With trembling fingers used to plying the bow of a violin, Daniel ripped open the envelope nestled in his late father’s papers. Several large unopened safety deposit boxes surrounded him in the bank vault.
“Dear Daniel, My Son,” he read.
“I have kept many secrets in my life —secrets I could not, or was not willing to reveal while I was alive. By the time you read this, I will have been laid to rest with your dear mother. I need to divulge one of those secrets now. You may never understand, but you need to know.
“During the Second World War I did something that was technically legal but morally wrong. I was never strong enough to stand up for what is right, and now I need you to do what I lacked the courage to do.
“At the beginning of the war, the Germans had the opportunity to invade Switzerland but chose not to. As Swiss, we reveled in our ‘neutrality’ but we were never truly impartial. As owner of Hoffman & Weg, I had many dealings with the officers of the Nazi party. It was they who raided the Jew’s homes in Vienna, stealing their gold, and their fine pieces of art. It was me they came to when they needed a safe place to hide them.”
Daniel stumbled back, coming up short against the counter behind him in the small space allocated for bank customers. He steadied himself with one hand and continued reading.
“The Nazis paid me a pretty penny for those paintings — in the vault you will find Raphael, Monet, Manet, and Renoir, among others. I knew the paintings were stolen, but I cared more for their beauty than their provenance. The Nazis struck a deal with me — if I held onto the paintings, they would collect them at the end of the war to create the Fuhrer Museum in Linz, according to Hitler’s wishes. Of course, we know the tides of war changed. Hitler, vermin that he was, took his own life. The Nazis I had protected either fled to South America, or were captured.
“You may remember one night when you were a small boy coming down the stairs because you heard raised voices. I scolded you and sent you upstairs. No mention was ever made of the person with whom I was arguing. Daniel, he was a Jewish representative who heard I was in possession of paintings that rightfully belonged to the Jewish nation. I hid behind Swiss banking laws that said an owner had five years to rightfully claim what was his, or else forfeit the item. I knew these paintings were stolen, but still I refused to return them.
“It is my wish that you return these paintings to their original owners, or barring that, that the paintings be hung in museums in Israel. You will find the provenances for each painting in my files.
“My greed during the war was as boundless as my guilt has been these last few years. I have taken no pleasure from them. Please do as I ask; but be circumspect. There are people even today in Switzerland who want the past to remind exactly where it is — entombed in the bank vaults of the Bahmhofstrasse — and they will stop at nothing to achieve that end. They think of themselves as patriots, but they are nothing more than I was, money-hungry bankers, reveling in Switzerland’s so-called neutrality, while allowing the rape and pillaging of other, smaller countries.
“The paintings contained in this bank vault represent the finest Viennese collection. I could never openly display them. I spent many lonely hours in this very space drinking in their beauty, but their beauty never brought me any peace.
“Please my son, forgive sins of your father. Even in death I am too cowardly to do the right thing. Make amends and seek forgiveness on my behalf and for the sake of our family name. Do not follow my folly, but do the right thing. It is time the paintings see the light of day and hang in galleries in Israel.
With the deepest love and regret,
Daniel wept. For his father, and for the cruelty of his country that masqueraded under neutrality.
Switzerland and Portugal declared neutrality in the Second World War, but the Nazis, and other powerful international leaders used their banks as storage houses for ill-gotten gains. The Swiss knew this, but turned a blind eye because it was good for their economy.
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