Date Published: May 1, 2019
In Oxford, England, Ava, a Jewish art student at Oxford University, receives a heart-wrenching letter from her grandfather after he dies. From the letter, she learns that her grandfather has given her his London art gallery, which he says will secure her future, as well as provide a place for her to grow her artistic talents and follow her passion for art. The letter also describes his one last wish—that she find a treasured Vincent van Gogh painting, The Lovers: The Poet's Garden IV, that belonged to her grandparents and was deemed degenerate and looted by the Nazis in 1937.
Arriving for the first time at the gallery, she discovers old photographs in a secret room that recount the harrowing past—a Nazi propaganda parade in 1937. She quickly becomes aware that the room and the gallery, with an empty frame for the missing van Gogh, hold such rich memories of her grandparents. As conversations with her family members and those connected to the painting spur memories, the book switches back and forth between the current timeline and the timeline during the war to tell the stories of those affected by the painting and its fate.
On the train to her grandfather’s funeral, she meets Gordon Rose, an FBI agent, disguised as an art restitution lawyer. He helps her track down the missing van Gogh, while at the same time, he goes after an Neo-Nazi albino art forger named Luther.
Ava pays several visits to her grandmother, her only living relative who lived through the war, hoping she remembers something about the past that will be a clue to the missing painting and their lives in Germany during the war. It is in these hours that she sits with her grandmother that she learns about her grandparents finding refuge on an Austrian farm after they flee Munich and of Charlotte, a local farm girl who lives at Lake Toplitz.
Ava’s grandmother who struggles with dementia recalls Charlotte’s last name. With this information, Ava tracks down Charlotte at her home at Lake Toplitz and questions the old woman about what happened at the lake. On her last breath, Charlotte speaks of the secrets hidden in the lake.
When Gordon breaks into Luther’s Austrian hideout, he believes Luther has forged the missing van Gogh painting. Luther claims it is the real deal. To right a wrong and under the duress of Gordon and law enforcement, Luther returns the painting to Ava.
Ava takes the van Gogh painting to her grandmother. Still not sure if it's the real thing or not, Ava wants to bring her grandmother closure during her last days. Gordon wonders if they should call an art expert to examine the painting. She believes it was meant to be there, whether real or fake. In the end, Gordon and Ava reveal their true feelings for one another.
Ava stared at the envelope and then at her mother.
“What do you mean by 'change my life?'”
“Just open it, darling. I believe what’s inside will shape your life in so many amazing ways.”
The envelope was sealed close and Ava took the knife from the table and gently passed it under the seal.
“I have not read this letter,” Vivienne said. “This was left for your eyes only.”
Ava’s heart began to pound in her chest. She pulled out a handwritten letter and a gold key.
“A key?” Ava asked, looking up at her mother.
“Read the note, daughter.”
Hands shaking, Ava opened the letter and began to read.
My dearest Ava:
I have wanted to give you this special key to a remarkable place—my gallery—for a long time. Do you remember eight years ago when I sold the gallery? How very sad I was, but I stayed with that decision because, at the time, it was the right thing to do. It was a thorn in one’s side, to a degree, too much work and responsibility for an old man like me. Then, your grandmother became ill and so I sold the gallery. In an extraordinary circumstance, I was walking by the gallery many months ago and I discovered it was for sale. The current owner had fallen ill and no one in his family wanted the gallery. I stood in front of my old gallery as I did the day I bought it 30 years ago. Tears in my eyes and a flutter in my heart, I always knew that showplace was my destiny. Well, dear Ava, I had to have it and so I bought the salon that very day. Now it is yours, and while I am not there to see you flourish and grow in the most special of places, I know you will thrive in that gallery, as I did. You, my darling, are the only person who can carry on this legacy. Art links us. It makes us human, almost spiritual.
You are truly unique and gifted with a beautiful mind and an extraordinary artistic talent. You will be finished with school one of these days and now you have a way to make a living and I know you can make this burgeon. Daunting…yes…but always remember that I am always with you in your heart, an angel to guide you, and keep in mind what I always said that nature has no straight lines. A Beech tree does not grow straight and smooth, but twists, sprawls, and bulges. I have always believed, and more and more towards the end of my life, that the shortest distance to somewhere, to something, is never a straight line, instead it is a curvy one, zigzagging in the course of life amid conflicting forces. A very complex path; indeed, and the path you take will not be easy and straightforward. It’s twisting and bumpy, but it offers the greatest opportunity. Keep the gallery safe and make it vibrant. Give it a boost, and make art thrive in this ever changing, complex world. Without art, the world would be less bright, less beautiful. N'est-ce pas?
Listen carefully now, granddaughter. I dislike speaking of the past, a grievous time I buried deep inside the darkest cavities of my soul. The war caused your grandmother and me a great amount of angst and suffering. I have never felt terror like I did then, and I hope you never will. At night, I often would wake in a cold sweat from awful, vivid dreams, and unfortunately, when I opened my eyes, reality did not seem much better. We lived in a horrific world filled with extreme hatred during the war. When it was all over, it was far easier to close that part of me off and never speak of it again. These wounds don’t heal; they are forever ingrained in my soul.
A monster of the worst kind, Hitler’s greed was unlimited, his Nazi reign of terror horrifying. As evil spread across Europe, I saw the death of humanity and I witnessed a world where owners of great art exchanged their treasures for their lives—the plunder of Europe was the greatest art theft in history. The Nazis waged a cultural war on Europe’s Jewish community, and it is quite ironic how ardent and persistent they were about collecting and preserving art works as they went about completely ruining the lives of their Jewish owners. Art became a symbol of status for the Nazi regime. Hitler’s pillaging armies snatched countless pieces of valuable art off museum walls and from private collections across Europe. Hitler wanted to create the greatest collection of art in the world—a Führermuseum—his mission became stealing art from the rest of the world. Of the 600,000 works of art looted during the Nazi era, tens of thousands are still missing and unidentified. Amazing, isn’t it? Stealing art is like stealing someone’s soul. This is the final unfinished business of the war, and it will take the persistence and fortitude of your generation and future generations to continue to locate pieces adrift in the teeming and complex art world. My hope is that every piece the Nazis stole is found and returned to their Jewish heirs. Justice must be sought, and you and others of your generation and even those who come after you, must help to awaken the present to realize the wrongs of the past.
The events of the war are losing their immediacy; they are being shelved like any other major event in the history of time. Questions about it will remain probably forever and some will never have answers. The Jews of today have inherited the obligation to provide future generations with information so they can better understand the past for a better, more peaceful future. I only know of and see the past, Ava, but you are the present. Going forward, you must help right the wrongs of the past—a very dark and haunting time. I believe that an understanding of the past and preserving the memory of the past, can bring an understanding of the present and the future.
This is my last secret, my last wish: A great family heirloom—a splendid painting by Vincent van Gogh, The Lovers: The Poet’s Garden IV— was confiscated from our family by the Nazis in 1937. It was declared “degenerate” and it has been missing ever since they took it in 1937. Your great-grandfather, Joseph, bought the piece at an auction. As you can imagine, it cost a large sum of money even then, and today, it is worth a great sum of money.
After the war, your grandmother and I put forth an immense effort and all of our energy into rebuilding our lives and starting a family, rather than tracking down lost art. We needed a break from the past and looking ahead at a brighter future somehow helped us slowly forget the past and hide it away deep inside. It was a time for us to heal and find peace, and a time to heal our saddened souls. I could not speak of my experiences for a long time, and nor could your grandmother, and until now, I did not want my experience with the past to contaminate you in any way. Some things remain secrets because there isn’t really a great way to tell them to the ones we love. It was meant to protect you. Now I believe these secrets are crucial to your life and your identity.
I have searched for this painting for quite some time, and now I must turn that extraordinary task to you, Ava. Searching for lost art is very different today than it was when I tried. Today, the internet is filled with articles about looted art, as well as searchable databases to locate missing and looted art. So many resources are now available to you. Ava, you have the energy and the determination to seek what we lost. I hope this is not a burden, but a quest to find something of tremendous value and beauty—just one of countless cultural treasures that vanished without a trace. This painting is part of your heritage and is something you can pass on to your children, and so forth.
There is much to tell about this wonderful work of art—The Lovers: The Poet’s Garden IV. I’ll begin with a letter the talented van Gogh wrote to his brother, Theo, in October of 1888. He wrote a fabulous description: “Here is a very vague sketch of my last canvas, a row of green cypresses against a pink sky with a pale lemon crescent. The foreground is vague land and sand and some thistles. Two lovers, the man in pale blue with a yellow hat, the woman with a pink bodice and a black skirt.”
The painting was completed in 1888 as an oil on canvas. In February of that same year, van Gogh arrived in the southern Provencal town of Arles, France. With the financial help and support of his brother, he moved into the Yellow House. His bedroom overlooked Place Lamartine, a small public park. This lush oasis provided much inspiration and joy for the artist. The Poet’s Garden IV was the fourth work in a four-painting series as a decoration of linked pictures for the guest bedroom Paul Gauguin would occupy in the Yellow House. Unfortunately, sweet Ava, this house no longer exists as it was destroyed by bombs in the 1940s during World War II.
I think this glorious painting expresses so many things, such as emotions of mourning and loss and immortality. The garden’s vitality still lives somewhere with someone who is probably undeserving of its infinite beauty and value; for someone who steals art; therefore, steals its brilliance, its soul, its life. Stolen art is a great theft to an individual, to society, and to the world.
Art can make us feel small in the most beautiful way, the same way that man can make us feel insignificant in the absolute worst way.
We need more beauty in this world, Ava. Embrace this, my dear. Be determined, courageous and steadfast in this journey and in all you do. It’s transformative. Believe me. You are always up to a challenge, so why not this one?
And always remember that everything goes by like a dream, Ava…life can be fleeting, so use your beautiful eyes to capture all the most precious moments…flashes in your memory that create heartfelt moments. I love you ‘til the end of time and beyond.
Follow your heart and live your dreams.
Your Dearest Poppy
Ava read every word through tears. “Oh, Mother,” Ava whispered, her head in her hands. “How beautiful.”
She took deep breaths to stop herself from crying out. She would be stronger than that, she told herself. He would want her to be stronger, to not break down. Something in those words awakened her. With her eyes closed, she vowed from within that with all the might and strength God could give her that she would fight to recapture the priceless van Gogh painting her grandfather, and even her great grandfather, admired and loved.
About the Author
About the Author
Monique's passion for writing began as a young girl while penning stories in a journal. Now she looks forward to deepening her passion by creating many unique stories that do nothing less than intrigue her readers.
Monique holds a degree in journalism from Southern Methodist University in Dallas. She is the author of a middle-grade book Once Upon a Time in Venice, historical fiction novel Across Great Divides, and historical fiction novel A Savage Kultur.
Monique was born in Cape Town, South Africa, and her grandparents were European Jews who fled their home as Hitler rose to power. It’s their story that inspired her to write Across Great Divides, her first historical novel.
Historical fiction lets you escape to another time and place; and Monique likes to explore the past so that we can potentially better understand the future.
Monique resides in Dallas, Texas, with her husband and son. She also works as a freelance writer.