Holocaust survivor David Toren reclaimed Nazi-looted artwork before dying of COVID-19

“He regarded it as justice and felt very strongly about it,” David Toren's son said. “The art is something that was taken from his family.”

Lawyer Meir Heller holds Max Liebermann's "Basket Weavers" painting in a law office in Jerusalem in 2017.Ariel Schalit / AP file

TEL AVIV, Israel — As the Nazis murdered Jews and ransacked their property on the infamous nights of Kristallnacht in 1938, 13-year-old David Toren stayed with his wealthy great-uncle in Germany admiring a painting hanging in the sunroom depicting two men on horseback on a beach.

Within a year, Toren would be smuggled out in a series of rescues for Jewish children organized by several European countries. Left behind, his family would perish in the death camps and their vast art collection would be seized by Nazis and later traded by unscrupulous dealers.

Toren went on to serve in the Israeli pre-state militia before moving to America where he eventually built a successful law practice on the 54th floor of the World Trade Center. Later in life, even as a degenerative eye condition robbed him of his sight, the images of his past never escaped him.

David Toren died on April 19 in his Manhattan home from symptoms of the coronavirus at the age of 94.Peter Toren / AP file

Toren died on April 19 in his Manhattan home from symptoms of the coronavirus. He was 94. He left behind his son Peter and two grandchildren.

Peter Toren said his father spent his final years pursuing the art collection his family lost in the war.

He had sued the government of Germany for his great-uncle’s collection and in 2015, after a lengthy saga, recovered the Max Liebermann work “Two Riders on the Beach” that so moved him in his youth.

“He regarded it as justice and felt very strongly about it,” said Peter Toren. “The art is something that was taken from his family and it was something there was a possibility of getting back. He couldn’t get back all the lives that were exterminated.”

Born Klaus-Gunther Tarnowski in Breslau, now part of Poland, Toren and his family at first seemed immune to the rise of the Nazis. His father, a decorated World War I veteran, was a prominent lawyer who was allowed to practice even after the Nazis forbade most Jews from doing so.

But eventually he too was taken away to a concentration camp and with his wife, died in Auschwitz.

Toren’s great-uncle, the wealthy Jewish industrialist and art collector David Friedmann, was forced to flee and the Nazis pillaged his extensive collection. Many of the works ended up in the hands of Hildebrand Gurlitt, a notorious German art dealer who traded in what the Nazis called “degenerate art” — works deemed inferior because they were un-German — to help fund the war machine.

Much of Gurlitt’s collection remained unseen for decades and experts feared they had been lost or destroyed. But a vast horde of more than 1,200 works resurfaced by surprise in 2012 when German authorities raided a Munich apartment belonging to his son Cornelius while investigating him for tax evasion. Paintings by artists including Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Henri Matisse were discovered.

The discovery brought renewed attention to the many unresolved cases of looted art that was never returned to original Jewish owners or their descendants.

Toren was the only descendant of his great-uncle, whose daughter died in Auschwitz, leaving him to stake a claim. After reclaiming “Two Riders on the Beach,” he tracked down another piece that had made its way to Israel. After a lengthy negotiation he got back “Basket Weavers” as well, an Impressionist work depicting five boys weaving baskets out of straw.

His son Peter Toren said further efforts were ongoing to acquire more than 50 documented antiques seized from Friedmann’s collection.

Toren’s grandson, Ben, said his grandfather pursued the art collection in retirement with an “unsentimental” focus and tenacity as he did in his law career. “He very strongly felt that these paintings were his paintings and it gave him a lot of purpose,” he said.

“But he never presented himself as being any kind of victim and he never asked for any pity,” he quickly added. “His life experience required of him to have a rock-solid exterior. That’s how he presented himself to the world.”