Israel’s Nazi Art Hunters
In the aftermath of World War II, art looted from Jews spread across the globe -- including to the world’s only Jewish state. Now, there’s an effort underway to return the pieces to their rightful owners.
TEL AVIV — Last year, Agnieszka Yass-Alston, a Polish-Jewish student pursuing her doctorate in Jewish art confiscated by the Nazis during World War II, was visiting Ein Harod, a tiny kibbutz in northern Israel. At Ein Harod’s Museum of Art, she found herself standing in front of “The Beggar,” a color-soaked portrait of a vagrant with an outstretched hand done by Minsk-born Jewish artist Eugene Zak in the 1920s.
Acting on a hunch, Yass-Alston asked museum staff to remove the painting from the wall and peel off its backing paper. There, stamped into the top right corner of the painting’s wooden frame, was a series of letters and numbers that Yass-Alston recognized immediately as the stamp of the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg, the special Nazi Party task force that spent World War II plundering masterpieces from libraries, museums, and private homes across Europe.
The painting had been on display in Ein Harod since 1954. Museum officials looked into its history and realized the painting, which had been looted by the Nazis in Paris, had ended up in the hands of Mordechai Narkiss, one of Israel’s first-ever art curators. Narkiss had brought it to Israel along with hundreds of other unclaimed looted pieces, and placed it at Ein Harod as part of Israel’s efforts to keep Jewish art alive after the Holocaust.
Along the way, however, the painting’s origin and how it had come to be in the museum was lost or forgotten, and a search for rightful heirs was never carried out. For 60 years, not a single curator or visitor at the little Israeli museum had suspected they had a piece of Nazi loot hanging on their walls.
From 1940 to 1945, Nazi soldiers across occupied Europe seized books, religious icons, and untold amounts of art from prisoners and public institutions. When Germany finally surrendered to the Allies in 1945, the upheaval of some 50 million refugees was also accompanied by a massive displacement of cultural artifacts, which continue to be sold and traded — with and without knowledge of their sordid past — across the globe.
In the aftermath of the war, Allied soldiers returned hundreds of thousands of looted items to their countries of origin, where it was left to each nation’s government to track down individual owners and complete the restitution process. But with so many owners vanished in the war and paper records hard to come by, it was all too easy for the items to be passed instead to museums and private collectors, or to end up being traded at international auctions.
Surprisingly, several of those items have made their way to Israel, and the world’s sole Jewish state has been slow to track down such Nazi-seized goods that end up within its borders, in order to return them to their rightful owners.
Some stashes of illicitly acquired art, such as the billion-dollar trove hoarded during and after the war by Munich collector Cornelius Gurlitt and discovered in 2012, have been recovered in sweeping public seizures. But researchers believe that most of the unclaimed artwork snatched in World War II isn’t squirreled away in hidden stashes. Instead, like the refugees themselves, they were separated from their original documentation and have crossed borders multiple times — and in the confusion, their truth about their provenance was lost.
Today, the majority of Germany’s remaining spoils exist in gallery halls and private living rooms, masquerading as any other innocuous, lovely framed thing on display. And because so many of these works were either done by Jewish artists or came originally from Jewish homes, they were snatched up by unknowing Jewish collectors and a sizable number are now hiding in plain sight in Israel.
While no one knows exactly how many stolen pieces have made their way to Israel, to date some two dozen have been identified here for restitution. They include Camille Pissarro’s “Le Boulevard de Montmartre,” which once belonged to a Polish industrialist who was forced by the Nazis to sell it against his will; a collection of nine drawings and watercolors created by Malva Schalek in the Theresienstadt ghetto; and a handful of pieces by Moshe Rynecki, painted and then hidden in Warsaw and then passed, supposedly, from a Polish farmer to the hands of well-meaning collectors. They were discovered in Israel by Rynecki’s great-granddaughter Elizabeth, who, in 1999, launched a quest, still continuing today, across several continents to recover his work.
“It’s part of the reality, and it’s our job to look for the solution to these objects,” says Elinor Kroitoru of Hashava, an organization created by the Israeli government to find and locate heirs of Holocaust-era property in Israel. Their job, she explains, is not to focus on how the pieces got to Israel in the first place, but rather to make sure they are now returned to their rightful heirs. “There were so many consequences to the Holocaust, and the important thing now is that we deal with it.”
Hashava was launched in 2006 with the goal of locating heirs for assets — like stocks, bonds, and plots of land — purchased in pre-state Israel by Zionist European Jews before World War II but never claimed. Over the past handful of years, however, the Israeli art world has become increasingly aware of Nazi-looted art in its museums, often brought there through donations from Jewish art collectors who didn’t realize the history of their purchases. So Hashava has expanded its focus, and now its team of lawyers and researchers also acts as art sleuths, hunting down heirs and inheritance papers in order to settle the Holocaust’s final unresolved score.
On Dec. 16, Hashava held its second annual forum on the restitution of Holocaust-era assets in Israel. It brought together about 100 Israeli and European lawmakers, Holocaust researchers, and restitution experts from the world’s great auction houses, to discuss what steps Israel has taken — and still needs to take — to clean its hands of Hitler’s spoils.
No one would accuse Israeli institutions of willfully hiding stolen goods, Kroitoru says, and whenever her institution has located an heir and brought a claim for restitution, Israeli museums have cooperated. The issue, she says, is that they aren’t motivated to actually do research on the provenance of the art on their own.
In the realm of global provenance research, there have been two major milestones: the 1998 Washington Principles and the 2009 Terezin Declaration, both of which established an international plan for shared resources on hunting and returning Nazi-looted art. Israel is a signatory to both, but the Israeli government has yet to pass its own legislation on the matter. Doing so, Kroitoru says, would bring the kind of sorely needed funds that make it easier to spur museum boards into action.
“We can only say people are dragging their feet once they have budgets to work with,” she says. “Since museums in Israel are very under budgeted, there’s not much complaining you can do. Sure, some museums are reluctant because they are afraid it will empty their collections, but others are willing — they just say it first takes money and training.”
Sir Eric Pickles, the British MP who serves as Britain’s special envoy for post-Holocaust issues, traveled to Tel Aviv for Hashava’s conference. During a coffee break later in the day, just outside a hallway where Zak’s “The Beggar” was on display as a reminder of the proliferation of Nazi-seized art in Israel, he explained why convincing Israeli art institutions to get serious about restitution is crucial to galvanizing the rest of the world to step up and act.
“Israel has this enormous moral authority on the issue, bigger than anywhere else, because it’s the Jewish state,” he says. “So with lots of affection and love, we need a bit more from them. We need to move quicker, and this is the decade to do it.”
The vast majority of looted artworks from World War II is currently in Europe, Pickles says, where some governments — notably those in central and eastern Europe — can truly be accused of dragging their feet on finding rightful heirs. But even a single Hitler-seized painting on display at an Israeli museum does enormous damage to the indemnification work that Pickles and his colleagues do, he adds, because it provides a convenient skirt to hide behind.
“We need to be able to say to these governments that collaboration with the Nazis didn’t stop in 1945,” Pickles says. “By not taking the lead right here and having the best possible systems in place, it gives an alibi to those in Europe who are sitting on a stash of stuff and can say, ‘We are only doing what the Israelis are doing.’”
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