Ludwig Pollak (Prague 1868-1943 Auschwitz) was an extraordinary connoisseur of antiquities–an Austro-Hungarian Jew whose path into academia was impeded by his religion, but who settled in Rome, where he carved out a unique place for himself as an expert in recognizing, understanding, and organizing great works of art. It was he who shaped and articulated the magnificent collections of JP Morgan. Of perhaps even greater consequence, his astute eye saw a sculpted fragment of an arm in a flea market that, he deduced, was the limb missing from the spectacular Hellenistic-Roman sculptural group known as Laocoon. He gifted that arm fragment to the Vatican so that it might complete the work that occupied an important place within its museum collections.
Hans Von Trotha’s spellbinding and sensitive novel, Pollak’s Arm, derives from a treble consequence of these data: that Pollak was, as a Jew, on the list of those to be deported to Auschwitz when the Nazis took control of Rome; that a key figure in the Church hierarchy–the semi-anonymous Monsignor F–aware of this, dispatched an emissary to Pollak’s apartment to bring his family and him to the safe territory of the Vatican; that Pollak refused asylum–spending the waning hours of his freedom sharing many of the details of his life with that emissary, who reported them to the Monsignor, and thus to us, listening eagerly over the Monsignor’s shoulder to the mesmerizing details of a narrative that leads ultimately to a failed rescue attempt: Pollak and his family disappear into the black hole of Auschwitz.
Watch the lively presentation by Hans von Trotha, and a penetrating conversation between him and Georgetown University Professor Ori Z Soltes, moderated by Rachel Stern, Director of the Fritz Ascher Society.