Engaging in issues pertaining to economic aspects of the Holocaust is never an easy task. However, it is morally incumbent upon us as a society, as a people and as a nation to deal with these issues. In addition to the atrocious genocide that it was, the Holocaust also witnessed the largest and most heinous art thefts in history. Alongside building and operating a massacre machine, the Nazis systematically stole property from the Jews, robbed them of their money, stripped them of their wealth and plundered the cultural treasures that they had collected.
In 2006, following a parliamentary inquiry committee chaired by MK Colette Avital, the Israeli Knesset enacted a law regarding Holocaust victims’ assets that were purchased or deposited in Eretz Israel. Hashava, the Company for Location and Restitution of Holocaust Victims’ Assets Ltd., was established first and foremost to locate assets purchased by Holocaust victims in Israel. Once these assets become entrusted to Hashava, Hashava works to locate the rightful heirs, who are for the most part completely unaware that their relatives had left behind private property.
As chief executive officer of the company, I am frequently asked about these Holocaust victims who had purchased assets in Israel. Who are they? My answer is as follows. Although it sounds like a cliché today, the common denominator for these individuals was that investing in the Eretz Israel was considered part of a greater vision and dream. The majority of these investors were ardent Zionists responding to the call to purchase real estate and settle the land of Israel by opening bank accounts there, buying stocks and depositing savings. After the war, Israel even saw an influx of cultural treasures such as books and Judaica items, as well as works of art and other objects that had been stolen by the Nazis.
According to estimates by international organizations, close to 600,000 paintings were looted along with hundreds of thousands of other art masterpieces. To our chagrin, while Israel expects European countries – including Germany, Austria and France, as well as countries such as the United States, Russia and Canada – to make a concerted effort to identify stolen cultural items in their national collections, Israel fails to act with this same fervor regarding the assets in her own backyard. The Washington Principles, a set of guidelines that requires museums to research the origins of their pieces in order to identify their original owners prior to the items’ appropriation during the Holocaust, was adopted by 44 countries, including Israel. The principles were adopted, yet the implementation of them has lagged behind.
Artwork, Judaica and books that made their way to Israel after the Holocaust are not just economically and historically valuable cultural assets, they are also a symbol and a testimonial to the people and communities that once were and now no longer exist. They are memorials, albeit anonymously. Unless the museums conduct investigations into the origins of their collections, the owners of these pieces of art will receive no recognition or memorial, since this important provenance research is the only means of identifying the true owners of the artwork and bringing this circle to a close.
Practise what you preach. At the very least, Israel must abide by the standards that it demands from the rest of the world. Israel must assume the same responsibilities as it did for the assets of Zionists who perished in the Holocaust. It is our duty to promote the implementation – via proper legislation – of the obligations held by the museums, libraries and other similar bodies to make an effort toward identifying artwork and objects that were seized by the Nazis and eventually found their way to Israel and into their collections. This applies to artwork that arrived in Israel as a unit, such as the famous JRSO (Jewish Restitution Successor Organization) collection that arrived at Bezalel and was subsequently transferred to the Israel Museum, as well as artwork that trickled into museums during later years by way of donations, gifts or innocent purchases.
These stolen treasures must not remain hidden assets. To this end, Israel must carry on with the important process that it already set in motion, implementing the Washington Principles by way of legislation that would require museums to conduct provenance research about the origins of their pieces. It would be of great respect for the museums in Israel if they allocate resources to locate art and cultural pieces that were stolen during the Holocaust and are currently in their own collections, whether the items are on public display or hidden away in basements.
Dr. Israel Peleg is chief executive officer of Hashava, the Company for Location and Restitution of Holocaust Victims’ Assets Ltd. (hashava.info).