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Chicagoan Lisa Barr’s new novel sheds light on the art stolen by the Nazis during WWII

LisBar | Phoby Tell Draper Photography

Lisa Bar | Photo by Tell Draper Photography

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Updated: December 17, 2013 3:28PM

I’ve been a journalist for more than 20 years, but there was one pivotal moment that changed the course of my career. When I was 26, I was assigned to cover the “Degenerate Art” exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago.

The exhibit literally stopped me in my tracks, and later became the basis for my first novel, “Fugitive Colors.” Even as the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, I had never known about the Nazis’ relentless mission to destroy anything avant-garde, particularly painters and their work. What I’d known was that the Nazis had sent many members of my father’s family to Auschwitz. The stories I’d heard of atrocities and tales of survival were what made me want to become a writer. But I had never known about this small part of Holocaust history — the Holocaust of art. I was both repulsed and intrigued.

I learned that before Hitler went after the Jews, communists, gypsies, homosexuals, individuals with special needs and others labeled “non-Aryans,” Nazis pursued the German expressionists with a vengeance never seen. Hitler wanted to destroy those artists, architects, entertainers, writers and philosophers who did not comply with the Aryan ideal.

The Third Reich destroyed some of the greatest artists and artwork of our time, setting the stage for their further pillaging of Europe. Every country the Nazis invaded became a looting playground. They confiscated, stole and traded major artwork and national treasures. The Reich sold valuable pieces at secret auctions — particularly in Switzerland — and poured the money into their own bank accounts.

But strangely enough, what I also learned was that before Hitler became “Hitler,” he was a painter (though considered third-rate). It’s an interesting thing to examine. What makes someone who used to be an artist want to destroy the self-expression of others, to rid the world of the physical incarnations of emotion? Perhaps because he was scared of the chaos that these expressed feelings might incite, Hitler felt the need to purge Europe of idea-makers — and then go after everyone else.

Now, nearly 70 years later, after most of the Holocaust survivors have passed, artwork plundered by the Nazis continues to hang in many of the world’s most prominent museums and private collections. Thousands of stolen paintings have a hidden past, just waiting for the truth to be exposed. If only art could talk.

I’ve been thinking about this part of our world’s history in the years since I first saw the exhibit, and finally explored it more deeply by writing “Fugitive Colors.” I published the novel in hopes of bringing a lost legacy to light — and making sure nothing like this happens again.

“Fugitive Colors” is available in bookstores nationwide;
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