An inquiry into the provenance of a painting by Egon Schiele has produced an extraordinary account of its former owner’s life in Nazi-occupied Vienna. Elsa Koditschek, a Jewish widow who sent her children to safety ahead of the German invasion, spent much of World War II living in hiding in an upstairs apartment of her three-story house near the Alps. The home was confiscated in 1940 and an SS Officer, Herbert Gerbing, took up residence on the ground floor.
The New York Times reports that Sotheby’s, which will auction the Schiele landscape “City in Twilight (The Small City II)” on November 12, determined the painting’s initial ownership through letters written by Koditschek to her children during and after the war. Those letters mention the painting, and record its sale by Koditschek’s longtime tenant Sylvia Kosminski in the 1940s. Lucian Simmons, Sotheby’s worldwide head of restitution, found a mention of the Koditschek’s wartime loss in the course of independent provenance research and reached out to the family in 2014. Simmons then received the letters from the family and used them to build a case for the painting’s origins.
After many years of negotiations, the auction house brokered a deal with the artwork’s current owners, who bought the painting in the 1950s, to split proceeds from the painting’s sale with Koditschek’s heirs. There is precedent for this kind of arrangement between heirs and current owners of art lost to the Nazis, and Sotheby’s has negotiated several such agreements before.
When the Nazis first seized her home, Koditschek was allowed to stay on upstairs while Gerbing’s family settled in. By her own accounts in letters written to her son, Gerbing appeared civil. Like many a new tenant to a live-in landlord, she wrote, he sometimes came to her with questions about the house.
In 1941, after roughly a year of sharing a roof with Gerbing, Koditschek was sent an edict of deportation. She and the area’s other Jews were to report to a local school to be transported to the Lodz ghetto. Kodischek asked her Nazi boarder if she might be able to postpone the trip. He told her it was impossible but spoke well of the ghetto and advised her to pack lightly for her journey there.
“This was a kind thing for him to say,” Koditschek wrote in one of her letters, “because the luggage of most Jews was robbed even before they arrived at their destination. Also of course their lives.” Koditschek didn’t end up making the trip to Poland’s infamous ghetto.
“She must have heard what was happening there through her community,” Sarah Whites-Kodistchek, Koditschek’s great-granddaughter, told The Times.
Koditschek remained in Austria, staying with non-Jewish friends, last among them the Heinz family. Fearing detection in their apartment she often hid behind a cupboard where she entertained herself by playing games of chess and working on her English. Kosminski, whom Koditschek referred to as “Aunt Sylvia,” snuck her food during this time. Koditschek was forced to leave the apartment in 1943, when a member of the Heinz family returned home with a group of “strange men.” Koditschek exited through an open door.
“I must have been wearing a magic cap of invisibility because the plainclothes men did not notice me,” Koditschek wrote in her letters. That night she was able to rendezvous with Kosminski, who brought her in secret to the upstairs apartment. For the rest of the war, Koditschek hid in the rented room of the building she had called home since 1911, while the man who forced her out made himself comfortable on the lower level.
For the duration of the war, Koditschek lived quietly with Sylvia, sometimes observing Gerbing and his family in the garden through her upstairs window. Koditschek also witnessed workers wearing yellow Stars of David delivering furniture and other loot from Gerbing’s trips abroad to her home.
“Wherever he stays,” Koditschek wrote, “in Greece, in France, in Slovakia, he sends big boxes back with goods from each country.”
History knows, even if Koditschek likely didn’t, the purposes of Gerbing’s many visits to Slovakia, France and Greece. Yad Vashem documents that the SS Officer who lived below Koditschek helped organize the deportation of Jews from those countries, working as a deputy to the officers in charge.
In 1944, with the war drawing to a close, Koditschek sheltered in place as the Allies bombed Vienna. The following year she heard rumors that Gerbing had met his end at the hands of a mob in Prague. The Russian Army marched into Vienna and ransacked her house in 1945; sometime afterward she escaped to Bern, Switzerland, where she lived until her death in 1961.
The Schiele painting, which is valued at $12 to $18 million, has been sold several times since the early 1940s, when Kosminski, struggling to keep herself and Koditschek fed, asked permission to sell “the pictures,” of which the Schiele was the most valuable.
Also of great value to Koditschek’s heirs are her letters, translated by Sotheby’s, which were kept in a relative’s basement until the auction house approached the family in 2014. Together the documents offer an intriguing glimpse into the survival of a woman who avoided detection by hiding in plain sight. How she was able to do it for so long remains something of a mystery.
“[The correspondence] is like a Rosetta Stone for a small group of people,” Ted Koditschek, Koditschek’s grandson and a history professor emeritus at the University of Missouri told The Times. “There are still many questions that are unanswered and will remain that way.”
PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture intern. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org