The murder of 6 million Jewish martyrs and the physical atrocities committed against millions of others during the Holocaust have, understandably, been the main focus when examining and remembering the Holocaust over the past 70-plus years. In the last 15 years, a less horrendous but still tragic aspect of the Holocaust has been receiving much more attention on an international level: the Nazis' theft of Jewish families' precious art.
Since 1998, Dr. Constance Lowenthal, a New York-based consultant on art ownership disputes, a trained art historian, and the first director of the World Jewish Congress' Commission for Art Recovery, has been helping to recover art stolen from Jewish families in Hitler's Europe. Lowenthal spoke on the topic at a luncheon hosted by Federation's Women of Vision, Greater Philadelphia's only Jewish women's foundation, on May 2 at Congregation Rodeph Shalom in Philadelphia.
One hundred Women of Vision members and 45 guests came to hear Lowenthal talk about what she describes as "the largest art theft of all time." Before and during World War II, Nazis in Germany, Austria, occupied France and the Netherlands stole art from Jewish citizens for a museum Hitler planned to build in Linz, Austria, and fill with "Aryan art" -- such as Old Masters, Realists and traditional German artists. These thefts were also another way to deprive Jews of their wealth, as well as a way for the Third Reich to raise money by subsequently selling the stolen art. Additionally, the former Soviet Union took trainloads of this stolen art from Germany as "repayment for what the Germans did to them," said Lowenthal.
Though returning the stolen art to its rightful owners and their heirs may seem like the right and obvious thing to do, Lowenthal made it clear during her talk that recovering art is an uphill battle the entire way. First, families must know what art they are looking for and have very good documentation of their family's ownership. Family members must also work together to recover the art and not be mired down by disagreements, but, Lowenthal said, "after nearly 80 years, few families do get along."
Next, the art must be located. While this is something that has become much easier over the years, especially thanks to the Internet, it can still be difficult. Finally, families must work to get the art returned by the national museum, private museum or private owner in possession of it, typically through lengthy and sometimes costly legal battles. Lowenthal helps families to navigate all of these scenarios.
National museums are most receptive to returning art, according to Lowenthal, and are now putting more time and effort into determining if any of their pieces have an unknown provenance between 1933 and 1946. Some private museums are receptive to families' claims, according to the speaker, especially depending upon the country in which they are located. Private owners are under no obligation by law to return stolen art, though they cannot pass "good title" of the art to any subsequent owners. "With private people, it depends on who they are at heart."
Lowenthal noted that families must also be prepared for the stigma sometimes attached to working to recover the art. "Families doing this have to be prepared for being called 'greedy Jews,' " she said.
Lowenthal said working with families to help them recover their treasures has been very gratifying: "We helped one family recover 85 works of art from Germany and changed the German government's policy about recovering stolen art in the process."
No one knows the number of Jewish families trying to recover lost art: "With a new international set of expectations, laws and offices, more people are working to recover art," she said. "Some are succeeding. There is satisfaction in getting the art back, but most people have to sell it to settle things. It is bittersweet."
"When people think of the Holocaust, they typically think of lives lost, not necessarily possessions," said Susan Lundy, Federation Endowment Officer. "Women of Vision members were very interested in learning more about this fascinating topic, which is why this luncheon was one of Women of Vision's largest events ever."
Luncheon attendees' focus on art continued after Lowenthal's talk with a tour of the Moorish Revival Rodeph Shalom synagogue, built in 1927; the congregation, founded in 1795, is the oldest Ashkenazic synagogue in the Western Hemisphere.
Women of Vision's 422 members have all made one-time gifts that enable the foundation each year to make significant grants to programs locally and in Israel that benefit Jewish women and girls.
For more information on Women of Vision, call Susan Lundy at 215-832-0849 or visit: jewishphilly.org/wov .