by Janice Ross
Suitable for Key Stage 2
To consider why people hide things and that hidden things often come to light eventually.
Preparation and materials
- Gather information on the Munich art haul from news websites.
- Find some images of paintings by Picasso, Matisse, Renoir, Chagall, Nolde (optional) and have the means to display them during the assembly.
- Ask the children if they have any special hiding places. When and why do they go there?
Ask if they ever hide anything. What sorts of things might they hide and from whom?
Even adults have been known to hide chocolate from the rest of the family!
- Explain that today they are going to hear the story of a man who was found to have hidden some things for a very long time. His name is Cornelius Gurlitt and he lives in Germany. Listen to the story.
- Many years ago in Germany, an evil leader called Hitler rose to power. He hated Jewish people and began to persecute them. At first he made fun of them, turning other Germans against them, but then he began to blame them for all the wrong things that were happening in the country.
Life became very hard for Jewish people and they were very afraid of what might happen with this powerful man as a leader. Some of these Jewish people were wealthy businessmen and bankers, professors and scientists. As things got worse, many began to think that their lives were in danger and so those who could tried to flee the country.
In order to do this, they had to pay big bribes to get passports to safe places such as America and Israel. Some of the Jewish people were very wealthy and had beautiful paintings by some of the most famous artists such as Picasso, Renoir, Matisse. They sold them at rock bottom prices to art dealers in exchange for a way to escape to safety with their families.
One of the art dealers who bought these paintings was a man named Hildebrandt Gurlitt. He knew how much they were really worth and stored very many of them in his house in Dresden. After the war, he said that all the paintings had been destroyed by fire when the city of Dresden was bombed. Many people wondered if this was true, but Hildebrandt Gurlitt died in a car crash so this could never be proved.
Two years ago, customs officials were doing a routine customs search on a train travelling from Switzerland into Germany. They were checking passports and making sure that passengers didn’t have more money than was allowed. They came across a white-haired man who seemed very nervous. He said he had been to Switzerland on business. The officials were rather suspicious, but, because he didn’t seem to be doing anything wrong, they let him go. They remained suspicious, however, and decided to check him out. Later, investigators discovered that he had lied about where he lived, he had never worked and had no apparent source of income. Nor was he registered with the police, which is illegal in Germany. He seemed to be ‘a man who didn’t exist’.
Then investigators found the small flat he was renting in Munich. ‘We went into the apartment expecting to find a few thousand undeclared euros, maybe a black bank account. But we were stunned with what we found. From floor to ceiling, from bedroom to bathroom, were piles and piles of old food in tins and old noodles, much of it from 1980s. And behind it . . . ’
Behind all this decomposing food were over 1,500 works of art by famous artists, such as Picasso, Renoir, Nolde, Matisse and many others, some of which had never been seen before by the art world. This secret treasure trove of paintings has been valued at around £1 billion pounds.
- Cornelius Gurlitt, and his father before him, had hidden the works of art for nearly 70 years. Imagine keeping something like that hidden, secret, all that time?
Ask the children, ‘Do you think Cornelius enjoyed his secret?’
Ask them to think about where they were hidden, if they think Cornelius appreciated them, how he had to live as a result, the constant threat of being caught out, the possible guilt.
- Sometimes we try to hide things that we don’t want others to know. Usually these are wrong things we have done, things we might get into trouble for. Hiding wrong things often results in stress and fear. Often, too, the things we try to hide have a way of coming out anyway!
Time for reflection
Think about if you are hiding something right now – from parents, from friends, from teachers?
Perhaps it would be better to bring it to light than keep it hidden for years, like Cornelius did, hiding things behind rotten food!
We are glad that you see everything.
We pray that we may live our lives in truth and light.
‘Walk in the light’ (Hymns Old and New (Kevin Mayhew), 732, 2008 edition)