Imagine opening your family’s storage boxes and learning that before the Holocaust, they were one of Europe’s most prominent collectors of Jewish art. This is what Vancouverite Michael Hayden discovered in 2011, when he finally summoned up the courage to delve into boxes that had been lying in storage for the past 30 years.
Hayden will be the keynote speaker at the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre’s Kristallnacht commemoration on Nov. 7, which will be followed by the launch of an exhibit dedicated to Hayden’s family and their quest to unearth their stolen legacy. This new, original exhibition displays items and artifacts that detail the story of the family, their collection and their descendants’ restitution efforts.
Over the past eight years, Hayden has learned that his paternal grandparents, Max and Gertrud Hahn of Goettingen, Germany, had one of the most significant private collections of Jewish art in pre-war Europe, rivalling those of the Rothschild and Sassoon families.
During Kristallnacht, Max Hahn was arrested and the Nazis confiscated his silver Judaica and stole the couple’s property and possessions. Max and Gertrud Hahn were murdered during the Holocaust, but in later years, their two children, who had escaped to England, tried to recover the collection and gain restitution.
Hayden’s father, Rudolph Hahn, changed his name to Roger Hayden and emigrated to Cape Town, South Africa, where he died in 1984. Michael Hayden had moved to Vancouver by then, so he shipped his late father’s boxes to Canada and put them in storage.
Over the next 30 years, he became immersed in his own life and work. An internist and human geneticist at the University of British Columbia, he founded the Centre for Molecular Medicine and Therapeutics and had a family of his own. Meanwhile, the boxes lay dormant.
“In 2005, I started feeling a deep responsibility to learn more about my family’s past,” he said. He opened the boxes, finding some 9,000 photographs and German documents dating back to 1850. It would take another six years before he’d find an able and willing translator in Vancouver historian Sharon Meen, who at the time was volunteering at the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre. With her help, each document was carefully translated and its relevance parsed.
Meen recalls being amazed the first time she entered Hayden’s home and found his dining room table covered in ancient documents. “As an historian, I knew this was just extraordinary, a trail of documents that tell Hayden’s family story from the 1600s forward,” she said. “It’s been exhilarating, enriching and a huge privilege for me to encounter and work with this collection.”
As she translated, Meen learned that Max Hahn had owned a shoe factory and many properties, which he was forced to liquidate when he faced Nazi persecution. Yet as late as the mid-1930s, his entrepreneurial spirit was still intact. “We saw he applied for a patent for a new twist tie for sausage casing, and we found the patents he got between 1937 and 1939 from Sweden, Germany, France and the U.S.A.,” she recalled. “He kept manufacturing these sausage twist ties until the factory was closed in 1940.”
Meen also found correspondence among Hahn family members from the 1860s onward and gained insight into the individual family members. “I began to understand Gertrud, Michael’s grandmother, as she was the main hub of the correspondence,” Meen said. “She wrote of her yearning for her children, yet knowing they had to escape. Gertrud’s dedication to her family and her yearning were so poignant, and that will always haunt me.”
For Hayden, the experience of delving into his family’s history has been deeply cathartic, with lots of spin-off tangents created by the research. He went to Germany for a restitution ceremony, during which Jacob’s Cup, a valuable piece of Judaica that had been stolen from his grandparents’ home, was returned.
The German government arranged for a Star of David to adorn a building once owned by his grandfather and a stumbling block was put in front of the home where his grandparents lived, marking the family name. The German government also provided funding for someone to focus on restitution for the next two years, and Hayden received the grant.
“Because we have photographs from my grandparents’ home and lots of documentation, we were able to identify some 30 family heirlooms, including furniture, in the Goettingen Museum that belonged to them,” he said. “There’s a profound commitment to restitution in Germany and the museum sees it as their responsibility to return these items.”
But while restitution is important, the heirlooms give individuality and identity to his late grandparents, which is more significant to him. “This is about taking two of the six million and giving them life, identity and individuality, rehabilitating their names and bringing them into our lives,” he said.
“I’m trying to rescue them from obscurity and restore their distinctive nature, so I can illuminate their story and think about the lessons I’ve learned from it. The heirlooms are symbols of a life that was destroyed, but also proof that we weren’t annihilated. The items themselves give us an opportunity to tell some stories and keep their message relevant.”
Hayden is pleased that his family’s legacy will be on display for all to see. “This is a very personal story, but also a general story that has relevance, and that’s why I’m excited about the exhibition,” he said. “My grandparents’ legacy is a reminder about the importance of rejecting cruelty and hate and not turning our back on the most vulnerable people in society.”