The John Newberger Story

by Patty Fuller September 24, 2019


paintingIn 1973, Gretel Hyman and her husband, both Holocaust Survivors from Germany, started coming to the JFS Drop-In Center for Senior Adults. Her whole life was the Center. Gretel was quoted in a Union Tribune article as saying, “Everyone will find a second home here. The coffee is always hot and there’s plenty of delicious food on the table.”

Seventeen years after Gretel moved to California, she passed away. She was dearly missed by her friends and staff at JFS. Her nephew, John Newberger, bought the first blue van for JFS to transport seniors to and from the Center in honor of his Aunt Gretel. As a German-Jewish refugee, John was deeply committed to supporting Holocaust survivors.

John passed away in 1997 at age 75. He left 5% of his estate to JFS. Twenty years later, JFS learned about an incredible chapter in John life’s that resulted in a surprise second legacy gift for the agency.

The Quest

John Newberger was born in Frankfurt, Germany in 1922. A few months before WWII, John, an only child, was sent to the US to live with relatives at age 16. Three years later, his parents were deported to the Polish camps and never seen again.

It became clear to John’s relatives in California that the young man was traumatized from childhood memories. At the end of the war until the late 1980’s, John was on a mission to reclaim a part of his past–a painting that he remembered hung on the wall outside his bedroom in Germany.

It was titled “Ice on the River” (Eisgang) by Expressionist artist Max Beckmann. John’s father, Fritz, had purchased it from the artist in 1928 when John was only six years old. John never succeeded during his lifetime to track down the Beckmann painting, but never gave up.

In 2017, his good friend and Executor of his estate, Lee Harris, hired two attorneys to carry on John’s lifelong search for “Ice on the River.” The attorneys located the painting at the Stadel Museum in Frankfurt, Germany. The Museum Association had acquired the painting in the 1990’s from a previous owner. It was appraised at $1.25 million.

In 2001, the Stadel Museum had begun to conduct research to trace the provenance of all art in their collection that changed hands during the Nazi era. Their research uncovered several attempts by John to locate the painting, as well as multiple owners who didn’t have clear provenance.

After months of negotiations with all interested parties, the Stadel Museum Association agreed to donate $1.25 million to the Newberger estate and keep the painting in their permanent collection. The goal of the negotiations was to reimburse the original beneficiaries in John’s estate plans the same percentage that he allocated to them during his lifetime.


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