Friday, April 8, 2011

Archives of Nazi cultural plunder: new resources for history and restitution

I recommend The Rape of Europa to anyone who hasn’t seen it.

I mention this because it deals with Nazi looting, and there’s important work being done on the subject. In fact, this appears to be a turning point in the historiography and public understanding of the era. Like the significant recent work on the camp system by Geoffrey Megargee, Patricia Kennedy Grimsted’s efforts to compile and make available the records of Nazi cultural plunder open up new possibilities for history. They also contribute to the possibilities for restitution. From the IISG:
One of the main Nazi agencies engaged in looting cultural valuables in Nazi-occupied countries during the Second World War was the 'Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg' (ERR), a special operational task force headed by Adolf Hitler's leading ideologue Alfred Rosenberg. In this extensive international survey Patricia Kennedy Grimsted describes the archival remains of the ERR in 29 repositories in 9 countries - from Washington and Brussels to Moscow and Kyiv. The detail with which the ERR documented the art, archives, books, and other Judaica it plundered has proved essential for the recovery of cultural valuables after the war and their return to victims or heirs.

The survey serves as a preliminary guide to documents generated by the ERR as well as records by postwar agencies seeking to return the ERR loot. Links are provided to many dispersed materials now available on the Internet with additional digital contributions to be expected soon. The survey provides easy access to a major component of the record of wartime cultural plunder and retrieval.
The Foreword and Introduction to “Reconstructing the Record of Nazi Cultural Plunder: A Survey of the Dispersed Archives of the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg” (PDF at the link just above) are well worth reading, providing an overview of the history of the ERR, its archives, and retrieval and restitution efforts. As Wesley Fisher describes in the Foreword:
In consultation with Dr Grimsted, the Claims Conference…undertook to support three major activities in regard to the records of the ERR. The first is the online publication of the current survey and preliminary guide. The second is the ongoing imaging of the ERR files located in Kyiv (Kiev), Moscow, Vilnius, Berlin, Koblenz, Amsterdam, Paris, New York, and Washington with a view to making the ERR records generally available. And the third is the joint creation with the USHMM of a Database of Art Objects at the Jeu de Paume that brings together in searchable form documentation, including photographs, of the over 20,000 major art objects that the ERR confiscated from Jews in Paris, in other parts of France and parts of Belgium and brought for processing to the Jeu de Paume in the Tuileries Gardens.

These three activities should prove to be very helpful to the field of provenance research that has developed so greatly in the art world – but also in regard to libraries and Judaica - over the past decade or so. Indeed, in some respects these three activities taken as a whole may constitute a paradigm shift for the field. Instead of looking at collections in museums today, at lists of objects being sought by claimants, or at lists of objects found after the Second World War, the aim is to reconstruct the original record of what was seized and from whom by bringing together what remains of the detailed records that the Nazis – in this case specifically the ERR – kept of their looting.
The Jeu de Paume database is indeed available online, here.

“Paris, France. Clocks looted from Jewish apartments during Möbel-Aktion on display at one of the M-Aktion camps.” [Source]

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