«The documentation of works of art and culture destroyed and looted in German-occupied Poland (1939-1945), as well as the active search for these ...»
Who Owns Bruno Schulz?
The Changing Postwar Fortunes of Works of Art
by Jewish Artists Murdered in Nazi-Occupied Poland1
by Nawojka Cieślińska-Lobkowicz
The documentation of works of art and culture destroyed and looted in German-occupied
Poland (1939-1945), as well as the active search for these works abroad and the restitution of
recovered objects have ranked among the key priorities of the Polish Ministry of Culture and
National Heritage since the early 1990s. In regard to questions of restitution, the Ministry of Culture is in constant competition with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs: every recovered item is widely presented as a great victory for justice, while at the same time it is presented as a victory for the ministry involved.
However, what is never mentioned is the fact that after the war, national institutions and private individuals often became the new owners of objects that had once belonged to private people or organizations persecuted by the Nazis. In the majority of cases, this affected Jewish individuals, Jewish communities and Jewish institutions. This attitude of silence contradicts the 1998 Washington Conference Principles, confirmed by the Terezín Declaration in 2009. It prevails despite the fact that Poland has signed both documents and benefits from them in cases of foreign restitutions.2 This double standard was blatantly evident during the international conference organized in November 2014 in Kraków entitled “Looted/Recovered. Cultural Goods - the Case of Poland”.3 The conference took place under the auspices and presence of the then Minister of Culture. The necessity for provenance research, supervision of the art market, and the implementation of restitution procedures were underlined within the context of the Polish authorities’ efforts to recover looted art taken out of the occupied country. However, as concerns collections in Polish institutions, the organizers attempted to avoid facing the same questions.4 The Ministry of Culture even self-censored by keeping silent about the official foundation of a special Group of Experts within its Department of Cultural Heritage which was created after the Prague Holocaust Era Conference in 2009.5 Its task was to prepare “the study of museum exhibits from the viewpoint of their possible origin as part of Jewish property”.6 The Group was secretly dissolved by the Ministry in 2011. The organizers of the Kraków conference also failed to provide information concerning the exceptional restitution of Gustave Courbet’s painting from the Warsaw This paper was presented at the International Conference organized by the Documentation Centre for Property Transfers of Cultural Assets of WWII in Prague 21-22 October 2015. For the previous eight years, the liberalconservative coalition of the Platforma Obywatelska (Civic Platform) and Polskie Stronnictwo Ludowe (Polish People’s Party) governed Poland. Under the national-conservative government of the Prawo I Sprawiedliwość (Party Law and Justice) which rules Poland since November 2015, one cannot expect the slightest progress of the matters discussed.
2 The most recent case is the Plocker Pontificale, restituted from the State Bavarian Library to the Plock diocese in April 2015.
3 International Cultural Centre in Kraków, 12-14 November 2014.
4 In the last session of the conference Agnes Peresztegi of the Commission for Art Recovery; Wesley A. Fisher, Director of Research for the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany; and the author of this paper confronted the organizers and conference audience on this topic.
5 Bandurska, Z. Kacprzak, D. Kosiewski, P. Romanowska-Zadrożna, M. Steinborn, B. Tarnowska, M. “Badania proweniencyjne muzealiów pod kątem ich ewentulanego pochodzenia z własności żydowskiej”. Muzealnictwo, Nr. 53 2002, p. 14-26. (online available at: http://muzealnictworocznik.com/abstracted.php?level=4&id_issue=871162) 6 Ibid, p. 26.
National Museum to the heirs of Hungarian Jewish collector Baron Lipot Herzog (which took place in 2011, after twelve years of efforts and negotiations.7 It is therefore not surprising that the Polish public was unaware of these developments.
The works of art in Polish public collections that were confiscated from Jews by the Nazis between 1933 and 1945 in the German Reich – as is the case with two collectors from Wrocław (Breslau), Max Silberberg (1878-1942) and Carl Sachs (1868-194?) - or from occupied countries, such as the Netherlands (the Goudstikker case), or Hungary (three more paintings from the Herzog collection) and Greece (Judaica from Thessaloniki and other places), are only sporadic cases. The situation is vastly different concerning the artefacts which were, or with great probability may have been, the property of Polish Jews, and which found their way into Polish museums, libraries, and private homes after the war.
I have written elsewhere about the various fates of prewar Jewish art and cultural property in Poland.8 However, it is important to remember that more than three million Polish Jews were murdered in the Shoah (90% of Polish Jews). Among these victims were a large number of wellknown, but also anonymous, collectors of art and Judaica, owners of valuable private libraries, and nearly all Jewish antique dealers, booksellers and editors. The same tragic fate befell Jewish writers and artists, many of whom lived before the war in Warsaw, Kraków, Lwów (Lviv), Wilno (Vilnius), Łódź, Białystok and other towns in Poland.
The list of several hundred names of Jewish artists (or students completing their art studies) in Poland before the outbreak of the war in 1939 reads like an honor roll.
This artistic heritage was seriously damaged or dispersed, and in some cases it was totally lost.
This is particularly the case since the artists’ families or their Jewish friends, who could have safeguarded and preserved their works, often also were victims of the Holocaust. The works of those murdered artists – paintings, drawings, etchings, and manuscripts (literary, musical or scholarly) – had a better chance of survival if they were given, for safekeeping, to Polish friends (which, in Nazi terminology meant Aryan, albeit of inferior status).
Works of art were also found during searches carried out by SS units and special Jewish Räumungskommandos in liquidated ghettoes. They were later often sold by the Germans to the local population, having been deemed worthless. And last but not least, they were collected – usually somewhat later – by the people who entered the empty ghettos and then settled in the abandoned Jewish apartments and houses.
Polish Jews returning to liberated Poland from the Soviet Union and those who had survived the war in Poland immediately attempted to find works of art and crafts hidden in the ghettoes or held for safekeeping by Poles. Such searches were sometimes conducted individually and occasionally in an organized manner under the auspices of the Central Committee of Jews in Poland (Centralny Komitet Żydów Polskich, CKŻP), established in July 1944 in Lublin.9 This organization immediately created the Central Jewish Historical Commission (Centralna Żydowska Komisja 7 Akinsha, K. “Reclaiming Lost Treasures. The vast Herzog art collection, seized in Budapest in 1944, has been dispersed from North Carolina to Warsaw. The family is trying to recover its heritage”. Art News, June 2012, p. 84.
8 See i.e. my article: “The History of Judaica and Judaica Collections in Poland Before. During and After the Second World War: An Overview”. Cohen, Julie-Marthe. Heimann-Jelinek, Felicitas. (ed) Neglected Witnesses. The Fate of Jewish Ceremonial Objects during the Second World War and After. Crickadarn: Institute of Art and Law, 2011, p. 129-182.
9 The CKŻP was founded on 12 November 1944, as the successor to the Committee of Polish Jews (Komitet Żydów Polskich) and existed until 1950. It was a secular organization built on the basis of local committees created earlier, and it represented several Jewish political parties (i.e. the prewar non-confessional parties), but it was dominated by the Polish Communist Party (PPR). The CKŻP was responsible for practically all Jewish matters. From 1946 onwards it was mainly financed by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and, to a lesser degree, by other Jewish organizations.
Historyczna, CŻKH) with branches in many cities, including in all the cities that had relatively large ghettoes during the Nazi occupation.10 In late 1946, surviving Jewish artists revived the prewar Jewish Society for the Promotion of the Fine Arts (Żydowskie Towarzystwo Krzewienia Sztuk Pięknych, ŻTKSP). They firmly believed that it was “necessary to mobilize all those with knowledge of the rich heritage of the Polish Jews’ creativity, in order to gather and preserve whatever has been salvaged, and that the recovery of Jewish cultural treasures that remain hidden in the ruins must be stubbornly fought for”.11 In the spring of 1948, in the restored building of the Warsaw community on Tłomackie Street, the first exhibition was held of “the work of Jewish visual artists, victims of the German occupation”.12 This exhibition was jointly organized by the ŻTKSP and the Jewish Historical Institute (Żydowski Instytut Historyczny; ŻIH), which was established in 1947 as a result of the aforementioned CŻKH. The exhibition presented 105 paintings by 58 artists that were “accidentally saved” (as Josef Sandel put it in the catalogue).13 The catalogue identified the owners of the paintings in the exhibition as follows: the ŻTKP (16); the ŻIH (16+5); the CKŻP (14); the Joint Distribution Committee (9); the National Museum in Warsaw (10); private persons (33); others (2).
During the next few decades the ŻIH increased its collection of rescued works of art by buying them and in some cases through donations. The works were sometimes sold or donated (not always voluntarily) by family members of the murdered artists, who left Poland in the late 1940s and in the following waves of Jewish emigration. Sometimes Poles who had kept their Jewish acquaintances’ artworks on the “Aryan side” handed them over: they considered the ŻIH to be the best home for “orphaned” artworks. Most often, however, and with the passing of time nearly exclusively, these objects were bought in antique shops as well as from private people who had become their owners under circumstances that were not entirely clear.
Together with the steadily growing interest in certain Jewish artists, and more broadly in the history of Jews in Poland, a number of museums began to acquire examples of Jewish art that turned up on the domestic market (between 1950 and 1989 only the state one and museums were guaranteed priority).14 In the late 1970s and 1980s a new breed of private collectors appeared. They were also active in the international art market, searching especially for the Polish-Jewish artists of the École de Paris, the Young Yiddish group, the avant-garde and the new realism of the 1930s.
Since the 1990s the interest in such works has increased even more. The list of previously known Jewish painters has been expanded to include those who until recently remained unknown.
The overwhelming majority of works by Jewish artists acquired in these ways by postwar Polish museums and other institutions, as well as works still available on the Polish art market, are characterized by one common denominator: their unknown or highly dubious provenance before 1945.15 The Commission had the dual task of collecting Holocaust survivors’ testimonies and salvaging Jewish cultural heritage. The CŻKH was headquartered in Łódź. From its inception it planned to create a Jewish museum; see Grüss, N.
Rok pracy Centralnej Komisji Historycznej, Łódź, 1946, p. 49.
11 Piątkowska, R. “Żydowskie Towarzystwo Krzewienia Sztuk Pięknych (Jidisze Gezelszaft cu Farszprojtn Kunst).Próba kontynuowania żydowskiego życia artystycznego w latach 1946-49”. Ruta, M. (ed.) Nusech Pojln Studia z dziejów kultury jidysz w Polsce, Kraków, 2008, p. 67.
12 Wystawa dzieł żydowskich artystów plastyków, męczenników niemieckiej okupacji 1939-1945.Kwiecień-maj 1948, ŻIH,Warsazawa 1948 [ Exhibition Catalogue].
13 Sandel, J. In Memoriam. op. cit. p. 3.
14 See Footnote No 7.
15 Sellers to the museums usually make declarations such as “This is my property acquired in 1943 as a remnant from the ghetto”; “This is my property bought on the street or at a flea market”; “This is a gift to my mother, given by a Jewish acquaintance”, etc.
This, however, has not stopped museums in any way from considering themselves the rightful owners of these objects.16 They perceive themselves – no doubt correctly – as the proper place where the decimated (and indeed almost annihilated) Jewish material cultural heritage can be safely preserved. However, they also consider them as good-faith acquisitions. An excellent example is a recent exhibition in the Warsaw ŻIH entitled “Ocalałe / Salvaged” (October 2014 – October 2015).17 This exhibition was organized nearly half a century after the aforementioned first exhibition in 1948. This time, the collected works of nearly 500 Jewish artists were taken into account, including several who died before 1939 and some who survived the Shoah - almost nine times as many artists than in 1948. The works gathered in the ŻIH are – as we can read on its website – “frequently the only trace of the artists themselves, the only thing by which they can be remembered”.18 Items reproduced in the exhibition catalogue are described without the slightest comment on their provenance.19 This shows that a serious investigation, an attempt to find surviving members of an artist’s family, or potential heirs, was never in the interest of the ŻIH, let alone of other Polish museums – and it still, unfortunately, remains of no importance to these institutions.
It seems as if the respective museums have assumed that no one survived the Shoah, and that all close relatives of the artists were without exception murdered, therefore leaving no heirs. And that for the last twenty years, on the international scene, the spectacular wave of restitutions of art works that belonged to Jewish owners persecuted and exterminated by Nazi Germany had no resonance with Polish public collections.