Pol­lak’s Arm

Hans von Trotha, Elis­a­beth Lauf­fer (Trans­la­tor)

  • Review
By – March 2, 2022

It’s Octo­ber 1943 in Rome. The Nazis have just tak­en con­trol of Italy, and they are already start­ing to round up the Jews. Lud­wig Pol­lak, a high­ly respect­ed art apprais­er and col­lec­tor, is at home in Rome with his fam­i­ly one Fri­day night when an unex­pect­ed vis­i­tor arrives at his door. It’s an emis­sary from the Vat­i­can, who has come to tell Pol­lak that the Nazis are expect­ed to arrest him that very night — and that the Vat­i­can has offered to pro­vide refuge to Pol­lak and his family.

Pol­lak is famous for dis­cov­er­ing a miss­ing part of a spec­tac­u­lar sculp­ture from antiq­ui­ty, which resides in the Vat­i­can. He rec­og­nized the frag­ment as the miss­ing arm from the two-thou­sand-year-old group­ing called Laocöon and His Sons, a dis­cov­ery that made it pos­si­ble for the lost piece to be restored to its orig­i­nal place. Now the Vat­i­can has grate­ful­ly set aside an apart­ment for him.

The vis­i­tor, a teacher iden­ti­fied only as K., tells Pol­lak, Quick, we must leave for the Vat­i­can this instant — you, your wife, your daugh­ter and son.” But Pol­lak seems in no hur­ry, and he invites K. to look around, say­ing enig­mat­i­cal­ly, Who knows how much longer we’ll be allowed to live here?” Pol­lak begins to tell sto­ries about a mag­nif­i­cent palaz­zo where he once lived, the great artists and art col­lec­tors he had known, and his time as Impe­r­i­al Advi­sor to the Aus­tri­an Emperor.

Despite K.’s increas­ing­ly urgent reminders about the need to leave, Pol­lak is still com­pelled to go on telling his life sto­ry. He revis­its his stu­dent years in Prague and his expul­sion from Rome as an ene­my Aus­tri­an dur­ing the First World War — Rome, the city he calls his ter­ra benedet­ta, his blessed land.” He con­tin­ues to rem­i­nisce as the hour grows lat­er and lat­er, as if obliv­i­ous to the approach­ing danger.

This is a nov­el, but Lud­wig Pol­lak was very much a real per­son. Hans von Trotha, a his­to­ri­an as well as a writer, bril­liant­ly imag­ines what could have been said on that fate­ful evening in this grip­ping nar­ra­tive. His empa­thy with Pol­lak is extra­or­di­nar­i­ly per­sua­sive as he relates how a sev­en­ty-five-year-old man who has known both tri­umph and rejec­tion might face this final blow.

Pollak’s Arm dis­plays keen psy­cho­log­i­cal insights and a pro­found under­stand­ing of artis­tic sen­si­bil­i­ties. Elis­a­beth Lauffer’s lumi­nous trans­la­tion from the Ger­man is rich­ly resource­ful. This slen­der book is utter­ly cap­ti­vat­ing and high­ly recommended.

Vis­i­tors to the old Jew­ish neigh­bor­hoods of Rome may notice memo­r­i­al stones—Stolper­steine—in the side­walks in front of apart­ment build­ings. They com­mem­o­rate the vic­tims of the Nazi depor­ta­tions who lived in those build­ings. On Jan­u­ary 20, 2022, four new stones were placed in front of the Palaz­zo Odescalchi, at 81 San­ti Apos­toli Place. They state sim­ply that Lud­wig, Julia, Wolf­gang, and Susan­na Pol­lak, who had lived at that address, were arrest­ed on Shab­bat morn­ing, Octo­ber 16, 1943. They were among a thou­sand oth­er Jews arrest­ed that day. Two days lat­er, they all were deport­ed to Auschwitz.

Discussion Questions