Obstacles To Restitution And A Complex Post-War History

The looting of Jewish assets in Poland in the time of the Second World War is one of the most complex in Europe and least understood because of the suppression of research in Poland under the post-war Soviet domination. In Poland, looting was carried out by the forces of both Nazi Germany and of the Soviet Union, with no small assistance from Poland’s population. Since the dissolution of the USSR and the Warsaw Pact, some archival research has been possible in Poland and historians are working to document the losses. We provide here a link to an article by Navojka Cie?li?ska-Lobkowicz recently published in the journal of the Institute of Art and Law, Art Antiquity and Law; it provides a current overview and documents many sources for anyone who wishes to go further.

Hitler concluded a mutual non-aggression pact with the USSR less than two weeks before Germany invaded Poland. Secret protocols in the pact divided western Poland and its eastern provinces, the Baltic States, Finland and Romania into German and Soviet “spheres of influence.” The pact permitted Soviet aggression in the Baltic States and eastern Poland, while Germany was given free rein in western Poland. Germany invaded on September 1, 1939, and the Red Army on September 17. The pact remained in effect until Germany invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941.

With the German invasion, the Nazis’ determination to exterminate Jews (a population estimated at 3.5 million, or 10% of the people in Poland) was accompanied by their plan to enslave the Polish population and destroy Polish culture, while seizing anything “German.” Almost immediately, Germany began its organized appropriations of Jewish movable property and real estate, held privately or communally (i.e. cemeteries and synagogues), the Aryanization of Jewish businesses, and the destruction of the libraries of Jewish educational institutions that were hundreds of years old. Books and sacred texts were burned in huge public fires. This went hand-in-hand with the destruction of Polish architecture of national significance and the seizure of important Polish private and public art collections.

The great majority of Polish Jews lived in poor circumstances, their possessions limited to household items and perhaps Sabbath candlesticks, and other ritual objects for use at home. Many of their Polish neighbors, many also poor, helped themselves to the property of Jews  − after the Jews’ deportation and even in anticipation of it. After the war, survivors who returned to find their homes were individually met with violence and even pogroms.  Dina Babbitt,  an artist who was an Auschwitz inmate, could not recover from the camp museum the watercolors  she had painted to save her life.  Wealthier Jews, who had deposited collections with museums for safekeeping and survived the war, returned to reclaim it, but often ended by “donating” it to the museums.

The Polish government has tried to document and publicize its own losses, recovering a Vasari painting from a museum in Canada. Poland also has tried, so far unsuccessfully,  to recover from Russia art looted by the USSR.  However, when claimants from abroad arrive to make a case for restitution of their property, Polish officials have thrown up roadblocks.

Landscape Around Ornans

Gustave Courbet, Landscape Around Ornans
Painting recovered by the Commission for Art Recovery and Clemens Toussaint in Poland (May, 2012).Recovered

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