The treasure was passed down over centuries from one royal and aristocratic family to another, finally coming to rest with the dukes of the House of Brunswick in what is now Germany.
Flash forward to the present, in which the treasure, on display in a German museum since the 1960s, is at the center of a protracted dispute between a Berlin museum foundation, and the children of Holocaust-era Jewish businessmen.
The case is being heard at a sensitive time for Germany, after it emerged that German authorities had kept secret for nearly two years their discovery in a Munich apartment of some 1,400 artworks, many of which had been seized by the Nazis before and during the Holocaust.
The incident became a public relations disaster. Germany, who prides itself on having taken the lead in Europe in Holocaust restitution, has been sharply criticized for failing to pass laws implementing its international commitments on giving back Nazi-seized art and other “movable” property.
What is not disputed about the Guelph treasure case is that the House of Brunswick sold the prize collection after the family’s fortunes were wiped out in the stock market crash of 1929, and the worldwide “Great Depression” that followed. To raise money to pay debts and support lavish lifestyles, they put the Guelph treasure up for sale.
Three Jewish art dealers borrowed money and pooled funds, raising enough to purchase the collection in early 1930s. They intended to sell the pieces on the international market.
A couple of years later, however, the collection was in the hands of Hermann Goering, head of the Gestapo and Premier of Prussia, who in a lavish ceremony, presented it to Hitler as a surprise gift. An October 1935 article in the Baltimore Sun, titled “Hitler To Receive $2,500,000 Treasure,” reports on the lavish Nazi ceremony at which this presentation took place.
“Long owned by the Dukes of Brunswick, the treasure was purchased by a consortium of art dealers and sold to the Prussian government… Gen. Hermann Goering will preside at the ceremony at which the gift to Adolph Hitler will be made,” the article noted.
HOW DID GOERING GET IT?
80 years later, the question of how the Prussian government, an arm of Gestapo chief Goering, obtained the celebrated Guelph treasure lies at the heart of a widely publicized restitution battle before the Limbach Commission.
The German government created the Limbach Commission to resolve Holocaust-related property and restitution disputes, but gave it only advisory powers, not binding legal authority. Its seven members include a former German president, high-ranking former ministers and historians.
The commission’s recommendations carry strong moral weight and have almost always been followed in the past. But the number of cases it has heard since its inception – only seven – is shamefully few, in contrast to a parallel commission in Austria that has resolved 300 restitution disputes since 1998.
As it has no authority to summon parties for adjudication, museum directors in Germany can simply refuse to submit the case to the commission.
The Guelph treasure case is one of the few instances where the holders of the disputed property, in this case, the Prussian Cultural Foundation, a government entity, agreed to appear before the Limbach Commission.
WILLINGLY SOLD OR EXTORTED?
The fight centers on whether the Guelph treasure’s three Jewish former owners were forced to sell the collection below market price in a deal with agents for Goering in 1935, two years after Adolf Hitler rose to power.
The heirs of Zecharya Hachenbroch, one of the art dealers, say it was extorted from him and his partners and should rightfully be returned. They cite the law on Germany’s books that all art transactions between Nazis and Jews in the Hitler era are presumed to have been coerced, or made under duress, and are therefore null.
The museum argues that the sale of the Guelph treasure took place in the early 1930’s which they claim was before Nazi persecution of Jews was underway, and that it was sold for less than it was worth only due to lowered market prices at the time.
The museum says the treasure wasn’t even in Germany at the time of the sale, it was in Amsterdam, so how could the Nazis have extorted it?
Hachenbach’s heirs say the fact of the treasure being out of the country was no doubt the reason the three dealers were not shot dead, as were so many other Jews for lesser “crimes” than owning Nazi-coveted property. Going through the process of transferring ownership of the treasure and making the extortion appear as a legitimate sale, bought valuable time for the Jewish businessmen, keeping the Nazis at bay until they could flee Germany.
Two of the dealers made it out of the country. Zecharya Hachenbroch, a religious Jew, died in Germany, after an illness his family says was brought on by living in terror, never knowing if the game of cat and mouse he was forced to play with Goering’s henchmen would end with his death.
NAZI LETTERS USED AS EVIDENCE
The case has global significance in that it highlights the broader issue behind the fight over ownership; the struggle to establish historical truth.
German officials claim the Jews had it good until 1938. This is the rationale cited by museums and other parties in Germany for holding onto vast amounts of Jewish property until this day; saying it wasn’t stolen from Jews, it was bought. They proffer Nazi-era letters and documents to prove the legitimacy of the transaction.
Jewish families seeking restitution of their belongings dismiss Nazi paperwork as part of the thievery and fraud that perpetuates Nazis theft until today.
In one recent restitution case, attorney Mel Urbach of New York told Yated, a Nazi-era document was presented to a mediation panel as proof attesting to the bona fide “sale” of a particular Jewish property. When the original document in German was obtained, however, it was found to contain racist, anti-Semitic slurs against the Jewish owners, casting serious doubt on the document’s reliability and the validity of the ‘sale.”
The slurs had been deleted and the language cleaned up before the document was submitted to the panel.
A more global and sinister form of history revision underlies the arguments presented at the January hearing by the German museum foundation in the Guelph treasure case, Urbach said. Officials sought to cast pre-1938 Germany as relatively benign for Jews and the sale of the Guelph collection as fair and honest.
The lawyers for the heirs repudiated this picture as false. They told the Limbach Commission that the art dealers had to sell the treasure significantly below its actual value because they were under massive pressure, exposed daily to the terrors of the Nazi regime.
JTA ARCHIVES RECAPTURE HOLOCAUST HISTORY
The attorneys showed the judges newspaper articles from JTA archives and other news organs from the early 1930s that erased all doubt about when Nazi terror and persecution against German Jewry began.
The articles, frozen in time, describe the once rich Jewish population of Frankfort and other cities reduced to pauperdom, starvation and terror by 1934, 4 years before Kristallnacht.
“Reich Plans To Slay 500, Paper Says,” cried out one bone-chilling headline. “Prominent Jews are included in a list of 500 Germans marked for execution in the Reich immediately after Hitler’s election as Reich President and Reich Chancellor, the London Daily Herald will say tomorrow,” the JTA article warned.
“In a front-page article, the Herald will allege the existence of a list of people, considered hostile to Hitler’s rule, who have been marked for slaughter, after Sunday’s plebiscite gives Hitler his expected vote of confidence.”
“Food Purchase Barred, Frankfurt Jews Starving” another shocking headline leaps out from the archives, replaying the agony of German Jewry. “An intense anti-Jewish campaign conducted by Nazi district leader Sprenger in this city is resulting of cases of actual starvation, it was learned today,” the JTA article disclosed.
“Jews in this city of 500,000 have found it impossible to purchase food. Shop-owners are under strict orders not to deal with non-Aryans.”
And yet another numbing headline, hinting at the horror to come: “Nazis Starve 15,000 Professionals” The article by Boris Smolar, chief European correspondent for the JTA, describes how the “Aryan paragraph” in the revised German constitution, “robs Jewish doctors, lawyers, professors, journalists, and government workers of all hope.” The article goes on to describe how the community’s “desperation is heightened by the difficulty of emigration.”
“These Jewish dealers [in the Guelph treasure case] faced a crisis of a magnitude that we cannot comprehend,” Urbach told the Limbach Commission. “People, targets of early terror, disappeared for a lot less than owning an art collection. But the Nazis wanted it.”
“These were not just any Nazis going after something they wanted. We are talking about Goering and Hitler themselves,” Urbach said.
A TEST CASE… DEFINING THE TRUE GERMANY
Heightening tensions surrounding the case, the Israeli government unexpectedly entered the fray by writing to the German government in September that it is paying close attention to the commission’s recommendation. In the letter, obtained by Yated, Israeli Culture Minister Limor Livnat emphasized “the great importance of this issue to the Jewish people in general, and Holocaust survivors, in Israel and worldwide, in particular.”
The outcome of this closely-watched case will influence which narrative –the “benign pre-1938 condition of German Jewry” or the terrifying death trap that grew from the moment Hitler took power in 1933 – will become official history in Germany.
The Wall Street Journal sees it also as “a test case that will say much about German willingness to address restitution claims.”
Does Germany really intend to pass the proposed restitution law about stolen property? Will survivors and their children ever be able to retrieve lost libraries of seforim andkisvei yad, and the untold quantities of plundered menorahs, leichters and valuable heirlooms, so much of which is either showcased in German museums or rotting in their basements?
A German commission’s ruling on Shushan Purim about the fate of “Haman’s gift” will signal the answer.