THE FIRST TIME he was in Berlin, E. Randol Schoenberg ’88 was a junior at Princeton, spending six months studying math and German. It was 1987, two years before the wall dividing East from West would fall. The Brandenburg Gate was impenetrable, surrounded by guards.
In February of this year, he was back, marveling at the changes. As a student, he had lived in a tiny room in an apartment building; now he was staying at the fancy Hotel Adlon Kempinski, with a view of the open Gate. When Schoenberg had lived in Berlin as a college junior, the city had not yet truly grappled with its history; now, it had both a Jewish Museum and a Holocaust memorial.
Schoenberg had returned to the city for the premiere of the film Woman in Gold, the story of a woman’s quest to regain artistic treasures seized by the Nazis — a battle in which Schoenberg played a central role. In the evening, he would put on his tux and walk down the red carpet. But before that, he took a gloomier path, wandering through the Holocaust memorial, a rolling field of rectangular gray monoliths that looks like a graveyard. For Schoenberg, there was a deeply personal connection: Members of his own family had perished.
Woman in Gold recounts how Maria Altmann’s family fled Vienna after the Nazis marched into the city in 1938, leaving behind valuable paintings by the Austrian artist Gustav Klimt. After the war, the Austrian government kept the paintings and displayed them in a museum for six decades. Schoenberg was Altmann’s attorney, and in 2006 he shocked the art and legal worlds by winning back five Klimts for her and her fellow heirs. One of these, the 1907 Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, portraying Altmann’s aunt, would sell for a reported $135 million — at the time, the highest price ever paid for a painting. The other four — three landscapes and another portrait of Adele — would sell for a total of $192.7 million.
The sales made Schoenberg a very rich man, and made the case worth the professional risk. He had given up his steady job at a law firm in part to work on this case, though the only promise of payment was the 40 percent of the paintings’ value at sale he’d get if he were to win.
But Schoenberg also wanted the case to convey a personal message. His great-grandfather died in the death camp at Treblinka. His grandfather, the composer Arnold Schoenberg, had to flee Berlin. Even if Randol had lost the case — as most people expected — it would have been worth it. He wanted to show what had happened to his family, to Altmann’s family, and to all the Jews of Nazi-occupied Europe.
“You feel like you’re representing the whole community of people who were kicked out and that are now being welcomed back,” he says of his trip to Berlin. “It’s not always that the people who have been vanquished get to return.”