Michael Hulton, a San Francisco anesthesiologist, sauntered into the offices of J. on a recent workday and dropped a self-published book on an editor’s desk. “This may be the only book I have in me,” he said, “but here it is.”
“Jewish, Gay & Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany” is the complex story of Hulton’s great uncle, Alfred Flechtheim (1878-1937), a Jewish German art dealer, publisher and patron of modern art who was forced to emigrate as the Nazis rose to power. “He died in exile in London,” reads a plaque in Berlin, which Hulton has visited. It is also a memoir, in which Hulton details his own life to the extent that it was affected by, and intertwines with, that of his uncle — a man he never personally knew.
The subtitle, “Uncle Alfred Flechtheim’s Unexpected Legacies in Art, AIDS & Law” telescopes the range of this hybrid book, not only geographically but also in subject matter. In parallel form, the chapters trace both Hulton’s and Flechtheim’s journeys, from their origin stories, through the developments of their careers, to their respective experiences of their gay identities (Hulton uses the word homosexual), and ultimately with art as a barometer of social and political power. In the case of Hulton, there is also the element of the AIDS epidemic, which changed Hulton’s trajectory in the medical field.
Regarding the initial societal response to the ’80s epidemic, he writes, “This attack on my community seemed to parallel the Holocaust in history, as the mounting death toll, hysteria, and government inaction or hostility seemed to doom our new sexual liberation to extinction.”
A member of LGBTQ Congregation Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco, Hulton enlisted fully in the defense of the gay community, cutting back his work hours as an anesthesiologist in order to concentrate on treating HIV patients in his small practice.
Hulton’s interest in art was marked by an infamous art scandal that erupted in Germany in 2010, when an artist forged paintings that he claimed to be works sold to him by Alfred Flechtheim. Hulton became involved in legal battles resulting in restitution, which Hulton plowed into AIDS research, LGBTQ charities and Jewish organizations. In his book, Hulton acknowledges the “unexpected legacy of new knowledge in art and the law,” indirectly given to him by his long-deceased relative.
The chapters on the world of his great-uncle in pre-World War II Berlin (think “Cabaret”) are fascinating in their details as to the culture wars that preceded and perhaps predicted the Third Reich: a struggle between tradition and liberation in every aspect of human life.
Though this book might be his only contribution to the literature of the Holocaust, Hulton hopes it will stand as a testament to the destruction Nazis wrought not only on human life, but on culture and people’s livelihoods, deeply impacting even the surviving generations to come.