Early in 2010, the French journalist Anne Sinclair attempted to renew her identity card. As the host—for nearly two decades—of “7/7,” a television program that reached as many as 12 million viewers each week, the author of two best-selling books on politics, and—at the time—the wife of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who then stood a good chance of winning the Elysée Palace, Anne Sinclair was in many ways one of France’s most prominent public faces. In fact, she had recently been asked to model for a bust of Marianne, the mythic embodiment of the French Republic and its lofty ideals, that would appear in courtrooms and civic buildings across the nation. Millions of French citizens would thus look at Anne Sinclair and see nothing less than the essence of France itself.
The bureaucrat that day, however, demanded that she prove her citizenship in the following way: “Are your four grandparents French?” he asked.
In New York this week, Sinclair told me that this was precisely the moment she decided to write My Grandfather’s Gallery: A Family Memoir of Art and War. “As you know,” she said, “this question is particularly … tricky.”
Sinclair’s grandfather was none other than Paul Rosenberg, the legendary Parisian art dealer who was among the first to showcase masterpieces by Braque, Léger, Matisse, and Picasso in the 1920s and 1930s. In June 1940, during the German invasion, Rosenberg and his family—Jews who dealt in what the Nazis had dubbed entartete Kunst, “degenerate art”—fled for New York, and were subsequently “denationalized” by the Vichy government. Their beloved Galerie Rosenberg at 21, rue la Boétie would be sequestered by the Nazis and transformed into the Institut d’Étude des Questions Juives, a virulently anti-Semitic propaganda organization. The gallery’s walls—which had once bravely displayed a seminal transition in twentieth-century art—were then made to bear witness to the organization of “Le Juif et La France,” the infamous 1941 Palais Berlitz exhibition that encouraged viewers to “identify the Jew and protect themselves against his actions.”
For Sinclair, born Anne-Élise Schwartz in New York in 1948—her father changed the family’s Jewish surname to “Sinclair” the following year—the questions of citizenship and national identity are as crucial as they are personal. My Grandfather’s Gallery is a family memoir, but it is also a kind of parable for her native France and Europe, a subtle argument for the necessity of continued continental cohesion.
She tells me that chief among her favorite writers is Stefan Zweig, and, to some degree, the same nostalgia for the supranational, cultural vitality of prewar Europe that characterizes Zweig’s autobiography, The World of Yesterday, runs through My Grandfather’s Gallery. Like Zweig, Sinclair describes “the mutilations […] which disemboweled Europe, tested the planet, and shattered millions of lives.” Unlike Zweig, however, she doesn’t accept that contemporary Europe—laden with economic stagnation, the rise of the radical right in legislatures across the continent, and a general crisis of purpose—can’t revive itself, that the past has somehow confined the present. Her book is a reminder of what Europe once was, but, more importantly, it is a hopeful reverie of what it perhaps might be again.
Over the past several years, a slew of isolated anti-Semitic incidents in Europe have become to seem, at least to many American news organizations, less isolated and more like the contours of a disquieting narrative. In France alone, home to Europe’s largest Jewish population, there was the brutal murder of Ilan Halimi, a 23-year-old Jewish cellphone salesman, by a gang of thugs in 2006; the murder of three children and a teacher at a Jewish school in Toulouse in 2012; and, this year, the antics of the “comedian” Dieudonné M’bala M’bala, who has joked about gas chambers, welcomed the noted Holocaust denier Robert Faurisson onto his show, and popularized the “quenelle” gesture, an inverted Nazi salute. In the midst of anti-government demonstrations this past January, hundreds took to the streets of Paris to chant: “Juif, la France n’est pas a toi!”
Against this background, more French Jews are making aliyah to Israel in 2014 than ever before. The reasons for their departure, of course, are complex, and not easily explained by the desire to escape an anti-Semitic environment. But the fact remains that more than 2,000 Jews have left France, compared with only 580 from the same period last year. “There’s been a lot of fuss everywhere about that,” says Sinclair, “and it’s not always accurate. … I’m concerned, of course, by the anti-Semitic revival. There is one. Not only in France, in Europe, everywhere.”
“And,” she adds, “there’s a new anti-Semitism, which is not one of the ’30s or the ’40s, which is more related to the conflict in the Middle East. In some suburbs in France you have people coming even in the third generation from the Maghreb, who are living in very bad conditions, and they feel they are rejected, well, by the whole community. … This sense of being rejected is a social despair, which can mutate into anti-Semitism when they want to protest for something.”
“But don’t believe that the French Jews are fleeing—it’s absolutely untrue,” she said, emphasizing the complicated nature of the statistics often used in the reports. French Jews may be leaving France in greater numbers than before, but so have many other French citizens, seeking friendlier business climates and lower tax rates overseas. “I don’t deny there’s a problem,” Sinclair makes clear, “but everybody is fighting against it.” This was also the principal argument made in a New York Times op-ed in July by Laurent Fabius, France’s minister of foreign affairs, and Bernard Cazeneuve, France’s minister of the interior: “the French government,” they wrote, “has demonstrated its absolute determination to fight anti-Semitism by every conceivable means.”
Sinclair agrees. Citing a recent PEW study of perceptions of Jews in different EU countries, she notes that fewer than 10 percent of French participants polled had negative views of Jews, significantly lower than Greece, for instance, where 47 percent expressed negative perceptions. Although there are isolated instances of anti-Semitic acts, she explains, “it’s not at all like in the ’30s, when the authorities were favorably for anti-Semitism, which we call state anti-Semitism. That doesn’t exist anymore in France. In Hungary, I’m not sure, but in France, that’s not the case at all.”
“In France, everything is quite stagnant,” Sinclair says, shaking her head. “You have the same people, the same public figures that you had ten years ago. … And the entrepreneurs are not very active—they’re also very blocked.” Hollande, says Sinclair, was elected because people were fed up with Sarkozy. “Maybe he didn’t act swiftly enough. … We have structural problems that should be solved and that weren’t solved thirty years ago, so he may not have acted swiftly enough.”
However, voting for the National Front—as many people did in the recent elections—is nowhere near the rational response, she says. “The way the National Front is facing Europe is unacceptable. The way they want to break Europe is unacceptable.” A few days after our conversation, the National Front, under the leadership of Marine Le Pen, won its first-ever seat in the French senate.
“We have economic integration,” she says of Europe today, “but we do not have enough political integration. We should have a unique economic policy. We have a uniform currency but not a uniform economic policy, which is quite different. But I’m a minority when I say that, because Europe is not very popular, which is a shame, because people see Europe as a break, and they have a feeling that Europe is intruding in their lives.” People, Sinclair says are not conscious of what Europe has facilitated: free and easy movement across the continent. “But it has been a fight,” to make it so, she says, “and what a fight!”
The concept—or the dream—of Europe lingers over Sinclair’s book: the Galerie Rosenberg, after all, showcased the works of particular artists, but most of all, it showcased the products of the continent’s cultural ferment in the modernist moment.
In her own way, Sinclair has been fighting for this particular Europe, the Europe she describes in her memoir and the Europe she hopes one day to see again, through her attempts to restore the collection of paintings stolen and looted from the Galerie Rosenberg during World War II. Some 400 paintings in total were taken, and 60 still remain missing.
In recent years, Sinclair and her family have engaged, successfully, in several high-profile legal battles for particular works of art that have appeared in places as diverse as the Seattle Art Museum, the Henie-Ostad Art Center in Oslo, Norway, and among the more than 1,400 artworks hidden away in the small Munich apartment of Cornelius Gurlitt, the now-deceased German collector revealed to have kept many stolen items inherited from his father for decades.
Sometimes, Sinclair and her family sell the art they retrieve, such as the Matisse painting L’Odalisque, Harmonie Bleue, which they were able to get back from Seattle. The family sold it in 2007 for $33.6 million. In other cases, they donate the recovered art, as with the Picasso portrait of Sinclair’s mother and grandmother, Madame Rosenberg et sa fille, which now hangs in the Musée Picasso, Paris.
“It’s a personal fight, well, to continue my grandfather’s quest,” she told me, “but it’s also a collective fight—to say that we don’t accept what happened. In any case, if we can’t get back the people who died, we can get back testimonies of what European civilization was.”
Each and every canvas, in a time when both Europe and, perhaps more importantly, the idea of Europe need them the most.