Friday, September 08, 2006

Inartful Restitution

Without apology, I cannot join the large mixed Jewish and non-Jewish chorus offering hymns of praise celebrating the return of major works of art pilfered by the Nazis to some distant cousin or great niece of their former Jewish owners. I do not begrudge the good fortune of those who picked affluent forbearers. The problem is that righting these Nazi wrongs raises the question of why other property stolen from Jews has not received comparable attention, while even claims for restitution that were filed shortly after the Holocaust received short shrift.

Marie Altman, the closest surviving relative in the family that owned the Gustav Klimt painting that recently fetched $135 million, thanks to the circumstance that Ronald S. Lauder was sufficiently prescient to select a fabulously wealthy mother, is quoted as saying, "so far, fate has been very good to me." Fate wasn't good to millions of murdered Jews, nor to the hundreds of thousands who survived but now have died without their rightful claims being addressed. So far, fate hasn't been kind to the steadily dwindling number of survivors who still survive and for whom restitution hasn't been made.

The Nazis and their collaborators in all places where Jews lived stole whatever they could get their hands on, including homes, businesses, communal property, money and personal possessions. Why is the return of artwork more morally or legally compelling than the return of all else that the murdered and persecuted Jews possessed?

A good part of the answer - unfortunately it's a good answer - is that the scale of Nazi theft makes return and restitution just about financially and politically impossible. Are hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of Poles and Ukranians to be removed from their homes? Or are many tens of billions of dollars available to recompense Jews for homes stolen, businesses stolen, community facilities stolen, personal property stolen? As an aside, thousands of fervently religious Jews will soon travel to Uman in Ukraine for Rosh Hashanah, an exercise in mass stupidity conducted on land that remains soaked with the blood of untold hundreds of thousands of Jews slaughtered over the centuries by the ancestors of those who will now benefit financially from the visits of religious Jews to their country.

Art is different from other property because quantitatively it is limited and qualitatively it has unlimited cache. Great art is enveloped in celebrityship and this results in sleuths ferreting out stolen pieces that are now possessed by major museums. A private home in Lodz doesn't have comparable appeal.

Claims were made for the return or restitution of looted property but organized American Jewry turned a deaf ear. In at least one situation, involving the return of stolen German property to their rightful owners, the Jewish restitution bureaucracy did its best to prevent the families who were the victims from getting their property back. In the end, instead of stolen property going to the owners, it went into the grubby hands of the restitution organizations. So far as I know, the disgraceful story was told only by Netty Gross in The Jerusalem Report.

More shameful still was our community's reaction to the stealing of Jewish souls. As the fate of European Jewry became known, parents - we will never know how many - awaiting their murder or shipment to death camps gave their children to neighboring Gentiles for "safe-keeping," some to individuals and others to orphanages or other institutions, usually operated by Catholic groups. When the war ended, an indeterminate number of these children were returned to their parents if they survived and, if not, to other relatives. Since most parents did not survive, many children were not returned, even when relatives brought proof of their Jewish roots, and they were raised as Catholics. We recently learned that Pope Pius XII ruled that Jewish children who had been baptized could not be returned. Only the Orthodox made an effort to reclaim stolen Jewish souls. They had some success, but many were never returned and nearly all were lost entirely to Judaism.

While in Israel several years ago, I saw a deeply moving Israeli documentary on Polish Jews that focused on a handful of Poles who had discovered their Jewish heritage. The central story was of a Polish priest who had recently learned that his parents were Chassidim. Their picture was on the wall, flanked on one side by Sh'ma Yisrael and by a crucifix on the other side. With tears streaming down his face, the priest said that G-D had made him what he is and he cannot reject either of his heritages.

As the Holocaust recedes into history, our memory and emotional reaction to the horrible events have expanded. This may seem strange, yet it is as it should be because in the early years after the Holocaust we blocked out the horrors. They were too powerful for us to confront. It was as if we were too close to an intense flame.

We can now look at what befell our people and we can react to the crimes that occurred. This is good. What is not good is the corollary exploitation of the destruction of European Jewry as a matter of dollars and cents. Our activity and advocacy highlight a restitution agenda, as if there can be restitution for the crimes against our people. Increasingly, Holocaust-memory is an exercise in greed and even worse. Our remembrance of what happened two generations and more ago should be more than a money game. When it is treated as a money game, those who now benefit forget the suffering that Jews, including their relatives, experienced, and come to feel that fate has been good to them.

Individuals should pursue their claims. For our community, the agenda must be different. The Holocaust must remain a searing tragedy and not an exercise in alleged restitution.