When I heard that Anne-Marie O’Connor would be speaking at the Tower of David Museum in a dialogue with fellow-author Ora Ahimeir I jumped at the opportunity to see and hear the author of the monumental book ‘Woman in Gold’ in person. As readers of this journal are doubtless aware, the book relates the saga of Maria Altman’s battle to reclaim the painting by Gustav Klimt of her aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer, which was expropriated from the family in Vienna by the Nazis and since then retained by the Austrians.
The evening began with a brief personal account by Anne-Marie O’Connor, who has been living in Jerusalem for the last four years, of the almost accidental way she came to write her book. In her work as a journalist she became interested in the character and history of Maria Altman who, like her, was living in California. One thing led to another, and she ended up travelling all over California to interview other former residents of Vienna. Thus, she gradually built up a picture of what happened then and later, what became of the families and individuals who had once formed part of Vienna’s intellectual, professional and social elite when the Nazis took over and instituted a regime of persecution, terror, plunder and murder. As the material she was collecting assumed ever-greater proportions, O’Connor realized that she would not be able to compress it into one or two articles, and so the book, to which she ended up devoting five years of her life, came into being.
The dialogue between the two writers (Ora Ahimeir published her first novel, ‘Bride,’ in 2012 and is currently working on another), took the form of questions addressed by each one to the other. The two women were located on a dais at one end of the large room in the ancient building, with a table between the two chairs on which they were sitting. When O’Connor was asked how, as an Irish woman living in the US, she had come to interest herself in that very Jewish subject, she replied that as a journalist in America she was used to investigating all kinds of topics and interviewing diverse people. She added that having had a Jewish step-mother from an early age, she had read a great deal of Jewish-oriented literature.
When it was time for questions from the audience someone asked O’Connor what it felt like to have become a bestselling author. In her reply the author explained that she was glad to be able to share that story with so many people, and that she was particularly delighted that the book had done well in Israel, where so many of the people who had undergone similar experiences lived. She noted that the whole episode of encountering the former Viennese residents had been a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ experience which had enriched her spiritually and given her the opportunity to write about a variety of subjects.
O’Connor also stated that the success of her book had triggered several cases in which refugees and Holocaust survivors claimed restitution of sequestered property, and that in many instances these had been successful. The book had opened up hearts and minds to what had become of the property and possessions of survivors, and the groundswell of public opinion had played a major role in obtaining justice for a large number of individuals.
As the evening concluded, Ora Ahimeir told the audience that Zuckerkandel, the name of a family which is mentioned several times in O’Connor’s book, was the maiden name of her late mother. There had been two branches of the family, one wealthy and educated living in Vienna and one poor and orthodox living in Poland. There had been very little contact between the two branches before the war, but both ended up in the same concentration camp, where they met their deaths together. I foresee another fascinating book about to be written.