This week, the plundering of Holocaust-era art comes to the big screen with the release of the star-studded Hollywood movie, “The Monuments Men,” the dramatic story of a small section of the Allied armies that was devoted to protecting the culture of Europe during the Second World War. Hundreds of thousands of items of art and Judaica were looted by the Nazis in one of the greatest thefts in history.
The establishment of a special section of the Allied armies represented the very best of the commitment of the United States government to seek the return of property taken during the Holocaust — a commitment that continues to this day. Faded photos of young grinning soldiers in American uniforms carrying paintings instead of guns are powerful images that show how the war effort was not just about saving people. It was also about saving their culture.
Public fascination about looted art remains. The recent discovery of a trove of looted paintings in the Munich apartment of Cornelius Gurlitt, the son of a wartime art dealer, triggered an avalanche of press stories and demands for action.
The art discovery makes clear that looted Jewish property might be anywhere, including shoved into a closet or corner in a nondescript apartment.
But there is an even more dramatic story: There are many thousands of properties in plain sight — houses, synagogues, factories — that have not been returned to the survivors and their heirs who are the rightful owners.
The unreturned paintings, homes and synagogues have been described as the last prisoners of the Second World War, most recently by World Jewish Congress president Ronald Lauder in a major speech in Berlin last week on looted art.
The aggregate value of these properties dwarfs that of all the Picassos, Chagalls and other stolen masterpieces recovered by the Monuments Men or that can be found in Cornelius Gurlitt’s apartment or hanging on museum walls. The emotional value of confiscated homes, businesses, and houses of worship to the victims and the Jewish community is incalculable.
Almost 70 years after the Holocaust and nearly 25 years after the fall of Communism, much of the private and communal property seized from Jews in Central and Eastern Europe has not been returned to the original owners, to their heirs, or to the Jewish community.
While the fall of the Berlin Wall and the establishment of newly democratic governments brought high hopes — and commitments to honor the foundational democratic principle of property rights — few countries have fully or effectively addressed their responsibilities to return property. Many survivors live in poverty while their property remains unreturned.
Poland, home to the largest pre-Holocaust Jewish community, has refused to pass legislation to address private property taken by the Nazis or later nationalized by the Communists. This refusal deprives Jews and non-Jews of their property in Poland. Moreover, there is unreturned former Jewish property across Central and Eastern Europe — in Croatia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania and other countries. In many countries the Jewish communities still await the return of many of their communal buildings, such as synagogues, hospitals and schools.
Some of these countries were victim countries that were invaded, occupied and ravaged not only by Nazi Germany, but also by the Soviet Union. But that does not remove the obligation to return stolen property from which they, and many of their citizens, continue to benefit.
There is an international consensus on the moral obligation to return property stolen during the Holocaust. More than 40 countries endorsed the “Terezin Declaration on Holocaust Era Assets and Related Issues” in 2009, and agreed on guidelines and best practices for the restitution and compensation of real property in 2010.
But ultimately it is not just about the art or the property. It was about recapturing people’s history. The art that hung on their walls is part of their family, just as the house in which they lived is part of their legacy.
We all know the power of popular culture to shift public perceptions.
Indeed, public awareness of the Holocaust that came from the release of the movie “Schindler’s List” in 1993 certainly played a role in the successes in restitution of Holocaust-era assets in the years that followed.
Perhaps we can find even a small amount of the energy, determination and persistence of those brave individuals known as the Monuments Men to help finish the task that they and others started all those years ago.
As the trailer to the movie says: “If you destroy an entire generation of a people’s culture, it is as if they never existed.”
Gideon Taylor works in the private sector and serves in a lay capacity as chair of operations of the World Jewish Restitution Organization.