His Family Survived the Nazis by Living in a Chicken Coop

His Family Survived the Nazis by Living in a Chicken Coop

In 1942, when Max Heppner was 8, his parents told him they were leaving Amsterdam to go on a family vacation. Instead, they went into hiding in a small farm town in the Netherlands, Zeilberg, where they lived out the war in a chicken coop.

Max’s father, Albert Heppner, was a Berlin-born art dealer specializing in Dutch old master paintings. This was the second time he and his wife, Irene, had to flee the Nazis. They had left Germany in 1933, when Irene was pregnant, because they were Jews. Now they were on the run again, carrying away all they could fit into several pieces of luggage and a gray-blue backpack.

They were taken in by a Catholic family of farmers, the Janssens, who had 9 children and lots of livestock. Luckily, just before the Heppners arrived — Harry Janssen used to joke, to soothe the sad reality — the Nazis had stolen all the chickens.

The coop had two small rooms and a slanted roof. At six feet tall, Albert could stand up straight only at its highest point. It had a brick floor and a small stove, designed to keep chicks warm, which was helpful. But even so, Max said, “it was always cold.”

Max played with the other children, and used a made-up name, Franjse, to help hide his identity. During the day, while the other children went to school, Max stayed behind on the farm, milking cows, doing chores and getting home-schooled by his father.

“In some ways, it was nice because I liked to be on the farm, but sometimes I felt very bereft, because all that I knew from before was gone,” he said. “I didn’t have my toys, I didn’t have my friends. … I didn’t even have my name anymore because I had to take on a fake name.”

He added, “The message was, ‘Don’t be. Pretend you’re not there.’”

This summer, the Heppners’ gray-blue backpack is on display in a vitrine at the National Holocaust Museum in Amsterdam, as part of “Looted,” an exhibition that features eight personal narratives of loss, supported by intimate objects, diaries and personal letters.

Silver, books and a religious scroll marked with the tracks of Nazi boots share display space with artworks and personal items like the backpack and a picture Max drew as a boy of the backpack, leaning against a wall in the chicken coop in the summer of 1944.

A different exhibition of this sort might have foregrounded the art that Max’s father lost to the Nazis. But for Taco Dibbits, the director of the Rijksmuseum, which curated the show with the Jewish Cultural Quarter, other “emotionally charged” objects help to connect the history of looting to its effect on individuals.

“Often when we talk about restitution, it’s because there’s a work of great monetary value at issue, or an auction, or a claim,” Dibbits said. “People talk about that side, and they don’t really speak about the impact on the families from whom these objects were stolen.”

Max, who is now 90 and lives in Hillsboro Beach, Fla., said the backpack is a perfect symbol for his experience of persecution. For a while, it held all his family’s worldly possessions. Now, it contains the past.

“The backpack really symbolizes everything, people on the run, people without possessions, people without a home,” he said. “While we were on the run, stuff got lost along the way, or our things got taken,” he added. “By the time we arrived in the chicken house, that backpack was all we had left. It was all that I had, except what I was wearing when we left home.”

Before the Nazis invaded the Netherlands in 1940, Albert and Irene Heppner lived with their family on a beautiful canal, the Prinsengracht, in central Amsterdam. In March 1941, Jewish entrepreneurs were no longer allowed to own their own businesses. A few months later, Jews were not allowed to appear in certain public parks; after that, Jews were rejected from the art dealers’ trade association, meaning Albert could no longer work.

The Heppners moved to another home in the south of the city, and Dutch police showed up there and took six paintings. Some of Albert’s colleagues from the art trade assessed the art for the Nazis — a personal deep cut for him.

“After the war, people talked about it with the idea that the Nazis were subhuman monsters,” Max Heppner said. “Not true. They were ordinary people, and that’s what is so painful.”

In July 1942, thousands of Dutch Jews received notices that they had to report for “work duty,” but Albert Heppner understood the implications of deportation. “Albert saw the danger in its complete proportions, and never believed in the assertions of ‘work in Germany,’” Irene Heppner wrote later.

Indeed, it was a ploy. The vast majority of Jews deported from the Netherlands were shipped directly to death camps, Auschwitz and Sobibor, where they were killed on arrival.

When the Heppners fled, they hoped to to make it to France. They joined up with another Jewish family, Heinz and Elly Graumann, and their 16-year-old son, Michael. But just before they were supposed to cross the border, they found Michael murdered, his body left in a ditch, and turned back.

Max Heppner said he was much better off than some people who had to hide in stables or in latrines, though he grew up with an insistent fear of being discovered. “I can tell you my whole war story in one word: Fear,” he said. “Fear of being killed.”

The systematic looting of Jewish property during the World War II, “wasn’t just about accumulating beautiful objects,” Dibbits said. “It was about stripping people of their humanity. It was an essential element of the dehumanization. Isolation, transport, theft and murder: Those are all interlinked parts of the Holocaust.”

Dibbits said the show tries to emphasize that persecution of the Dutch Jews wasn’t committed only by German Nazis. “It was Dutch police, it was Dutch moving companies, Dutch transportation, Dutch railways, etcetera, etcetera,” he said. “That’s something that we now have to face. That’s also why we felt we had to make this exhibition.”

Max’s feeling of dehumanization made him identify, sometimes, with the farm’s livestock. “I remember a few times that we actually slaughtered animals at the farm,” he said. “We had to tie up the pig from the hind legs, and while it was hanging there, cut its throat. I saw all that happen. That’s what I figured would happen to me if I would get caught.”

His family survived until Zeilberg was liberated in September 1944, seven and a half months before German forces in the Netherlands surrendered. But his father, Albert, had heard that people were starving in the Dutch capital, so he loaded up a box with vegetables to take north. It was the last time Max saw his father, who died of liver failure in June in the village of Barneveld.

After the war, Irene searched for some of the family’s paintings and found two hanging on the walls of the home of her former neighbors, who had been Nazi collaborators. She got help from the police to reclaim them. After Irene and Max moved to the United States, she continued to search for the other paintings but never found them.

Other narratives in the exhibition focus on more widely known restitution cases: Margarete Stern-Lippman, whose family owned a Wassily Kandinsky painting, “View of Murnau With Church 2,” that has been the subject of a complicated restitution struggle; the story of Leo Isaac Lessmann, a collector of Judaica; and that of Desi Goudstikker van-Halban, the widow of the Jewish art dealer Jacques Goudstikker.

Goudstikker, an old masters dealer and one of the Netherlands’ leading cultural figures in the prewar period, died in an accident on the steamship he and his wife and infant child had boarded to escape the German invasion of the Netherlands in May 1940.

The Rijksmuseum curator Mara Lagerweij said she decided to focus on Desi as the main character for this exhibit, rather than Jacques, because so much has already been written about him.

“I always try to imagine how it must have been for her, as a young woman,” Lagerweij said. “After this tragic accident, she had a son of one and a half years old, and she had to start a new life.”

Desi landed in America alone with her child, while back in Amsterdam, Hermann Goering, Hitler’s second-in-command, looted her husband’s art gallery.

After the war, she tried to retrieve some part of her family’s heritage, and was partly compensated in settlements with the Dutch state. She agreed to waive title to some works that had been sold through a Nazi agent. But hundreds of other artworks from her family gallery remained in Dutch museums.

“You could have imagined that she did not want to fight this battle for his art collection,” Lagerweij said, “but I think she so understood that it was his life’s work, but she thought, I cannot get him back, but I will fight for what was rightfully his.”

In 2006, Desi’s daughter-in-law, Marei von Saher, and his granddaughter, Charlène von Saher, won one of the landmark restitution cases in Dutch history, when 202 paintings were returned to Desi’s children. Hundreds of his artworks are still lost, most likely scattered across the world.

“By focusing on her you can see the motives someone had for wanting things back,” Lagerweij said. “It’s not just the money, it’s the life you had together, it’s your inheritance, it’s emotional. The idea of getting things back as a form of reconciliation is still very real.”

The show reflects the new National Holocaust Museum’s goal of “re-humanizing” victims of the Nazis, said its director, Emile Schrijver.

Max Heppner, a retired public information specialist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, wrote two books about his family’s wartime life, “I Live in a Chickenhouse” and “The Submergers.”

“It’s been a lifelong challenge not to see myself as a victim,” he said. “The Dutch word for victim is ‘slachtoffer’ — which is the word for the animals taken to the temple to be slaughtered as an offering to God. I don’t want to see myself as that, as a victim. I’d prefer to see myself as a storyteller.”

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