As The Monuments Men played in movie theaters and a huge cache of looted artwork materialized in Munich, Northeastern’s Holocaust Awareness Week focused on the timely topic of art and restitution. The annual week of commemorative events included a panel discussion, a lecture by an artist who is also a survivor, faculty and student presentations, and a film screening.
A lively panel of top experts debated the degree to which governments, museums, auction houses and private collectors are willing to acknowledge the questionable origins of much of the art on the world art market. The panel’s discussion, “Masterpieces and Moral Justice: Who Is Heir to Plundered Art?” took place on Tuesday evening, March 18, as the 22nd Annual Robert Salomon Morton Lecture. The panelists highlighted the complexity of the topic, noting that families’ ability to reclaim art stolen or sold under duress during the Nazi era varies greatly depending upon the legal regime in the countries where the works are discovered and the willingness of institutions to investigate the works’ provenance.
Wesley Fisher, director of research for the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, argued that the heirs’ prospects of being compensated for Nazi looted art have grown dimmer since 2006. A series of American court decisions has discouraged some heirs from making legal claims and encouraged some institutions to fight harder to retain their work, Fisher said.
Victoria Reed, the Museum of Fine Arts’ curator of provenance, however, argued that the situation had in fact improved in the last decade. She noted that many museums, including the MFA, have created staff positions, such as hers, to investigate the provenance of works the museums hold or seeks to acquire. Based on such investigations, she said, American museums have returned or compensated heirs for looted works.
Marc Masurovsky, co-founder and director of research for the Holocaust Art Restitution Project, agreed that more museums have created provenance positions, yet he maintained that too many institutions and private collectors continue to fight restitution efforts. According to him, many holders of valuable art refuse to do the work necessary to determine its origins and rely upon questionable claims – for example, that the Jewish owners willingly sold the works — to hold onto their treasures.
Douglas Davidson, U.S. State Department Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues, said progress is being made to make restitution. He noted that it is a slow process involving negotiations with foreign governments, each of which has a different legal regime for handling stolen artwork.
Acclaimed international artist Samuel Bak provided a more personal take on the theme of remembrance during his lecture, “An Artist’s Self-Portrait in Words,” on Wednesday afternoon, March 19. Bak, who was born in 1933 in Vilna, had his first art exhibition when he was 9 years old and imprisoned in the Vilna Ghetto. Bak and his mother survived, while his father and four grandparents did not. During his powerful talk to a packed audience of students, faculty, and staff, Bak showed slides of his vibrant paintings, which have been exhibited in museums, galleries and universities throughout Europe, Israel, and the United States, and explored the complex relationship between his art and his experiences during and after the Holocaust.
Northeastern’s official commemoration ceremony took place on Tuesday morning, March 18, and featured faculty and student presentations. Natalie Bormann, a faculty member, and Veronica Czastkiewicz, a doctoral candidate, both in the Department of Political Science, described the study abroad trip they led last summer, taking Northeastern students to Poland and Germany on one of Northeastern’s signature “Dialogue of Civilizations” programs. Titled “Postcards from Auschwitz? The Ethics of Visiting Sites of Trauma,” their talk explored the difficult questions that arise from engaging in Holocaust tourism. Following their talk, Hinda Tzivia Eisen, a graduate student at Hebrew College and this year’s Gideon Klein Scholar, presented her research on the cabaret in the Westerbork transit camp, where Jewish inmates awaited deportation to Auschwitz and other camps. Her talk, “‘Making Light’ in Darkness: The Westerbork Cabaret,” described the incredible resilience of the musicians and comedians who managed to perform in this most unusual venue. For more information, please visit the website Eisen created as part of her research: http://westerborkcabaret.wordpress.com/.
The week’s events concluded with a showing of the film, “The Rape of Europa,” on Thursday evening, March 20. The documentary depicts the efforts of heroic young art historians and curators to save the millions of pieces of art and other treasures the Nazis stole during their 12-year reign of terror. School of Journalism Professor James Ross led a discussion that followed the film.
The Holocaust Awareness Committee at Northeastern University publicly remembers the Holocaust each year, not only as historical fact and a memorial to its millions of victims, but also as a warning that the horrors of the past must never be repeated. The programs presented bear witness to the Holocaust’s events and explore issues arising out of the war of extermination against Jews and other groups targeted by the Nazis.
Read the rest of the Haverim Spring 2014 Newsletter here.