The Kaumheimers were about to make it out of Italy alive. It was 1939, and the family of six had already left their German hometown of Stuttgart three years earlier when conditions for Jews worsened there. Now Julius and Selma were seeking to escape to the United States with their children Hans, Fritz, Ruth and Margaret.
“My mother didn’t want to leave,” Margaret Kaplan recalled in a 1990 interview with the Bay Area Holocaust Oral History Project. “But my father convinced her.”
So leave they did, but not without a price. Italy’s Hitler-aligned fascist government would let them out only in exchange for their collection of roughly 69 porcelain figurines from 18th-century Europe. They had almost made it with their treasures, but the movers who came to pack up their possessions tipped off the Italian authorities.
The Kaumheimers went to New York City before eventually settling in San Francisco. Back in Italy, their porcelain pieces were put on display at a museum in the 13th-century Castle of Buonconsiglio.
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There the artwork would remain for 64 years.
At that point, in 2002, amid a 15-year legal battle with the Italian government, Jewish community leader Federico Steinhaus was able to determine that these were the porcelain works once owned by the Kaumheimer family. He contacted HIAS, for many years known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, a nonprofit that had helped the Kaumheimers and many other Jewish immigrants to the United States. HIAS placed an ad seeking the Kaumheimers in a newspaper for German-speaking Jews around the world. A relative saw the ad in the Aufbau and contacted Kaplan in San Francisco. After everything checked out, Kaplan and other family members traveled to Italy in 2003 to be reunited with their treasures.
“It was pretty emotional,” said Janet Reves, Kaplan’s daughter, who attended the event in Italy. “I started crying when I saw [the pieces].”
In 2004, the family donated one of the porcelain figurines to San Francisco’s Legion of Honor museum, where it’s on display in the porcelain gallery. The 7¾-inch-tall figurine is “Capitano Spavento,” a character from the historic commedia dell’arte Italian theater. The figurine is currently missing a sword.
Kaplan, who died in 2020, was a volunteer for the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. After she died, FAMSF received six more figurines from the Kaumheimers, as well as notebooks that belonged to Kaplan’s mother, Selma. (Miriam Newcomer, a spokesperson for FAMSF, said the institution plans on showing the new batch of figurines at some point in the future.)
“You think you lost something,” said Reves, who lives in Pacifica. “You’re just happy to find something that you thought was long gone. They had written this down as lost. Getting it back was a surprise.”