for the rightful heirs.
Despite its good intentions, Logan says the museum seemed quite surprised when the family got in touch and identified themselves. “It took 2-3 years of proving we were the descendants,” he says. “There were lots of contracts. They needed the formal approval of the city of Goerlitz. At one point they wanted to see my grandfather’s will!”
The family faced their own moral dilemmas. As the four items had been taken illegally, was it right for them to remain in Goerlitz? On the other hand, because they had been in the museum’s collection for more than 80 years, would it be wrong to take them away? Could these pieces tell the story of Nazi looting more effectively if they remained where they were?
The cousins decided to leave three pieces in Goerlitz and receive compensation while David asked the Jewish Museum in Sydney if they would be interested in the fourth. He received an enthusiastic response.
When the perfume bottle arrived, after an interminable transit, Logan was surprised at how emotional he became, simply seeing and handling something that had belonged to his grandfather. He was moved by the Germans’ admission that it had been wrongfully taken. He also understood why his mother had been so attached to the few glass pieces she possessed: because they were her only tangible link to her childhood, to a past and a way of life that had been swept away. Even the city of Breslau is now gone, becoming Wrocław, in Poland.
The dilemma for curator, Roslyn Sugarman, is how best to exhibit the bottle. It could be fitted into a display about pre-war life in Europe, or shown with material that talks about repatriation and restitution. It’s only a small item but it allows the museum to tell a big story: of pre-war culture, broken families, Nazi barbarity, dislocation and diaspora. The tale ends with the Germans’ willingness to confront the crimes of the past and make amends. When the bottle arrives in Sydney it completed a circuit between past and present, as a grandson took possession of a precious object chosen by a grandfather he never knew.
Edmund de Waal hs shown in his best-seller of 2010, The Hare with Amber Eyes, that all objects come with stories, both private and public. In its very modesty this perfume bottle commands a feeling of reverence, bearing witness to the crimes of the Third Reich and the devastation of the Holocaust. For Logan the museum is its logical destination because here it will never be just another objet d’art for the mantelpiece but a container of memories that cannot be allowed to disappear.
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 17 April, 2021