My Grandfather’s Lost Judaica

‘My mother, Hanni Hahn, fled Germany for the UK in 1939, leaving behind her parents who did not survive. Her father - my grandfather - Max Hahn was a leading industrialist and philanthropist in his hometown of Göttingen, President of the Conservative Jewish Community. And he was one of the leading collectors of Judaica of the interwar years in Europe,’ writes IJC member Diana Kanter.

The Nazis confiscated his collection on Kristallnacht when he was thrown in prison. He spent the next three years trying to negotiate for its rightful return, believing that his beloved collection was what he needed to emigrate. He never got it back and never emigrated.

The hunt for that collection is still on. My cousin - who lives in Canada - is leading this effort and believes that 150 items of our grandfather’s Judaica collection are still out there somewhere. And he was just awarded a grant by the German Federal Lost Art Foundation towards funding this effort. It is the first time that the German government has made such a grant to a non-German.

Göttingen is making efforts to highlight its dark past. The city museum, the local theatre and the city’s politicians have all, in the last five years, held events of restitution for our family, placed ‘stolpersteine’ honoring my grandfather’s and his brother’s families, even commissioning a play based on testimonials and archives about who profited from the dispossession of the Jews, where the Hahn family was highlighted.

Early September, I was back in Göttingen for the opening of an exhibition on provenance research, again featuring pieces which belonged to my grandfather. A panel discussion to kick off the exhibition was sponsored by North German TV which has started a cultural program called ‘the Museum Detective’ where the Hahn story has been featured.

Diana with Göttingen Museum Director

I was asked to speak at this event. I was asked difficult questions about what kind of impact the Nazi times had had on my mother. How to answer such questions? It seemed easiest to answer with anecdotes; I spoke of her desire to completely Anglicize herself in the UK, put her Judaism aside, change her name. I deeply believe she did this to keep her sanity and once she had children, to protect us from trauma. But she did sing us German nursery rhymes - they were the only ones she knew. And she baked the best Linzertorte south of Golders Green (a very Jewish part of London).

The panel discussion moved onto the question of provenance research with the Göttingen Museum Curator and its Director. They talked of the moral obligation of a museum to research and restitute. But there is simply not enough money or political will to do this thoroughly.

All I can say is that it was objects restituted to my grandfather that brought me back to Gottingen and, for the first time, gave me a positive feeling towards the city and country of my mother’s birth.  But that is not enough. The search for the missing Judaica is only just beginning.