European publishing neighbours

by Kelvin Smith

Liebermann VillaSome years ago in Berlin, I visited the Liebermann-Villa on Lake Wannsee – just down the shore from the building where the notorious Wannsee Conference was held in 1942. I came to see the great artist’s pictures, but what made more of an impact was what happened to him in the 1930s, the death of his wife Martha, and the story of the house itself. As in so many places in Europe, the past emerges and disturbs at every turn: Max Liebermann’s disgrace, ruin and death in 1935; his wife’s hounding by the Nazis and her suicide; the house taken over by the state and subsequently used as a brothel, a hospital, a school and a diving club.

Langenscheidt Villa

The villa next door (then in the process of renovation) had been built by the publisher Carl Langenscheidt. I fell to wondering what the family knew of Max Liebermann’s life and death, his wife’s struggles, and the pressures they were put under.

I now learn that Ruth Langenscheidt sheltered a Jewish orphan, Berti Busch, in 1943 and her husband, Ernst Alex Flechtheim, was unable to serve as a lawyer after 1933, surviving the war only to be ‘disappeared’ when the Russians came to Berlin. I still do not know if they attempted to intervene on Liebermann’s behalf, but at least I am now aware that the Langenscheidt family showed courage in difficult times and suffered for their compassion.