The Nazis hid looted treasures in mines, castles and bunkers. After World War II, when the Allies found massive amounts of plundered cultural objects, Judaica, Hebraica and Jewish-owned artworks were among the troves.
Most of the loot was found in the US Occupation Zone. This was fortuitous because the US military was restitution-friendly. It agreed that Jewish organizations - not German authorities - should be responsible for heirless and unclaimed Jewish assets, including cultural property.
It was a good idea. But some of the decisions about Jewish cultural properties have outlived their raison d'etre and must be revisited.
Jewish organizations dealt with post-war heirless and unclaimed Jewish cultural properties primarily by taking them out of Europe on the grounds that there was no viable Jewish life there after the Shoah.
Decades later, that attitude cannot be sustained.
This month, the Association of European Jewish Museums will meet in Amsterdam. One of the items to be considered, at the association's 20th anniversary conference, is how to recover cultural works removed decades earlier by two affiliated Jewish organizations - the Jewish Restitution Successor Organization (JRSO) and Jewish Cultural Reconstruction (JCR).
These organizations had good intentions after the war, but very limited authority - it was granted by US military law, which was valid only in areas under US control. The US military was chafing to get out of the restitution business; it wanted the unclaimed cultural articles used to"benefit the Jewish people," even if it was not clear what that meant; and it wanted the items inventoried and distributed in record time.
The JCR was to act as "trustee" for the Jewish people and to distribute the materials to religious, cultural and educational institutions as it saw fit to perpetuate Jewish art and culture.
Jewish scholars from Palestine-Israel, the US and Europe worked frantically in the late 1940s to meet the military deadlines for wrapping up restitution. Distribution questions were fraught with tension. The Jewish organizations developed formulas in which remnant European communities would be permitted to keep only the minimal number of objects they needed. The bulk of the unclaimed Jewish sacred and ceremonial objects, books and artworks went to the "new centers" of Jewish life. Forty percent was sent to Israel, the Jewish homeland; 40 percent to Jewish institutions in the US, home of the largest Jewish population; and the rest were sent elsewhere, including Britain and South Africa.
"While often resented in Europe, the formula did ensure that the most flourishing areas of Jewish life were sustained by the cultural remnants of the Holocaust," according to Michael J. Kurtz, assistant archivist of the US National Archives and author of "America and the Return of Nazi Contraband: The Recovery of Europe's Cultural Treasures." The objects were important to the Israeli and American Jewish institutions, particularly the Bezalel (later Israel) Museum and the Jewish Museum in New York, which were relatively small and cash-strapped at the time. Even if these objects were not the original core of the collections in Israeli and American institutions, they were deeply important - at least symbolically.
The so-called recipient institutions, however, are no longer small or poor. The museums have valuable permanent collections and mount world-class exhibitions with items borrowed from abroad.
With few exceptions, the JCR objects are no longer significant to them.
Although some remain on permanent display in recipient institutions, many seem like relics, an inferior inheritance; most have been relegated to storerooms, deemed not to be of museum quality or relevant for the museums' current purpose.
Some European Jewish museums are obliged to appeal, often in vain, to Jewish institutions abroad to borrow items that the Nazis looted, that the Allies recovered, and that the JCR subsequently sent abroad.
European museums should not have to go begging to recover objects that once belonged in or to their communities. The problem is how to get them, permanently or on long-term loan.
The status of the objects is disputed because the word "trustee" has endured decades after the JCR, which no longer exists; and despite the dormancy of the JRSO, which exists in name only.
The Israel Museum, for instance, which last spring held an exhibit on "Orphaned Art" from the Holocaust, refers to the objects it received from the Jewish organizations as being on "deposit" or "held in custody." According to this logic, if the JCR-recipient museums do not actually own the objects, they are not at liberty to give them to a European counterpart - even if the recipient museums no longer exhibit the objects but stash them in storage.
The effect is that many European objects have been condemned to a sort of perpetual legal limbo. And it is extremely troubling that, to retain JCR objects, recipient Jewish institutions would invoke a legal rationale that would not be tolerated if used by non-Jewish institutions.
Further, it is not clear that they have this legal leg to stand on.
According to Benjamin B. Ferencz, a former Nuremberg prosecutor who was the founding director of the JRSO, the recipient institutions are not the simply custodians of the material. "They are the owners. We gave it to them," he said. "We didn't lend it to them." With some good will, then, a solution for European museums could easily be at hand, years after the distributions by the JCR/JRSO.
Trustee, custodian - does it matter? JCR works were to be returned to legitimate claimants, if they could be located. The rarity of claimants for JCR objects at the Israel Museum and the lack of JCR exhibitions in the US, indicate claimants rarely come forward in these venues. If European museums commit to restituting JCR art to legitimate claimants, there is no reason not to send works back to Europe, giving them broader exposure in their appropriate context.
As Jewish life - and Jewish tourism - grow in Europe, so grows the burden on these museums to educate visitors about Jewish heritage, history and art. It seems imperative for Israeli and American Jewish institutions to return the artworks and artifacts European museums need to fulfill their mission. For recipient institutions to bury unused JCR objects in their storerooms is to bury a past that European museums could bring into the light.