LONDON (May. 4)
A wealthy Austrian family has demanded that U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and her family return millions of dollars worth of “war booty” allegedly taken from their apartment in Prague after World War II.
Philip Harmer, head of a family of former Austrian industrialists and landowners, alleges that Albright’s father, Josef Korbel, took 20 17th-century Dutch paintings, antique furniture and silver from his family’s apartment in Prague.
“I cannot believe that the secretary of state of the U.S. and her brother and sister enjoy eating with my family’s silver, while surrounded by my family’s paintings and furniture,” said Harmer, now a management consultant in Vienna.
“I find it impossible to believe that they are not prepared to make amends for this injustice.”
During the war years, the Korbel family found refuge in London, where they learned that many Jewish members of their family had perished in the Holocaust.
Albright, who was raised as a Roman Catholic and later became an Episcopalian, said she first learned she had Jewish ancestors when it was reported by The Washington Post in February 1997.
Immediately after the war, Josef Korbel was appointed a diplomat in the postwar Czech Foreign Ministry and the family, including daughter Madeleine, returned to the Czech capital in late 1945.
Meanwhile, the new communist government in Prague had expelled more than 3 million Germans, and while Harmer insists that “not one member of my family ever had anything to do with the Nazis,” he says, “The climate in Prague at the time was so anti-German that my family had no option but to leave.”
Before leaving, however, they took the precaution of moving their collection of paintings to another apartment where Harmer’s great-aunt, a Swiss national, was living.
When the Korbels returned to Prague, they took up residence in the Harmer family’s vacated apartment, where Josef Korbel immediately noticed patches on the wall where the paintings had hung.
According to Harmer, he “demanded that the housekeepers tell him where they were. He then went round to my great-aunt’s flat and removed them.”
These allegations are supported by a letter written to Albright by Harmer’s 89- year-old great-grandmother, Ruth Harmer-Nebrich.
“Your father did not care,” she wrote. “He threatened my sister in a very nasty way and, as she was a rather weak and sick person, she did not resist, and so the paintings had to be brought back to the place where he had moved in.”
When Korbel was posted to the Czech Embassy in Belgrade, the letter continues, “Mr. Korbel took every single item with him.
“He also took valuable silver and bed linen that Jewish families had asked us to keep for them during the Nazi occupation.”
While in Belgrade, Korbel decided to move to the United States with his family. Harmer believes Korbel sold some of the paintings, but he is convinced that several artworks are in the homes of Albright’s younger brother, John Korbel, in Arlington, Va., and her sister, Kathy.
Harmer’s initially cordial correspondence with the family, however, met with a rebuff from John Korbel’s lawyer.
“Given the lack of evidence of ownership by Mrs. Nebrich of the items in question and the strong evidence they were expropriated by the Czech authorities, we can only conclude that your family does not have any claim against our clients,” wrote Michael Jaffe.
Harmer, however, contends that the Czech authorities have no evidence that the paintings were confiscated.
Moreover, American journalist Michael Dobbs, whose biography of Albright will be published later this month, says he identified two of the paintings while interviewing John Korbel at his home.
The paintings, said to be hanging in Korbel’s living room, are by 17th-century Dutch artists Ludolf Backhuysen and Hendrik Van Steenwyck.
Korbel is said to have told Dobbs that his sister, Kathy, had another painting that formerly belonged to their father, but he insisted that Albright herself had none at her home in Washington.
Korbel rejected suggestions that the paintings had been looted, insisting that his father would have paid for them or would have been given them by the Czech government.
Harmer, however, has a different version.
“Jose Korbel just told my great-aunt, `These are hard times,’ when he took away the family paintings.
“It was understandable, considering what the Nazis did to his family,” said Harmer, “but it was not necessarily right.”
Despite the brushoffs he has received so far from lawyers representing Albright’s family, Harmer is determined to press his family’s claims and has set a May 15 deadline for restitution to be made.
“We are assuming that the Albrights are honest people,” he added, “and that they will want to clear up this matter as soon as possible.”