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Hitler's henchman, Klimt's muse and a Czech castle in ruins

Iron gates and stone lions mark the entrance to the derelict lower castle, former residence of Jewish sugar baron Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer and Nazi overlord Reinhard Heydrich, in Panenske Brezany, Czech Republic, on May 7, 2019.

MARTIN DIVISEK/BLOOMBERG

By JAMES GOMEZ AND LENKA PONIKELSKA | Bloomberg | Published: May 24, 2019

The chateau in the Czech village of Panenske Brezany is a crumbling monument to the grandeur and cultural heritage of 20th century Europe, and also a potent reminder of its horrors.

The gardens were a local marvel when it was owned by Jewish sugar baron Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer before World War II. His wife, Adele, was an art patron immortalized by Gustav Klimt in a painting that became known as the "Woman in Gold." Then the Nazis arrived, Bloch-Bauer fled to Switzerland and Reinhard Heydrich, the notorious overlord of occupied Czech territory, moved in.

After decades of abuse and neglect during Czechoslovakia's era as a Soviet satellite state, today the manor house just north of Prague is decrepit, the once-manicured grounds are a jungle and the stone lions silently gracing the gate are almost unrecognizable. What happens next to the 16-acre country estate now depends on the anonymous buyer who paid 39 million koruna ($1.7 million) at an auction this month.

The district mayor reckons that restoring the building alone will cost at least 100 million koruna, with strict rules on how it can be refurbished because it's listed as historically important. The once-plastered stone and brick outer wall is exposed and collapsing in places. Inside, tiles are hanging off walls and bare wires dangle from hallways.

"It hurts to see how the castle has fallen into hard times," sighed village resident Alena Vidimova, 87, as she slowly thumbed through the prewar postcards of the chateau in better days. "It was in wonderful shape, there was this lovely park, and now it has all been abandoned."

Ferdinand Bloch bought the upper and lower estates and surrounding land at the turn of the 20th century. Panenske Brezany had grown to 500 people, mostly farmers who started to grow sugar beets in the rich, loamy earth north of Prague. The village became Bloch's family summer residence, while Vienna remained his home.

He renovated both castles and a baroque chapel and established an elementary school. Then he married Adele Bauer, who mingled with the likes of artists Klimt and composers Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss. She invited luminaries to the summer estate.

Ferdinand, who later changed his name to Bloch-Bauer, commissioned Klimt to paint two portraits of Adele. One became later known as the "Woman in Gold." It was stolen by the Nazis and returned to the family after a legal battle.

Adele died of meningitis in 1925, while Ferdinand continued to use the estate. He fled Austria after the 1938 "Anschluss" of Nazi Germany, and then Czechoslovakia. Heydrich, a high-ranking SS officer and a main architect of the Holocaust, moved into the lower castle in 1941.

The Bloch-Bauers "were extremely intelligent people and Ferdinand was one of the most influential industrialists" in the region, said Hana Bilkova, who runs a small museum in the restored upper castle centering on the brutality of Nazi rule. "It was a cultural mecca and his wife, Adele, really loved the gardens. And then came Heydrich."

In May 1942, Heydrich was ambushed as he drove to Prague from Panenske Brezany by Czech agents, a key moment in the country's wartime history. He died from his wounds just over a week later. The Nazis arrested more than 13,000 people and killed 5,000 of them in reprisal.

His wife, Lina, stayed on at Panenske Brezany, creating a mini-concentration camp for Jewish workers in the garden. She was notorious for demanding villagers give her the Hitler salute or face whippings.

About 16 months after her husband died, their eldest son, Klaus, was killed by a car just outside the gates of the castle at the age of 10. He was buried at the estate. Lina fled in 1945 as the Nazis faced defeat.

The castle was taken over by the government after the war and became the headquarters of state precious metals company Vyzkumny Ustav Kovu. After communism fell in 1989, the company was privatized. It then went bankrupt and the sale of the castle, through a blind auction, was part of the settlement.

A lawyer for the Bloch-Bauer family in the U.S. said no family member has ever received compensation. It was confiscated by the Nazis and then the communists and then sold in the 1990s before restitution laws were enacted.

Now villagers are hoping for a return to the prewar era of the Bloch-Bauers, possibly as a hotel or a private residence with gardens open to the public.

"Heydrich was really just a blip," said Alena Navratilova, a 65-year-old resident, pulling off a pair of old work gloves as she watched her son and neighbors bang away at a tractor to get it started. "The Woman in Gold was more important for the village."

Alena Vidimova also hopes for a future that will ease the pain of the past as she flipped to the last photo in her collection. It showed her as a young girl, peeking shyly at the camera in the back row of a school picture. It was the same school that Heydrich's children attended and teachers at that time were forced to give their lessons in German.

"People didn't resist because they were all afraid," she said. A new chapter in the old castle that would give back to humanity is in order, she said. "I think that maybe this should become a sanatorium for children."
 

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