Consisting of over 1400 items, the cache includes hundreds of acclaimed masterpieces, known to have been looted as part of the Nazi scheme to strip from German society what Nazis called “decadent art,” while making a fortune from it by selling it to foreign art dealers. Many of the victims of this massive heist were Jews.
“If you were Jewish, your assets were up for grabs by the nearest Nazi,” said restitution attorney Mel Urbach, whose firm has been active in the effort to identify some of these valuable items and have them returned to their original owners.
In his negotiations with German museums where artwork stolen from Jews now hangs, Urbach has also learned of sizable collections of sifrei kodesh, priceless kisvei yad, letters and documents stolen from Jewish libraries by the Nazis, now languishing in the basements of German museums.
“Many Jewish libraries were built up over hundreds of years, carefully passed down from father to son. The Nazis plundered these libraries, intending to showcase some of the most time-honored, cherished items in the Nazi-planned Museum of the Extinct Race,” Urbach said in an interview with Yated.
“Thousands of boxes of these seforim and writings are now lying in museum basements, awaiting reclamation,” he said, noting that a breakthrough in the restitution of looted art might lead to the return of troves of books and writings thought of as worthless by museum owners.
One of the main barriers to gaining restitution of stolen artwork, Urbach said, is a false revisionist narrative being advanced by German museums that Nazi terror coincided with the outbreak of World War II. Art sales that took place prior to that date, according to this line of thought, should not be regarded as coerced and should not be subject to restitution.
That this flies brazenly in the face of universally known Holocaust history does not deter the falsifiers of history.
GERMAN AUTHORITIES KEEP DISCOVERED LOOT UNDER WRAPS
The discovery of the looted paintings in Munich was initially kept under wraps by German authorities. Then a few weeks ago, a German newspaper, Focus, broke the story. The paper disclosed that the paintings had been stumbled upon by police in the home of an 80-year old German art dealer over 18 months ago.
The article noted that authorities had removed the artwork from the man’s apartment but took little action to catalogue the paintings and identify their owners.
The story triggered a storm of criticism around the world, with Holocaust survivors and their heirs who suspect the trove may contain items stolen from their families questioning the veil of secrecy surrounding the affair.
The scandal turned a spotlight on efforts by survivors to gain access not only to this trove of paintings but to looted artwork hanging in German private homes or museums whose ownership has been clearly identified. They requests for the return of the artwork has been met in most cases with denial and resistance.
In the face of international pressure, the German government announced last week it will be more proactive in establishing the provenance, or ownership, of the masterpieces. But skeptics say officials will never part with the treasures.
REVISITING DARK DAYS OF NAZI TERROR
The elderly German recluse, Cornelius Gurlitt, who kept the paintings hidden in his apartment for decades is demanding them back through his attorney, saying he inherited them from his father, an art dealer with known connections to Hitler chief Herman Goring.
The father carried out Goring’s orders to amass the paintings for the Third Reich. He was caught by the Allies in the midst of fleeing after liberation. When questioned about the fate of the plundered art, Goring’s agent lied to them that the trove of stolen artwork had been destroyed in the bombing of Dresden.
Meanwhile, their discovery has rolled back history to the dark days of Nazi terror, when massive looting of private property and valuables accompanied the wholesale massacre of innocent people. It was a time of terror, when, facing deportation and death, Jews desperate for exit documents to leave Germany were forced to sell their valuables for a pittance.
The plundered treasures of Jews, in Germany and other Nazi-occupied countries not only enriched Nazi leaders beyond description but also financed the war and Hitler’s Final Solution. Much of that wealth has never been recovered, historians of the period say.
INTERNATIONAL PRESSURE FORCED HOLOCAUST SETTLEMENTS
In the early 1990’s after the fall of Europe’s Communist governments and the reunification of Germany, a period of Holocaust restitution was launched in response to international pressure.
The settlements that European governments eventually arrived with Holocaust survivors included $1.25 billion for unclaimed Swiss bank accounts held by Nazi victims, and $5 billion from Germany and German companies to compensate Jews and non-Jews who worked as slave laborers.
In addition, settlements provided for a half-billion dollars from European insurance companies that never paid off the policies of the dead; $1 billion from Jewish property that was plundered by the Nazis in what was later East Germany; and $1.7 billion largely for reparation payments that East Germany never made.
It took years of international pressure, including threats of a boycott and the White House’s intervention, before Swiss banks were forced to lead the restitution effort, paying $1.25 billion to settle legal action in 1998.
The banks had opted for an out-of-court settlement as a means of escaping numerous class-action lawsuits, as well as sanctions threatened by U.S. government agencies.
Germany soon followed suit with the slave labor settlements. An understanding signed by 44 countries provided for the abolition of “technical defenses” whereby governments had previously stonewalled restitution by using technical arguments such as “there’s no death certificate,” or “privacy regulations.”
Left out of the accords, however, was the matter of stolen artwork as the thousands of looted, sold and re-sold paintings were thought to be untraceable.
“We were wrong about that,” Urbach told Yated. “Amazingly, the paintings have a known and traceable “yichus” — catalogued in German records in many places and on the backs of the paintings themselves.”
German authorities defend their actions, saying they are trying to establish the exact provenance of the paintings. But Urbach said there is no clear law in place in Germany to go after looted art that is in private hands.
This is true even in cases where paintings owned by Jews have been traced to Gurlitt’s collection, such as “The Lion Tamer,” originally owned by a German Jew, Albert Flechtheim, who fled Germany after being targeted by the Nazis.
Flechtheim owned numerous art galleries. After Nazi thugs broke up an auction of his paintings, the art dealer realized there was a death warrant on him and fled to France and then London where he died near-penniless in 1937. His galleries were appropriated by a non-Jewish manager and hundreds of his paintings disappeared or were sold illegally, an article in the Telegraph, a British paper reported.
Flechtheim’s widow committed suicide after being ordered to report for a train to a concentration camp. Other relatives also died in the Holocaust. Flechtheim named a nephew as his heir. A son of that nephew is now seeking the return of his great-uncle’s collection, saying he intends to establish a charitable foundation to perpetuate his relative’s name.
He has since traced dozens of famous Flechtheim paintings and artifacts to museums and galleries around the world, including six hanging in a museum in Bavaria, a German province.
“Because of the lack of restitution law regarding stolen artwork, museums and private collectors can frustrate and derail claims,” Urbach said, adding that the stonewalling is an emotional roller coaster for survivors, some of whom are penniless and in need of medical care they can’t afford.
German museums have rejected requests for the return of paintings certified as coming from the Flecthheim galleries, using a transparent argument. The paintings were sold in the early 1930s, they say, well before 1938 which they identify as the onset of Nazi reign of terror. Since they were sold at a time when German Jews still “had it good,” the sale was not coerced or under duress, and does not qualify for restitution under German law.
“The problem with this argument is that it’s a falsification of history,” Urbach says. “It’s an insidious form of revisionism that amazingly, is gaining traction in some quarters.”
As an example, a German paper reporting on the Gurlitt collection and the possibility of some of the paintings having been subject to forced sale, said, “At the heart of the issue is when in the 1930’ the sale took place.”
MODERN DAY ARCH OF TITUS?
To set the record straight in a Munich court, where discussions are underway about the ownership of another art collection, the “Guelph treasure,” a powerful historical document was submitted by Urbach’s clients from the director of a German museum in Berlin, called The Topography of Terror.
Just a few years in existence, the museum, led by Professor Nechama, a German Jew, is dedicated to tracing and documenting the earliest stages of the Third Reich, and the process by which Hitler dismantled and rebuilt the German government into an instrument of tyranny, depravity and destruction.
The museum’s work in an important tool in countering the ever-active movement to strengthen Holocaust denial, and to blur and whitewash the horrific crimes perpetrated against European Jewry.
“What effects did the “power seizure” in 1933 of the National Socialists have on the Jewish people in Germany?” the report begins.
It goes on to analyze in painstaking detail the history of Nazi terror and brutality from the first days of Hitler’s chancellorship in 1933 and the earliest steps in the Nazi war against the Jews.
“The systematic “de-Jewification” or “Aryanization” which began immediately after the Nazi takeover of power in 1933, wrote Professor Nechama, “entailed a radical and all-encompassing dispossession of Jewish property and assets… and the direct grab for Jewish assets.”
“This recognition is not new,” the report continued. “It motivated the legislative measures of the Allies, legitimized under international law in the London Declaration of 1943, and other laws passed in the late 1940s by the international community, that established important and still relevant legal principles.
“Those laws state that under the Nazi regime, the legal sales and transactions that took advantage of the desperate circumstances of the Jews are tainted with immorality and persecution; they were morally reprehensible, unethical and are not to be considered valid.”
Showcasing and displaying Jewish loot in Berlin said Urbach, “is like a modern recreation of the Arch of Titus celebrating the triumph of Romans in the looting of the Beis Hamikdash, on display in Rome till this very day.”
Germany’s failure to come to terms with its moral obligations continues to shame the victims and robs the public of the truth. Is this the final message that Germany wants to leave in this last chapter of Holocaust restitution?