About the photographer Ferenc Berko, his connections to Dresden and what all this has (not) to do with stolen books

by Nadine Kulbe

We provenance researchers very often tell stories about stolen things: What object is it about, who owned it and why did it come into our collections, when and how? There are countless such stories and each one is worth telling – the many examples on the „retour blog“, exhibitions, books, essays are just as eloquent testimony to this as the millions of stolen objects in cultural institutions.

What we usually don’t tell are the cases in which we were able to refute an initial suspicion. The effort behind this research is just as great and the fates are often no less interesting and moving. Unfortunately, there is usually no space for these stories – but I would like to change that today.

The story is a confused one. It begins – as is usually the case – with the discovery of two provenance features, leads via Austria-Hungary to the Lahmann Sanatorium in Dresden and finally ends in the USA. It tells of the course and challenges of a tricky search for Nazi looted property, one end of which I have already revealed: the suspicion of Nazi looted property was ultimately not confirmed.

It is about stamps in two books in the inventory of the medicine branch library of the Saxon State and University Library (SLUB): “Landois’ Lehrbuch der Physiologie des Menschen” (Vol. 2, Berlin/Vienna 1902) and Frederick Mott’s “Vier Vorlesungen aus der allgemeinen Pathologie des Nervensystems” (Wiesbaden 1902). One stamp bears the inscription “Dr. R. Berkovich”, the other “Dr. Berkovits René”. Because the stamps look very similar, it made sense to assume the same person, despite the variation in name: Dr. René Berkovitsch/Berkovits. The two books with medical content and the M.D. also made biographical research among doctors appear to be the most promising, because you have to start somewhere.

Fig. 1: Erased stamp with the inscription “Dr. Berkovits René” (SLUB/Provenienzprojekt, http://www.deutschefotothek.de/documents/obj/90109288).
Fig. 1: Erased stamp with the inscription “Dr. Berkovits René” (SLUB/Provenienzprojekt, http://www.deutschefotothek.de/documents/obj/90109288).
Fig. 2: Stamp with the inscription "Dr. R. Berkovitsch” (SLUB/Provenienzprojekt, http://www.deutschefotothek.de/documents/obj/90109161).
Fig. 2: Stamp with the inscription “Dr. R. Berkovitsch” (SLUB/Provenienzprojekt, http://www.deutschefotothek.de/documents/obj/90109161).

An initial Internet search led to the doctor and psychiatrist René Berkovits, who originally came from a Jewish family, and was born on April 9, 1882 in Nagyvárad (Romanian Oradea, German Großwardein; today belonging to Romania), which was then in Hungary. A date of death could not be found at first. Now it was necessary to find out whether Berkovits could have been a victim of the Shoah. A first point of contact was the “Central Database of Names of Holocaust Victims” at the Yad Vashem Memorial. Here, too, a hit was quickly found: Rene Berkovits, born in 1927 in Nagyvárad/Oradea. The database identified her as an inmate of the Stutthof concentration camp.

There were now two people who came into question as possible previous owners: a doctor and a young Jewish woman, both born in the same city. First, I followed in the footsteps of the female René Berkovits: in the Arolsen Archives, the online archive of the international center on Nazi persecution, which has recently been expanded with a great deal of citizen science commitment (#everynamecounts). I finally found what I was looking for in the inmate records of the Stutthof concentration camp.

Fig. 3: Renee Berkovits prisoner card from the Stutthof concentration camp (Arolsen Archives, Sign. 01014102 oS, https://collections.arolsen-archives.org/de/search/person/4422723?s=berkovits%20rene&t=222871&p=1).
Fig. 3: Renee Berkovits prisoner card from the Stutthof concentration camp (Arolsen Archives, Sign. 01014102 oS, https://collections.arolsen-archives.org/de/search/person/4422723?s=berkovits%20rene&t=222871&p=1).

Renee Berkovits, born on March 16, 1927, was deported from the Auschwitz concentration camp to the Stutthoff concentration camp on July 20, 1944. The Auschwitz concentration camp was given as the “place of residence” of her parents Marton and Frieda. Although the “prisoner card” contains no evidence of her death, it is unlikely that the Berkovits family survived the concentration camps. However, it also seemed unlikely that the books came from her property. Born in 1927, she could hardly have received her doctorate by 1944, if you think back on the stamp. That led back to the male René Berkovits. Was he also a Holocaust victim?

Further searches followed, now in the genealogical databases Ancestry and Geni, which bring together address books and documents from archives, some of which also contains biographical information provided by descendants. On Ancestry I found a reference to the couple René and Theresia Berkovits, who had boarded a voyage to New York in 1912. The age of 30 given here for René matched the doctor’s year of birth: 1882. A book by René Berkovits, published in Nagyvárad/Oradea in 1913, is also a hint to this trip: “Amerikai impressziók” about his stay and American culture.

Fig. 4: Entry in a 1912 Hamburg passenger list for René and Theresia Berkovits (Ancestry, Hamburg passenger lists, volume 373-7 I, VIII A 1 volume 250; editing: Nadine Kulbe)
Fig. 4: Entry in a 1912 Hamburg passenger list for René and Theresia Berkovits (Ancestry, Hamburg passenger lists, volume 373-7 I, VIII A 1 volume 250; editing: Nadine Kulbe)

Further family members of René Berkovits could now be identified via the genealogical databases: his father Ferenc Berkovits, his mother Cecilia/Cili, née Kurländer and the siblings Andor Berkovits and Gizella Gyemant. A biographical article in the Hungarian Wikipedia also contained further information: According to this, Berkovits’ parents were the lawyer Ferenc Berkovits (1848–1912) and Cecilia, née Kurländer (1856–1937). He had been married to Mária Teréz, née Teleki, since 1908. Berkovits had already completed his medical studies in Budapest in 1904, after which he practiced as a general practitioner in his native town of Nagyvárad/Oradea. He was also an admirer of Sigmund Freud and specialized as a psychiatrist. From 1911 on he was the city doctor in his hometown and during the First World War he was in charge of the military hospital. After the end of the war he initially stayed in Nagyvárad/Oradea and later moved to Budapest. Another important clue was that René Berkovits is said to have committed suicide in Warsaw in September 1928. This can be proven by an article from the Hungarian daily newspaper “Keleti Újság” from September 20, 1928.

Fig. 5: Article from the daily newspaper "Keleti Újság" from September 20, 1928 on the suicide of René Berkovits with translation.
Fig. 5: Article from the daily newspaper “Keleti Újság” from September 20, 1928 on the suicide of René Berkovits with translation.

The genealogical databases also contain some information about Berkovit’s wife Mária Teréz. She was born in 1885, also committed suicide in 1918. Family members were her parents Zsigmond Teleki and Matild, née Spitzer, the siblings Andor and Sandor, and their children Ferenc Berko and Ronny West-Watson.

In 1921, René Berkovits’ profession led him to Dresden with his children and his mother: he became an employee of the Lahmann sanatorium in the urban district Weißer Hirsch. This is how the two books came into the possession of today’s SLUB: They may have belonged to his private reference library in the sanatorium, but after his death in 1928 they were included in the so-called medical library of the house. From there they ended up in the holdings of the former university library, a predecessor of the SLUB, after the Second World War.

Fig. 6: Oblique aerial photograph of the Lahmann Sanatorium from the southwest, photographed by Walter Hahn, 1930 (SLUB/Deutsche Fotothek, http://www.deutschefotothek.de/documents/obj/32023787).
Fig. 6: Oblique aerial photograph of the Lahmann Sanatorium from the southwest, photographed by Walter Hahn, 1930 (SLUB/Deutsche Fotothek, a href=”http://www.deutschefotothek.de/documents/obj/32023787″>http://www.deutschefotothek.de/documents/obj/32023787).
Fig. 7: New lobby of the Lahmann Sanatorium, postcard from the publishing house A. und R. Adam, around 1930 (SLUB/Deutsche Fotothek, http://www.deutschefotothek.de/documents/obj/81020431).
Fig. 7: New lobby of the Lahmann Sanatorium, postcard from the publishing house A. und R. Adam, around 1930 (SLUB/Deutsche Fotothek, http://www.deutschefotothek.de/documents/obj/81020431).

Two problems become clear from the research: Databases almost never contain complete information. In the case of René Berkovits, Geni and Ancestry indicated his parents and wife, but not their children; these were only found in the entry of Mária Teréz. So it’s always worth pursuing all available leads. The second problem was the different spellings of first and last names, which partly result from transliterations from one language into another, partly also due to the level of knowledge of those who make database entries at Geni or Ancestry: On Geni Mária Teréz Berkovits is called Trucsi Berkovich, her husband’s name is Rene Berko. Based on previous research, we can safely assume that this is “our” René Berkovits.

Although this is not a case of cultural property confiscated as a result of Nazi persecution, the story remains interesting because the son Ferenc Berko is one of the internationally best-known photographers and photojournalists of the second half of the 20th century. The most prestigious houses in the world collect his works: the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Museum Ludwig in Cologne. He was born on January 28, 1916 in Nagyvárad/Oradea; he died on March 18, 2000 in Aspen (Colorado, USA), where he had lived since 1949. Berko’s photographic work was extremely diverse: from portraits and nudes to documentary street shots, reports, advertising and industrial photography to abstract landscape photography. He first photographed in black and white, later in color.

Fig. 8: Portrait of Ferenc Berko on a double page from: „Berko: Photographs 1935–1951“, New York 1999 (SLUB, 74.4.1952).
Fig. 8: Portrait of Ferenc Berko on a double page from: „Berko: Photographs 1935–1951“, New York 1999 (SLUB, 74.4.1952).
Fig. 9: Double page with photographs by Ferenc Berko from: Ferenc Berko. 60 years of photography "The discovering eye", Schaffhausen et al. 1991 (SLUB, 67.4.882).
Fig. 9: Double page with photographs by Ferenc Berko from: Ferenc Berko. 60 years of photography “The discovering eye”, Schaffhausen et al. 1991 (SLUB, 67.4.882).
Fig. 10: Double page with photographs by Ferenc Berko from: Ferenc Berko. 60 years of photography "The discovering eye", Schaffhausen et al. 1991 (SLUB, 67.4.882).
Fig. 10: Double page with photographs by Ferenc Berko from: Ferenc Berko. 60 years of photography “The discovering eye”, Schaffhausen et al. 1991 (SLUB, 67.4.882).
Fig. 11: Double page with photographs by Ferenc Berko from: Ferenc Berko. 60 years of photography "The discovering eye", Schaffhausen et al. 1991 (SLUB, 67.4.882).
Fig. 11: Double page with photographs by Ferenc Berko from: Ferenc Berko. 60 years of photography “The discovering eye”, Schaffhausen et al. 1991 (SLUB, 67.4.882).

After moving to Germany, Ferenc Berko attended elementary school in Dresden from 1926, then high school – around this time he was given his first camera. Probably before his father’s death, Ferenc Berko moved to Berlin and lived with a couple who were friends of the family and who later adopted him. In 1929 he went with them to Frankfurt, until he was sent to England for further training after the begin of National Socialists dictatorship in 1933. He first lived in London, later in France and India, and finally settled in the USA.

Berko’s photography is influenced by New Objectivity and the Bauhaus: sensitively observed street scenes alternate with structures captured from oblique perspectives in the interplay of light and shadow. His photographs of the Jewish quarter in Budapest, taken in 1937 during a visit to his homeland in Hungary, are particularly impressive. Once again, photography preserves what has been lost – which also applies, so to speak, to the books of his father René Berkovits, without which this life story(s) could not have been rediscovered.

Fig. 12: Double page with photographs by Ferenc Berko from: Ferenc Berko. 60 years of photography "The discovering eye", Schaffhausen et al. 1991 (SLUB, 67.4.882).
Fig. 12: Double page with photographs by Ferenc Berko from: Ferenc Berko. 60 years of photography “The discovering eye”, Schaffhausen et al. 1991 (SLUB, 67.4.882).

Nadine Kulbe is a research associate at the Saxon State and University Library in Dresden in the project “NS-looted property in the SLUB (holdings of the university library)“.


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