“Restitution” is the riveting, multigenerational story of Sylvie Rosenberg, a Holocaust survivor traumatized by the memory of her art dealer father forced to trade paintings with the Nazis in an attempt to save their large extended family. Sylvie’s adult life in 1970s New York is plagued by survivors’ guilt and bitterness. But when her self-destructive ways threaten to upend the life of her Vietnam-vet son, Sylvie finally needs to face her demons. She returns to Holland to confront her past and fight the Dutch judicial system for the return of the masterpieces, but the battle proves far more difficult than Sylvie imagined…
Weaving in tragic true events from her own family history, Berg offers a sensitive story of history, romance, and humor along with detail from the extensive research of Lynn H. Nicholas, the world’s leading expert on art pilfered during WWII. Over 80 years later, the real family still awaits justice and the return of artwork that continues to hang on museum walls, without noting their tragic history…
What was my inspiration to write a novel about the Holocaust?
I was not consciously aware of what inspired me as a little, naive girl growing up in the suburbs during the 1950s. I was painfully shy, so I always made up stories, alone in my room. I thought life was all about puppies, climbing trees, and playing stickball in the streets. When I came of age during the chaos of the 60s, I suddenly realized life was not that simple. There was the draft, the endless Vietnam War, and friends who never made it back home again. I grew up in a town on the middle of Long Island, called Massapequa, nicknamed “Matzoh Pizza” for all the Jews and Italians, who chose to escape the city streets of Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan.
Massapequa is where we met – a nice Jewish boy, Bruce Berg and a Catholic girl, Janet Marino – we had gone to the same grammar school and started dating before the age of 16. I looked at our similarities more than our differences. And I found it to be romantic, after having read the story of Anne Frank and how she thought Peter had the bluest eyes she had ever seen. A sense of adventure enveloped me – two rebels at a time – when interfaith relationships were more frowned upon. Even at a young age, I had always wondered why people needed to “label” each other. I needed to understand, so I chose to write about connecting people, despite different ethnic groups, religions, cultures, or parental prejudices. I was not consciously aware that it would drive me someday to write us as secondary characters in a novel about the Holocaust.
One night, while Bruce and I were parked in the car, as teenagers do, he told me a little about his family’s past history and that his mom and his sister (now 83) had escaped because his grandfather Benjamin Katz, was forced to trade a Rembrandt for 25 lives. Hitler had targeted the prominent art dealer Katz brothers (Benjamin and Nathan) since the late 1930s. Then, Germany occupied Holland in May of 1940. The family was temporarily protected. As long as they had canvases, they were kept alive, so the Nazis could continue to acquire more masterpieces for Hitler’s Linz Museum!
One day, Hitler’s right-hand man, Herman Goering came into the Katz home and pointed to the artwork he desired, with a gun in his pocket. At one sitting, the brothers were forced to trade 500 works of Art for little value – something these smart businessmen would never do! Over a few months, the brothers endured endless negotiating while looking into the faces of pure evil, and the Big Trade was made on October 20, 1942 – a Rembrandt in exchange for 25 Jewish lives.
At the last moment, when the painting changed hands, and the German signatures authorized the deal, a telegram was sent in code, and the family was told the 25 visas were accepted. But when they boarded the train, they wondered if the train doors would open to their freedom or to the death camps.
Sadly, they lost 65 members of their extended family to the genocide, including their eldest sister who suffocated on a cattle car called The Lost Transport, stuffed with 2500 Jewish prisoners right before the Russians liberated the camps. And shortly, after World War II, Nathan and another brother Simon committed suicide. I had to wonder about the guilt of having survived.
My husband said his mother never really talked about those days – they were the silent generation of kept secrets. I feel six million stories should be told. I like to think that my one story represents many. I was inspired to write my book as a tribute to our family, but also to all those who suffered during WWII, the deadliest conflict in history, where everyone suffered, not only the Jews, but almost 70 million people … to disease, starvation, and harsh winters.
In 2008, a few years into writing my book, I was thrilled to visit the family home in Dieren, Holland. By luck, we were invited inside, where a doctor was restoring the 3-level brick house and I got to see where my main character grew up … I got goosebumps thinking of the artwork that once decorated the walls. I gasped when I saw the broken delft tile around the fireplace, remnants in the kitchen, and I pictured the children I had written about, running up and down the staircases, just as I had imagined. My inspiration came from these ghosts, who guided the pen in my hand.
To this day, I think of how Hermann Goering signed the Final Solution with the stroke of his pen, and how Rembrandt saved so many lives with the stroke of a brush.
Meet Janet Lee Berg
Janet Lee Berg is a native New Yorker with a residence in Charleston, SC. She is also author of several other works of fiction and children’s books and has had her work featured in the local, regional, and national press. A journalist in the Hamptons, Janet Lee Berg has interviewed numerous celebrities and pursued an MFA in Creative Writing, under the direction of published professors including Frank McCourt, author of Angela’s Ashes.
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