Two pictures. On the left, a color photo of an ornate silver cup. On the right, a vintage photo of a woman smiling outside, sitting on a bench.
Left: This 19th-century cup belonged to Roger Avedon's grandmother Thea. The number at the top was attached at a Munich pawn shop in 1939 and was key to identifying the object. (Photo/Courtesy German Lost Art Foundation) Right: Therese "Thea" Freund on vacation in 1931, eight years before escaping Germany with her mother and two children. (Photo/Courtesy Roger Avedon)

Nazi-looted silver cup comes home to Bay Area descendant after 80 years

The ornate silver cup Roger Avedon will soon bring home is far more than just a cup. It’s a link to his family’s past in Nazi Germany, a stark and tangible reminder of all they endured — and lost.

Avedon, who lives in Hillsborough, will reunite with the cup at the end of April through a program of Munich’s Bavarian National Museum. In the late 1930s, the museum bought more than 300 silver objects from a municipal pawn shop, items that had been confiscated by the Nazis — many from German Jewish families forced by pre-war decree to hand over precious metal, gems and pearls.

After the war, survivors and their families filed claims to recover their assets, and by 1969, the museum had returned more than 200 such artifacts. For the past several years it has sought the descendants of the rightful owners to return objects still in its possession.

One of those items is a small, sturdy 19th-century goblet; embossed vines circle the cup and hollow foot, and lancet-shaped leaves reach up from the stem. Presumed to be a Kiddush cup, it belonged to Therese “Thea” Freund, née Lauchheimer, Avedon’s maternal grandmother. She surrendered it to the Munich pawn shop before she, her two children and mother escaped Germany in May 1939 on the infamous German transatlantic liner the St. Louis.

Avedon’s wife, Deborah Kelly, a Stanford-trained historian fascinated by family lore, discovered Thea Lauchheimer’s cup listed in a publicly accessible database of Nazi-confiscated property. The database was launched by the Bavarian National Museum with support from the Ger­man Lost Art Foun­da­tion, which facilitates the search for these stolen cultural assets.

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With Avedon’s genealogical connection to the cup now established, museum curator Matthias Weniger will travel from Germany to the Bay Area to return the heirloom; Avedon and members of his family will attend a small ceremony on April 26 at the home of the local German consul general. German officials have returned other looted objects to heirs at similar functions.

“The restitutions come very late and are very small steps, but it is important that they are taken,” Weniger said. “In many cases, the objects are the only material remains of an existence wiped out in the Shoah.”

Avedon isn’t the only Bay Area resident to be reunited with Nazi-looted family silver from Germany. Peter Neumeyer, a retired English professor who lives in Santa Rosa, sent his son and grandsons to Munich in 2020 to retrieve four objects that belonged to Neumeyer’s grandparents Karl and Anna. And during his visit this month to the U.S., Weniger expects to return a stolen glass and silver bowl to another Santa Rosa resident, Anne Caldwell, great-granddaughter of Max Friedlaender. Caldwell said she hopes “to use the story of its journey to remind the younger generations of my family of their history.”

Seeing a photo of the 5-inch cup for the first time, Avedon, a 56-year-old retired systems engineer and father of three, immediately felt the ineffable pull of his family’s dramatic history.

“I had this sudden, profound connection to the experience of my grandparents,” he said.

In 1937, Thea Freund’s husband, wealthy businessman Max Freund, was suspected of transferring money out of Germany, which was strictly illegal for Jews. While Max was traveling abroad on business, the Gestapo arrested Thea. Fearing for his family’s safety, Max committed suicide in his hotel room. Thea was released and began to make plans to escape Germany. 

I had this sudden, profound connection to the experience of my grandparents.

“My grandmother was a pretty remote figure in my life,” Avedon said. “We didn’t live proximally close to her, and she was very reserved. In hindsight, she was devastated most of her life.”

The Holocaust left Avedon’s mother, Lisa, with lasting scars, too. An accomplished educator and feminist leader who died at 80, “she was very, very brittle,” Avedon said, recalling how war-related trauma surfaced in her daily life. “She realized that seeing men in uniform working next to a large vehicle would make her very uncomfortable,” Avedon said. “It took her a while to understand that she was having flashbacks to her mother being dragged away by the Gestapo.”

By age 5, Avedon’s mom had lost her father, been arrested and traveled on the ill-fated St. Louis, which sailed with more than 900 passengers from Hamburg, Germany, to Havana, Cuba, where the ship was turned away. Canada and the U.S. also denied the desperate voyagers entry. The ship was forced to return to Europe, where more than 250 of its passengers were murdered in the Holocaust. Fortunately, Avedon’s family members, including his mother and grandmother, were among those granted refuge in England. Ultimately, they settled in New York.

Though the silver cup was left behind in Germany, a set of family china did make it out. Avedon, who uses the china on special occasions like Passover and Thanksgiving, undoubtedly will add the long-lost cup to that tradition. “It looks like the kind of thing you would have gotten to match the china pattern,” he said.

The cup, and other such everyday objects, may not get the same kind of global attention as multimillion artwork stolen from Jews during the war, but they’re rich with significance nonetheless. Shortly after reclaiming the family heirloom, Avedon and his family will travel to Munich to attend the dedication of a plaque memorializing his grandpa Max Freund.

“It’s important that my children understand the family history,” Avedon said. “To bear witness resonates more with me steadily over time.”

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.