May 2008 Journal

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Letter from Israel

Orphaned art looking for owners
Two sister-exhibitions are currently on display at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. The first is a selection of paintings which have been in the possession of the museum and its predecessor, the Bezalel collection, since the end of the Second World War. The paintings, put together for the first time under the title ‘Orphaned Art’, were found by the Allies in Nazi homes and collection centres throughout Europe. For obvious reasons, the provenance of most of the artworks was not clear, and in many cases their owners could not be traced. The second exhibition, ‘Looking for Owners’, has been put together and sponsored by the French government. It contains 53 paintings, many of them by renowned artists, which originally belonged to French Jews.

The systematic looting of thousands of art works throughout Europe, both from Jews and from national collections in countries conquered by the Nazis, was part of Hitler’s plan to make his birthplace, the Austrian town of Linz, the art centre of Europe. He planned to build a huge complex containing most of the art formerly on display across Europe. In addition, art works from the homes of wealthy Jews were commandeered. These included some impressive nineteenth-century portraits, as well as pictures by French, Dutch and Italian classicists. Jewish ceremonial objects were also appropriated, in order eventually to be put on display in the ‘Jewish Museum’ that would portray the erstwhile Jewish people.

Many visitors, both Israelis and tourists, come to see these exhibitions, moving from one exhibit to another with serious mien. Many are moved to tears, and on one occasion someone even fainted. It is hardly surprising. The labels beside the pictures are laconic and devoid of pathos, yet who can fail to be touched by seeing time and again the words ‘unidentified owner’ or ‘provenance unknown’, although some of the paintings came from well-known collections, such as those of the Rothschilds or Adolphe Schloss.

The entire Youth Wing of the museum has been devoted to the exhibition, and its interior has been altered radically to evoke a European ambience, with dim lighting and parquet floors. At several points, one can sit and watch documentary films illustrating the vicissitudes of the pictures, Hitler’s megalomaniac plans, and the efforts to trace owners. On my last visit I saw several groups being taken round and given explanations by guides speaking many different languages. There was even a group of Arab schoolchildren from Umm al-Fahm.

For me, though, the exhibition triggers an even more disturbing train of thought. The pictures and objects, all intrinsically valuable and worthy of display in a museum, are no more than the tip of the iceberg. Every home of every Jewish family that was dispossessed, exiled and/or eventually murdered contained objects that had been accumulated over the years - porcelain and silver, linen and furniture - countless precious objects that had been passed down from father to son and from mother to daughter. There can have been few homes in which there was not a well-loved picture hanging on the wall, a sideboard displaying favourite pieces of silver, linen with initials lovingly embroidered by hand, handiwork that showed the skill of the lady of the house, toys, books, writing implements - all the things that combine to make a home.

All that disappeared, whether looted by Nazi soldiers, filched by neighbours or destroyed in some other way. Of course, far worse things happened than the seizure of property, but for me the loss of the things that so many families once possessed and loved seems to symbolise the wholesale destruction of European Jewry.

Dorothea Shefer-Vanson

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