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Fearing that the Nazi occupation forces in Prague would confiscate a lifetime’s work, Jewish painter Gertrud Kauders decided in 1939 to hide her vast array of paintings and drawings.

Almost 80 years later, in the summer of 2018, Michal Ulvr was leading a demolition team demolishing a decrepit house south of Prague when “about 30 paintings fell and fell on my head,” he said. he declared to RFE / RL.

As the day wore on, the team found more and more strikingly beautiful works of art as the house was dismantled – some were under the floor, others behind the walls. At the end of the day, some 700 paintings and sketches were on display in the open air at the construction site as summer rain clouds gathered over Prague.

IN PHOTOS: The Art of Gertrud Kauders (25 images)

When Jakub Sedlacek, the owner of the house, was alerted to the strange discovery, he immediately realized what had been discovered. Sedlacek had been raised in exquisite art stories hidden inside the family home he recently inherited. Close inspection of the canvases confirmed that the family legend was real – many paintings were signed “Gertrud Kauders”.

Kauders was born in 1883 in Prague, one of two children from a well-to-do Jewish household. After the Nazis came to power in neighboring Germany and began a gradual takeover of Czechoslovakia, most of Kauders’ family fled the country and urged her to do the same. But Kauders, whose mother tongue was German, refused to believe that the Nazis would hurt someone as harmless as she and she chose to stay.

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Nazi troops enter Prague Castle as crowds greet them in March 1939.

But as the full horror of Germany’s plans for Europe’s Jews was slowly laid bare, Kauders turned to a close friend, Natalie Jahudkova, for the favor of her life.

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Jahudkova was an elegant Russian woman born in 1895 in a small town north of Moscow. She had emigrated to Czechoslovakia in 1920 after catching the attention of one of the Czechoslovak legionaries, volunteer soldiers fighting for their homeland in World War I. The Legion famous battle their way through Siberia after being caught up in the Russian Civil War.

Jahudkova was one of some 1,000 Russian women who married one of the dashing European fighters and sailed with them from Vladivostok to the newly founded Czechoslovakia, a country their husbands had helped fight.

Kauders and Jahudkova met while they were students at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague. The two became close during multi-week trips with their teacher, a renowned artist. Otakar Nejedly, paint the landscapes and cities of France and Italy.

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A city scene that may have been painted on one of Kauder and Jahudkova’s travels through Europe.

By 1939, those carefree days of summer painting trips abroad with their famous teacher were only a distant memory as Nazi bureaucrats and their booted performers were busy making life impossible for Czechoslovak Jews. As time passed, Kauders detached his canvases from their frames and smuggled his life’s work into Jahudkova’s house in Zbraslav, on the southern outskirts of Prague.

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A canvas edge, showing where the tacks have been removed so that the paintings can be separated from their frames and more easily transported and hidden.

At enormous risk to herself, Jahudkova – probably aided by Kauders – hid some 700 works of art throughout the structure of her house. Jahudkova’s new house was still under construction, making the hammering and work of the secret project of the two friends relatively low-key.

Shortly after the artwork was safely integrated into Zbraslav’s home, Kauders was caught up in the Nazi state’s nightmarish machine. After being identified as a Jew, records show she was arrested and transported to Theresienstadt concentration camp in May 1942. Kauders was briefly held among starving and sick prisoners in the camp north of Prague, then transported some 600 kilometers east to Majdanek, a camp in extermination in Lublin, Poland.

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Smoke rises from the Majdanek extermination camp in October 1943.

Some time after May 17, 1942, Kauders was killed in the camp and her body was burned in ovens built for the industrial-scale killings that would be known as the Holocaust.

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Zbraslav’s house where Kauders’ work was discovered.

Although a handful of Czech media wrote about the accidental discovery of the artwork in 2018, it was reported at the time that only 30 paintings and sketches had been found. Ulvr believes that a Czech journalist may have misunderstood his description of the event and assumed that the 30 paintings that fell on his head during the demolition were the entirety of the find.

Pictures broadcast to Czech media at the time only showed a handful of sketches and watercolors which are among the least convincing of Kauders’ work.

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The tombstone of Natalie Jahudkova is in a cemetery in Zbraslav. It remains a mystery why the Russian emigrant in Czechoslovakia took Gertrud Kauders’ hidden art secret to her grave upon her death in 1977.

How the magnitude of the discovery was discovered:

Kauders and Jahudkova had no children, but Kauders’ brother had a son, Cornelius, who fled Czechoslovakia for New Zealand in 1939. He had five children, including Miriam Kauders.

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Miriam Kauders with a pencil sketch of her father, Cornelius, as drawn by Gertrud Kauders.

Miriam Kauders learned of the 2018 find and has repeatedly asked from her home in New Zealand where what she thought were 30 paintings and sketches of her great aunt were.

Although early reports of the find indicated that the paintings would be donated to the Jewish Museum in Prague, Miriam Kauders learned that the museum had not received the art.

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Jakub Sedlacek in August 2020. Sedlacek’s bond with Natalie Jahudkova is complex – he is the grandson of a Russian immigrant to Czechoslovakia who was taken in by Jahudkova as a child and raised like hers.

After RFE / RL inquired on behalf of Miriam Kauders, Sedlacek finally met his reporters at his home in a quiet suburb of Prague.

Then, on September 25, Sedlacek allowed Kauders’ entire collection of some 700 paintings and sketches, arranged like giant decks of playing cards in a reserve in Prague, to be photographed by RFE / RL.

Sedlacek said that before he knew Gertrud Kauders had living descendants, he considered monetizing what he knew to be a historic artistic discovery – perhaps through exhibitions.

But after RFE / RL showed documents proving Gertrud Kauders had living heirs, he said he “couldn’t live with it. [himself]”Knowing that there were descendants of Gertrud Kauders unhappy with what he was doing with art.

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Jakub Sedlacek flips through some of the works of Gertrud Kauders. He said the stories of what happened to Kauders were his first introduction to evil when he was a boy.

Sedlacek said he was ready to donate the art to a Czech museum if Gertrud Kauders’ descendants gave him a power of attorney to do so. Miriam Kauders also said she would be willing to donate the art, but reserved the right for her and her siblings to keep certain portraits of her long-deceased loved ones – including their father – for their own walls. .

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A sketch captioned with the phrase “Were you afraid, kid? Can represent Gertrud Kauders with Cornelius (1916-2002), the father of Miriam Kauders.

Miriam Kauders said her father was known as a humorous boy who was nicknamed a “clown” during his school years. But she said his personality darkened after the war and that he “never recovered” from the Holocaust, in large part because of what the Nazis did to his beloved aunt. He remembered Gertrude Kauders as a kind, gentle woman with an unusually calm life and “no interest in men.”

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A self-portrait by Gertrude Kauders

When photos of Gertrude Kauders’ works were shown to Michaela Sidenburg, chief curator of the Jewish Museum in Prague, she called the find “unique in the context of art history on Czech lands” in because of the number of paintings and the fact that it seems to represent almost all of the work of an important artist who largely kept her art to herself.

Sidenberg applauded Sedlacek’s decision to go public with the entire discovery.

“I can imagine all kinds of horrific scenarios where art has been destroyed or sold in secret, so Mr. Sedlacek absolutely deserves the credit for bringing this forward,” she said.

This article originally appeared on Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty. To pursue @RFERL on Twitter.

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