Off the Shelf: Lesser-known moments help trace Jews place in history

This year marks the 150th anniversary of two unrelated events: the birth of the artist Gustav Klimt, and Gen. Ulysses Grant’s expulsion of Jews from portions of the mid-South during the Civil War. Klimt and Grant are at the center of two new and compelling books of Jewish interest.

Grant’s 1862 expulsion order is an incident that few are taught in high school history classes. As leader of the Union Army’s Department of the Tennessee, Grant issued General Order No. 11, which began with the following words:

“The Jews, as a class violating every regulation of trade established by the Treasury Department and also department orders, are hereby expelled from the Department [of the Tennessee] within twenty-four hours from the receipt of this order.”

That is, the entire area under Grant’s command — portions of Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois and Mississippi — was to be cleansed of Jews. Brandeis University professor Jonathan Sarna’s engaging “When General Grant Expelled the Jews” (Nextbook Press) examines this shocking moment in American history and its repercussions.

The decree itself was a response to the rise of a black market in Southern commodities, with profiteers circumventing wartime regulations governing trade. Sarna acknowledges that some Jews were involved in this unscrupulous business, but they were greatly outnumbered by non-Jews.

Shortly after the expulsions began, an evicted Jew from Paducah, Ky., obtained an audience with President Abraham Lincoln. The president, who had not been informed of the situation, revoked the order within weeks of its issuance, thus preventing its widespread implementation.

The incident galvanized American Jews, as anti-Semitism had not been a significant political issue in the United States. And Jewish Republicans would experience an enormous internal conflict when Grant sought the presidency in 1868. Could they vote for the man who had made them a scapegoat?

Sarna spends much of the book on the affair’s surprising denouement — he argues that there was no U.S. president in the 19th century better for the Jews than Grant. Before and after he was elected, Grant expressed remorse for Order No. 11 and went to great lengths to mend fences with American Jewry. He appointed Jews to significant positions, demonstrated support for oppressed Jews in Europe and was the first president to attend synagogue services.

Journalist Anne-Marie O’Connor’s “The Lady in Gold: The Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Klimt’s Masterpiece, ‘Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer’ ” (Knopf) traces the story of one of Klimt’s best-known paintings, intertwining it with Viennese Jewish history.

Klimt was not Jewish, but many of his patrons came from Vienna’s growing Jewish haute bourgeoisie at the turn of the 20th century. One such patron was Adele Bloch-Bauer, the daughter of a banker and the wife of sugar magnate Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer. Klimt’s inspired portrait of Adele was completed in 1907 after three years of work.

She died in 1925, leaving her husband as owner of the portrait, along with other Klimts. In 1938, his art collection, along with the rest of his property and his sugar refinery, were confiscated by the Nazis, and the Klimts eventually became part of the collection of the Austrian National Gallery in the Belvedere palace.

Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer died nearly broke in 1945. His will bequeathed what existed of his estate to his brother’s children, but they were unable to recover much of his property. And Austria refused to relinquish its title to the Klimt paintings, insisting they had been willed to the museum (but failing to produce the will).

In 1998, a Viennese investigative journalist discovered that the Austrian government, reflecting a general effort to block restitution of seized artworks to their rightful owners, was lying about the contents of the will. In a will drafted in 1923, Adele Bloch-Bauer had indeed asked her husband to leave the Klimt paintings to the nation. But they remained his property, and his 1945 will expressed no such intention. Could one still take her wishes at face value, given what was to come? At the time of her death, the city housed more than 200,000 Jews. Twenty years later, her Vienna no longer existed.

The efforts of Bloch-Bauer’s heirs were aided when the case was taken on contingency by Los Angeles attorney E. Randol Schoenberg, the grandson of Vienna-born composers Arnold Schoenberg and Erich Zeisl (both of whom had fled Nazi Europe). Schoenberg’s argument that the family could sue Austria in a U.S. court for the return of stolen property went to the Supreme Court, which ruled in his favor. He then elected to submit the case to binding arbitration in Austria. Ultimately, most of the paintings were restored to the extended family, and they were sold at auction. Today, the famed portrait of Adele is on display at the Neue Galerie in Manhattan.

“Lady in Gold” is a highly detailed but engaging book. One is grateful that it was researched when it was, as a number of its prominent interviewees have since died.

Several upcoming author appearances will sustain the themes of Passover even though the seder meals are over.

Political philosopher Michael Walzer will give a free lecture at Stanford Tuesday, April 24 on his classic book “Exodus and Revolution,” examining the biblical narrative as a model for social change. Call (650) 725-2789 or visit for details.

And author and master teacher Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, whose newest book is “The Murmuring Deep,” has several Bay Area appearances scheduled April 26 to 30, including at the JCCs in Berkeley and San Francisco. Information is available at

Howard Freedman
is the director of the BJE Jewish Community Library in San Francisco. All of the books mentioned in this column may be borrowed from the library.

Howard Freedman
Howard Freedman

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library in San Francisco. All books mentioned in his column may be borrowed from the library.