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'Objects and Emotions: Loss and Acquisition of Jewish Property'

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Objects and Emotions: Loss and Acquisition of Jewish Property


German Historical Institute London Bulletin Vol 34 (2012), No. 1


May 2012


In this issue of the Bulletin of the German Historical Institute London, Andreas Gestrich and Daniel Wildmann provide an introduction to the essays which arise from papers given at a workshop co-organised by the German Historical Institute London and the Leo Baeck Institute on 26-27 July 2010.

The authors recount that the workshop developed from the idea of bringing together the history of emotions, which over the past decade has established itself as a rapidly developing field of research as well as one of the theoretically most challenging and controversial approaches to history and one which has tended to ignore a related debate which has also recently given rise to intense academic discussion, namely, the new history of objects and material culture (Objektkultur). This field, closely linked to museum studies and the history of memory and memorialisation, explores the multi-layered relations between individuals and objects, including the emotional qualities some objects can acquire for people.

The idea of bringing these two debates together grew out of an anecdote recounted by Saul Friedländer at a workshop held at the Leo Baeck Institute in 2007 to mark the publication of the final volume of his trilogy on Nazi Germany and the Jews (Saul Friedländer, Nazi Germany and the Jews, iii. The Years of Extermination: A Plea for an Integrated History of the Holocaust. New York, 2007). Friedländer mentioned a family which had acquired bedding from the possessions of deported Jews. They were unable to use this bedding, however, and kept it locked away in a wardrobe. Now in the second generation, they had been able neither to use it, nor give it away, nor destroy it. This bedding was at the centre of intense emotions which spanned and linked generations in the feeling of guilt, perhaps also of fear and sadness.

The workshop was exploratory in character and not intended as the basis for a volume of collected essays. There were some papers, however, which the authors thought could inspire further discussion. These are published in the organizers’ respective journals, the Leo Baeck Institute Yearbook and the German Historical Institute London Bulletin.

The first of the three papers assembled here deals with issues of emotions in legal restitution processes of Jewish possessions; the second looks at the life of such objects in museums; and the third is a personal account by a professional historian whose family was a victim of Nazi persecution and Aryanisation policy.

In his article ‘Emblems and Heirlooms. Restitution, Reparation,and the Subjective Value of Chattels: A Legal Perspective’ Norman Palmer analyses the importance the law accords ‘the unique subjective value of individual objects to specific claimants’. He approaches this topic first from a general perspective by looking at litigation surrounding personal chattels and then turns to Holocaust-related objects. In particular, Palmer draws on cases dealt with by the British Government’s Spoliation Advisory Panel, which has a certain bias towards more valuable objects, especially looted art. Taking these cases and recommendations as a starting point, he is able to demonstrate the courts’ increasing recognition of the emotional importance
of objects to their former owners and their descendants.

In the second article, ‘Diasporic Home or Homelessness: The Museum and the Circle of Lost and Found’, Hanno Loewy reflects on the ‘context of material memory, the trajectory of meanings, emotions, and affections attached to objects of everyday life’. He elaborates on a specific set of ambiguities which objects attain when they enter the space of the museum, namely, that between the sacred and the profane (museums take objects originally created for the purpose of religious cult and practice and make them profane); that between past and present (in objects we can perceive the physical presence of the past); and that between biography and history, when objects are taken out of the personal contexts in which they were created and used, and serve as examples for wider historical interpretations. Loewy exemplifies these ambiguities by tracing the history of various objects in the context of this analytical framework.

The third article, by Atina Grossmann, Family Files: Emotions and Stories of (Non-)Restitution, presents a historian’s reflections on her and her family’s personal experiences with persecution, terror, and loss of life, chances, careers, and property, as well as their struggle for compensation and restitution. The article is an emotional one. This portrayal of the experience of bourgeois Berlin Jews highlights how hurt and frustrated those who narrowly escaped the Nazi extermination camps were by Ger many’s post-war bureaucracy defending the Aryanisers and their ‘possessions’, often by employing hair-splitting legalistic procedures with overtly anti-Semitic tendencies. It is therefore not only the im mediate emotional value of the object itself, but also encounters in law suits, personal conversations, and correspondences that entangle victims, perpetrators, and their descendants in a shared, albeit antagonistic, relationship
with such contested objects.

Finally, Chloe Paver in Objects and Emotions Exhibited: Two Catalogues on Raub und Restitution, reviews Inka Bertz and Michael Dorrmann (eds.), Raub und Restitution: Kulturgut aus jüdischem Besitz von 1933 bis heute (Göttingen, 2008); and Alexandra Reininghaus (ed.), Recollecting: Raub und Restitution (Vienna, 2009). These catalogues document exhibitions which investigated the systematic dispossession of German and Austrian Jews under National Socialism and which focused on the theft or forced sale of art objects and other personal possessions such as books and furniture, that is, on the Kulturgut which has been the subject of the latest wave of restitution cases (as distinct from the properties, businesses, life savings, pensions, and insurance policies that were likewise stolen but whose restitution was generally dealt with, if at all, before 1989). Both exhibitions were concerned not simply with the fact of the theft but with the fate of the objects and their owners, or their owners’ surviving descendants, after 1945. The exhibition Raub und Restitution was organized jointly by the Jüdisches Museum Berlin and the Jüdisches Museum der Stadt Frankfurt am Main, and was shown at these two museums in 2008 and 2009 respectively. Recollecting was mounted by MAK, Austria’s museum of the applied arts, in the winter of 2008–9.

To read the Bulletin, click here. To read the programme of the workshop, click here. The website of the Bulletin can be found here.


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