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Hans von Trotha: Pollaks Arm (Pollak’s Arm)
Hans von Trotha’s speciality has been gardens and their history so this is something of a change for him. It is about Ludwig Pollak, Czech (though born when Prague, where he was born, was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire), classical archeologist and dealer who spent most of his adult life in Rome.
The arm referred to in the title is not his physical arm but, rather, an arm from the statue Laocoön and His Sons (currently in the Vatican). As the Wikipedia article linked and Pollak himself in this book tell us the statue was originally found in 1506 in Rome. Various experts, including Germans Goethe andWinckelmann, had various theories as to what the arm (and a few other missing bits) should look like and some of these bits were made and appended to the statue. Pollak, when visiting a scrap dealer’s yard near the site of the original discovery, saw what looked like the missing arm and bought it. He took it (apparently carrying this heavy arm over his shoulder) to the Vatican but it looked wrong so was not initially accepted till further research in 1957 (fourteen years after the murder of Pollak by the Nazis in Auschwitz) proved he was right and early views were wrong.
This story concerns his last few hours in Rome before his arrest and the arrest of his family (wife and two children) by the SS and their transfer to their deaths in Auschwitz.
Our main character, after Pollak, is merely called K. He is a German teacher who has been stranded in the Vatican. We are not sure why. He is working with an Italian known only as Monsignor F. Much of the book concerns his attempt to persuade Pollak to bring his family to the Vatican where Monsignor F has lodgings for him. The time is September 1943. The Italians have surrendered to the Allies and the Germans have taken over. K has heard that the Nazis, under Theodor Dannecker, an aide to Eichmann,plan to round up all the Jews in Rome and send them to Auschwitz. Apparently they have a list with names and addresses, which includes Pollak and his family.
K heads over to Pollak’s apartments in the Palazzo Odescalchi with a driver. K is in something of a hurry for two reasons. Firstly the SS is expected to start the round-up in the early hours of the following day, deliberately choosing the Sabbath. Secondly, there is a curfew so they must be back at the Vatican by dusk or risk dire consequences.
It does not go well. While K (and his driver outside) grow increasingly concerned about the delay, Pollak insists on telling K his story in some detail. It is this story that forms the bulk of the book and a fascinating story it is.
He was born into a Jewish family in Prague. He became fascinated with Rome, and its art and monuments as a student and read everything he could on the subject. He studied classical archeology and art history at university. He travelled to Rome and to Greece but finally settled in Rome. With his knowledge he was able to help many rich collectors amass their collections. He worked for the likes of J P Morgan and knew artists such as Rodin and most of the major museum directors and collectors.
He became close to Baron Barracco, a rich collector and, when the Baron set up a museum, became its director. (The museum was closed under Mussolini because of development in the neighbourhood but reopened in 1948 in new premises.)
As as well as the eponymous arm he found various other missing bits and pieces from classical sculptures and tells K and us about them.
He was respected by almsot everyone but had two problems, being Austrian (in World War 1) and Jewish. In World War 1, when the Italians were on the side of the Allies, he was expelled and his wife died en route to Austria. During World War 1 he lived in Vienna and hated it. He was even conscripted. He did return, only to find the Italians had sequestered most of his property. As he was now Czech, he asked the Embassy for help but they were both anti-Semitic and anti-German and did not. He eventually got it back. Similarly, being Jewish, once Hitler came to power, things started getting difficult though Mussolini was not too much of a problem. (He has a grudging admiration for Mussolini whom he once met.)
While obviously a collector and dealer in classical art, he also had three other interests – Goethe, Prague, and Judaism. He had numerous documents with Goethe’s signature and old Jewish documents. While K is waiting and listening, in a state of agitation, Pollak shows him some of his treasures.
Above all, we learn of his love of Rome. Rome is not simply a city; Rome is an idea, an emblem of greatness. It’s why those who fancy themselves great wish to go down in history as the founders of Rome, the founders of a new Rome.
We also learn a lot about Laocoön, both the legendary character and the statue. We also learn about El Greco’s Laocoön.
As mentioned, while he is telling his story, K is getting increasingly worried. He and we wonder why Pollak is not hurriedly packing and getting his sleeping wife and children ready. There are two possible explanations. Firstly he has to tell his story before he goes.
One must give a personal account, he said. Particularly when the end is imminent. One must tell stories. One must write them down. One must ensure that memory remains, so that others might remember when you no longer can. Otherwise, you’ll be forgotten, along with everything.
Secondly, he says Mustn’t we accept the fate assigned us? The German Wikipedia on him (but not the English one) states that he believed that he had to take the fate of his people onto his own shoulders.
I had not heard of Pollak before reading this book and found it a most interesting and elucidating account of a life well-lived and, though he was seventy-five when he was murdered, a man who died too early. Von Trotha said he was inspired by Helga Schutz’s Sepia (link in German – the book has not been translated into any other language) but he has clearly done his research and tells us a first-class story.
First published 2021 by Wagenbach
First English translation in 2021 by New Vessel Press
Translated by Elisabeth Lauffer