“It means so much to bring this back”: Czech state returns artworks to Jewish family

After more than 80 years, the Czech state has returned art objects that belonged to the family of a wealthy Jewish businessman Johann Bloch, who lost his property during WWII.  The four paintings and 10 liturgical vestments were returned to Bloch’s heirs as part of an effort to mitigate the wrongs of the Holocaust.

Photo: Ministry of Culture

Johann Bloch was a Jewish entrepreneur who owned a leather processing and leather goods factory in Brno. He was also an art collector and amassed a large collection of paintings, sculptures, furniture, textiles and antiques.

In 1939, his firm was seized by the Nazis and Johann Bloch and his wife decided to emigrate. In order to obtain permission to leave and export his art collection, he first had to deposit part of it in a designated public institution.

Photo: Ministry of Culture

Despite doing so, Bloch did not get the permission to leave. He died in 1940 due to heart complications, while his wife Erna, as well as his brother and his wife, perished in concentration camps.

Now, 84 years after they were taken, the artworks finally returned to Bloch’s heirs. His two granddaughters flew to Prague from the US to take possession of the family’s property at a ceremony at the Ministry of Culture’s Nostitz Palace this Tuesday.

One of them, Cheryl Bernstein, described to Czech Radio what it meant to her, and especially to her mother, who fled Czechoslovakia when she was just 16 months old:

“My mother, who is 86 years old, couldn’t be here today. For her, this is a monumental moment of completing a task that her mother started and that she has lived with her entire life. So I can’t put into words what this means for my mother, but it’s a lot.

“For me, personally, it means so much to bring this back to my family, to bring it to my kids who now have a tangible asset to look at. So we are bringing living history back to my family.”

Photo: Ministry of Culture

Bloch’s descendants in the United States had been searching for the lost family property for years. With the help of a New York organisation assisting Holocaust victims and their heirs they traced them in the collections of the National Gallery and the Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague.

The latter owned a set of 10 valuable liturgical vestments while the National Gallery had four of Bloch’s pictures in its possession, dating to the turn of the 19th century.

Johann Bloch’s great-granddaughter Anne Claire von Huene is taking one of them back to her family in the United States.

“I’m going to take it home and hang it in my living room. But if I ever donate it somewhere, it will be to all of you here in the Czech Republic. I have already donated the majority of the chasubles collection back.”

The remaining part of Johann Bloch's extensive art collection, which was intended for export to England, has not yet been located. It is possible it became the property of the German state under a legal mechanism.

Photo: Ministry of Culture