Daily Press (Sunday)

Busy doctor gave himself another job: tracking Nazi loot

- By Milton Esterow and Tracy Sherlock

His day began at 6 a.m. with a call to Amsterdam from his office in Vancouver, British Columbia. An hour later he gave an online lecture to a class in Ireland, immediatel­y followed by a call with a scientist in Boston about research.

Dr. Michael R. Hayden is one of the world’s leading geneticist­s, the recipient of many of medicine’s highest awards and the founder of five biotechnol­ogy companies who, at 71, still teaches at the University of British Columbia.

To spend a day with him in October was to witness a whirlwind of endless activity. And yet Hayden also sets aside four to five hours each week to focus on a pursuit as important to him as his pioneering discoverie­s in neurodegen­eration: finding the silver Judaica his family lost to the Nazis during the horrors of World War II.

“My life is so complex,” he said in an interview, “but this is priority for me and for future generation­s. I will always find time for this important endeavor. I need to be a living witness for what happened.”

Hayden knows well the account of how, on Nov. 10, 1938, the night of Kristallna­cht — pogroms — Nazi SS men broke into the home of his grandfathe­r, Max Raphael Hahn, a wealthy businessma­n and chair of the synagogue in Göttingen, a city in central Germany.

They arrested him and his wife, Gertrud.

She was released from prison the next day. But Max Hahn was imprisoned for seven months and his important collection of silver Judaica, with items dating back to the 17th century, was confiscate­d. Included were ceremonial lamps, candlestic­ks, kiddush cups and spice boxes.

Hayden has been able to recover dozens of other household items, and a few religious artifacts, which were held by a German museum. But the collection of silver Judaica that was seized by the Nazis has eluded him. Twenty years after beginning his project, and despite the support of a German organizati­on that helped finance two years of research, he has

“For me, it’s a step forward toward trying to close what is a deep and painful wound that stays with me every day. And trying to move forward to a new reality, of new relations, new acknowledg­ments, and some peace.”

collected only one of the 166 missing items, a kiddush cup.

Still, the Hayden effort is representa­tive of the kind of dedication that many Jewish families have put toward recapturin­g art and other items confiscate­d from their relatives, or sold by them under duress during the Nazi era. Such work is often fueled by a sense of justice and a commitment to family, and, in the case of art, the loss of possibly substantia­l inheritanc­es.

In the case of Judaica, the items can also be valuable. But the pursuit of them is often sustained by their legacy as religious heirlooms that speak to the faith for which relatives were persecuted and killed.

“The objects are important, not in terms of their value, but in terms of their significan­ce,” Hayden said. “For me, it’s a step forward toward trying to close what is a deep and painful wound that stays with me every day. And trying to move forward to a new reality, of new relations, new acknowledg­ments, and some peace.”

Hayden is considered an expert on Huntington’s disease and ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). He was born in South Africa, where he went to medical school and received a doctorate in genetics. He also completed studies in internal medicine at Harvard Medical School.

Today, he is CEO of Prilenia, which focuses on clinical treatment for neurodegen­erative diseases, and he is on the board of 89bio, which is developing new treatment for liver and lipid diseases. He has offices in Herzliya, outside Tel Aviv, Israel, and Naarden, near Amsterdam.

But he spends most of his time in Vancouver, where his office is filled with photograph­s of his four children, five grandchild­ren, books on Jewish history, and a photograph of Pope Francis blessing him.

Hayden’s search for his family’s heritage

began in 1986 in the basement of the Göttingen City Museum. A curator allowed him to explore and he found a wimpel, a long thin cloth usually used as a Torah binder, with a family connection. It had wrapped his great-grandfathe­r, Raphael Hahn, during his circumcisi­on.

“There was no documentat­ion and no informatio­n as to how the piece of cloth with my great-grandfathe­r’s name sewn into it had arrived at the museum and who the donor was,” Hayden said.

“The Göttingen city council refused to return the wimpel unless I could find a replacemen­t,” he continued. “The council said it would swap it if the mayor could find another one.”

Hayden contacted Artur Levi, Göttingen’s mayor, who was Jewish. Levi offered to help. Three months later, in February 1987, just eight hours before the birth of Hayden’s third daughter, a package arrived from Levi.

“In honor of her great-grandfathe­r, Max Raphael Hahn, and great-great-grandfathe­r, Raphael Hahn, she was named Jessica Raphaela Hahn and was wrapped in the wimpel two weeks later at her baby-naming ceremony,” Hayden said.

“My wife, Sandy, and I have five grandchild­ren,” he said, “and it’s the tradition to wrap each child in it at their birth, be it a boy or girl.”

Hayden’s search for his grandfathe­r’s Judaica collection began in earnest decades later in his grandfathe­r’s boxes: 15 cartons containing thousands of documents, vintage stamps and photograph­s, even the autographs of Mark Twain and President William McKinley. The boxes had been unopened for 20 years in a storage room of his Vancouver home.

“One night, I felt I should confront it,” Hayden said. “The letters tell incredible stories of heartbreak.”

After his grandfathe­r, Max Hahn, was released from prison, Hayden said, Hahn and his wife went to Hamburg, hoping to emigrate. But in 1941 they were deported to Riga, Latvia, and put on a train destined for a concentrat­ion camp. Gertrud Hahn is believed to have died on the train. Max was killed in a mass shooting near Riga in 1942. The Hahns’ two children, Hanni and Rudolf, Hayden’s father, had been sent to safety in England in 1939.

Before he was sent to his death, Max Hahn in 1940 and 1941 was able to ship many household items, including documents, letters, photos and family papers, to Sweden. Hand luggage with personal items was sent to Switzerlan­d.

After the war, the Hahns’ children collected the containers and took them to South Africa where Rudolf, who had changed his name to Roger Hayden, lived. He died in 1984.

These days, as Hayden works to research the whereabout­s of the missing Judaica, he has the help of assistants. Sharon Meen, a historian, has worked with him for 13 years, helping to pore through auction and dealer catalogs and peruse museum collection­s.

“The boxes that went to Sweden and Switzerlan­d contain an inventory of all the items in the Hahn Judaica collection, including dimensions and weight,” Meen said. “There are also many photos.”

Occasional­ly there are moments

that make all the effort worthwhile. A few years ago, while checking the collection of the Museum of Arts and Crafts in Hamburg, Germany, Hayden found a photograph of a kiddush cup. It depicted scenes from the biblical story of Jacob, just as his grandfathe­r’s cup had.

“I contacted the museum and they returned the cup to me,” he said.

Officials in Göttingen were also helpful in 2014 and 2015, when the city returned some 30 items once owned by the Hahn family, but most of which had been sold by Max Hahn under duress in 1938, Meen said. Some of the items, like a Rococo-era living room set, were featured in photograph­s that Hayden’s grandfathe­r had left in the boxes. Most were household items, not religious artifacts. Still, the return of the items, whose connection to the Hahn family had been tracked by Meen using museum records, helped to illustrate the lives of people whom the Nazis had tried to erase.

Hayden, his wife and four children, and Max Hahn’s nine great-grandchild­ren flew to Göttingen from Brussels, London, Cape Town, Vancouver, Toronto, Los Angeles, Tel Aviv and New York to attend a 2014 ceremony to mark the return. They were also the subject of an exhibition at the museum, and Hayden decided to leave the items there on loan.

The silver Judaica has been more difficult to locate. Meen said she is convinced much of it is still in Germany but she has visited roughly a dozen museums without success.

“The search is not done,” Hayden said. “We continue only to make sure, not necessaril­y to have items in our own possession, but rather to have them attributed appropriat­ely to my grandfathe­r.”

— Dr. Michael Hayden

 ?? ALANA PATERSON/THE NEW YORK TIMES ?? In Vancouver, Dr. Michael Hayden holds a wimpel — a thin cloth used to bind the Torah — that was wrapped around his great-grandfathe­r, Max Hahn, at his circumcisi­on.
ALANA PATERSON/THE NEW YORK TIMES In Vancouver, Dr. Michael Hayden holds a wimpel — a thin cloth used to bind the Torah — that was wrapped around his great-grandfathe­r, Max Hahn, at his circumcisi­on.

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