Group of historians seeks to return Nazi-confiscated works to owners

The Prague Post 7 December 2005
Kristina Alda

Sixty years after the end of World War II, thousands of Nazi-confiscated artifacts remain unclaimed and unidentified in state and private museums throughout the country.

But a group of historians in Prague 6 is trying to change that.

Here in a dark, decrepit building is an office called the Documentation Center of Property Transfers of Cultural Assets of WW II Victims. Fifteen people spend their days doing laborious research, scouring computerized archives and paper records in an effort to track down artwork that was confiscated during World War II from victims of the Holocaust.

"What the center is doing is basically detective work," says Tomá Kraus, secretary of the Council of the Federation of Jewish Communities (FZO), an organization that works closely with the group.

"Tracking down all these artifacts - it's like solving an intricate mystery. It takes a lot of time and patience," he says.

The center, which is affiliated with the Czech Academy of Sciences, has tracked down scores of artifacts. They identified about 200 objects – most of them porcelain - at the Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague this year alone.

Since its founding four years ago, workers have placed about 7,000 objects in an Internet database, which families of Holocaust victims can use to look for stolen family property. In most cases, the Nazis seized this property from families sent to concentration camps.

But so far people have claimed only about 700 of those listed objects. The problem, say those involved in the project, is the families are scattered all over the world and many aren't aware of the database.

The clock is ticking.

Helena Krejèová, the petite middle-aged woman who leads the center, is the driving force behind efforts to track down stolen artifacts.

A special committee made up of government officials and the FZO established the center in 2001 largely to raise awareness of the issue.

Parliament passed a law in 2000 aimed at facilitating the restitution of objects confiscated during the war. Under the law, museums are supposed to compile lists of their collections indicating which objects might have originally been confiscated.

How vigorous museums are in compiling the lists is largely left to their discretion. Under the same law, families of victims have until the end of 2006 to make their claim.

But that means the center has a little more than year to finish its work, which is not enough time, Krejèová says. And there is the added threat that the center's funding from the Culture Ministry might run out before then.

"Only now, based on complicated research, can we begin to get results," she says. "If we don't get [financial] support for another five years, then our efforts will have been a waste of resources."

Kraus says his organization will work to help extend or abolish the 2006 deadline: The center's work cannot be rushed, he says.

A global drive

Helena Königsmarková, director of the Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague, says some confiscated objects were returned to families soon after the war, and those efforts continued even after the communists took over in 1948.

But eventually, Königsmarková says, the traces leading back to the families of Holocaust victims became more and more obscure.

And while some may be quick to blame the communist regime, the Czech Republic is by no means an exception when it comes to how slow the process of returning confiscated art to World War II victims' families is.

Countries around the world have begun working more intensely to return confiscated artifacts since 1998, following an international conference in Washington, D.C., on Nazi-looted assets of Holocaust victims, says Kraus. The goal, as stated at the conference, was to track down all the objects by 2000. Five years later, many families are still waiting.

Unclaimed items

Although museums and galleries don't have a legal obligation to actively seek out the owners of artworks that have been identified as property of Holocaust victims, Kraus says most such institutions have been cooperative.

Still, many confiscated artifacts will remain unclaimed. In such cases, Königsmarková says, the Museum of Decorative Arts will label these objects with the family names of the original owners, identifying them as the belongings of victims of the Holocaust.

"We would even like to organize an exhibition of these objects, maybe even a permanent one," she says.

The Jewish Museum in Prague, which is not state-owned, has many confiscated objects - many of them valuable paintings by artists such as Paul Signac and Maxim Kopf - according to museum director Leo Pavlát.

The museum, he says, has been working closely with the documentation center in past years to help Holocaust victims' families reclaim their property.
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