In emotional ceremony, heirs to ‘Cabaret’ inspiration Fritz Grünbaum take back 7 Egon Schiele works stolen by the Nazis


(JTA) — They had seen the pictures before, in the collections of the museums that owned them until earlier this year. But the heirs of Fritz Grünbaum, a Viennese cabaret performer killed in the Holocaust, said the works had conveyed a powerful effect now that they had been restored to Grünbaum’s estate.

“When viewing these artworks, imagine Fritz and Elisabeth in their lively Vienna apartment, singing, dancing, cracking jokes,” Timothy Reif, a distant relative, said in his remarks during a somber ceremony in downtown Manhattan Wednesday afternoon. He was referring to Grünbaum’s wife, who is presumed to have been killed by the Nazis in 1942. “Remembering their lives defeats Hitler’s plan to erase this brave Jewish man’s name from the book of history.”

Reif and other heirs and co-executors had been called to the ceremony to receive seven pieces by the 20th-century Austrian expressionist Egon Schiele that were part of Grünbaum’s vast art collection. They were seized earlier this year from a number of prestigious museums and collections by the office of Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, as part of an effort to repatriate art stolen by the Nazis.

“On behalf of my entire family, I offer our deep gratitude to each of you here today, for all you are doing and have done for the cause of justice,” Reif said.

Grünbaum was killed in the Dachau concentration camp in 1941, and the significance of the ceremony’s timing, during the Days of Repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, was apparent to the attendees.

“It’s not lost on me where we are on the calendar that our ceremony coincides with the Jewish High Holidays, the time of reflection,” Bragg said to a room of about 100 attendees Wednesday afternoon. “This ceremony has reminded me that despite the horrors of the tragic destruction caused by the Nazis, it is never too late to teach the world about incredible people like Mr. Grünbaum.”

Onlookers view works by Egon Schiele from Fritz Grünbaum’s extensive private collection, now returned to his heirs in a ceremony in New York on Sep. 20, 2023. (Jackie Hajdenberg)

David Frankel, one of the co-executors of Grünbaum’s estate, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that the timing “heightens the sense of awe surrounding all of this and the emotional investment that the DA’s office and assistant DA [Matthew] Bogdanos has put into this.”

On Thursday, Grünbaum’s heirs will give the works to Christie’s, which will auction them for charity later this year. The profits are set to go to artists in underserved communities, similar to a previous auction of restituted artworks that Grünbaum’s estate organized in the fall of 2022.

Grünbaum was said to be the inspiration for the master of ceremonies character in the Broadway musical and subsequent film “Cabaret.” In addition to his work as a comedian, librettist, film and radio star, Grünbaum was also known for his political activity and outspoken opposition to antisemitism. In 1910, he famously slapped an Austrian officer after the officer made antisemitic remarks, and then was challenged to a duel in which he was injured. He later became a vocal critic of the Nazis in a Viennese daily newspaper.

“They should remember him as not only as a great artist, but also an anti-Nazi,” Frankel said. “Someone who stands up for human rights and was courageous enough to risk his life to do it.”

Recommended from JTA