08 July 2011

The Appropriate Place For All That Stuff

by Ori Z. Soltes

It is certainly true of much of the material culture of European Jewry that its pre-Holocaust dwelling places may no longer be appropriate to it. After all, with the profound decimation of that population, hundreds and hundreds of communities that once included small or large Jewish populations have been completely Judenrein for the past eight decades. There is, at first glance, then, little logic to returning, say, Judaica that derived from the Danzig Jewish community to Danzig (aka Gdańsk) when there is no Jewish community to make use of it or to bask in its artistic glow.

Moreover there are those who argue that the point of possessing objects whose former owners—individuals or communities—did not survive is to display them in order to assure that such individuals and communities not be forgotten but be remembered through the survival of their objects; or better still, where Judaica in particular is concerned, to use them, thus symbolizing with actions and not merely written or spoken words the continuity of Jewish life—as a kind of transcendence of the mortality to which such individuals or communities were too quickly subject. Thus every vibrant Jewish American community in whose synagogue there rests a Torah scroll rescued from the Holocaust becomes a link in a chain of continuity.

Where the state of Israel is concerned, the polity itself was founded and formed as the ultimate exemplum of Jewish continuity: marked by a return to the Land after an enforced absence of nineteen centuries, rebuilding it as that process rebuilt (and continues to re build) countless Jewish lives truncated by events ranging from the destruction effected by the Holocaust to the varied modes of oppression practiced by regimes in places like Libya, or Ethiopia, or the former Soviet Union.

As in so many areas of Israeli exceptionalism within the contemporary Jewish world, there are those who would argue that works of Jewish art and Judaica without an unequivocal tie to a current individual or community—and even in some cases, where the tie is present—should reside in Israel, as part of its role as consummate bearer of the Jewish torch. That argument would regard Israel as the most appropriate place for any Pissarro that comes to light, or for paintings discovered behind a layer of pink wall-paint in a pantry in Ukrainian (formerly Polish) Drogobych by Bruno Schultz, a Holocaust victim best known for his writings.

Several issues intersect each other in this discussion, of course. As a practical matter, a greater complication attends ceremonial objects, as opposed to signed paintings or drawings and sculptures, with respect to restituting them to their original owners or their heirs or the communities from which they exited under such unhappy circumstances. For so many such objects resemble each other and, unsigned and unmarked, would with difficulty be recognizable as coming from particular places, unless someone from those places who survived and was intimate enough with them came forth to make the identification.

Most often those unhappy circumstances were brutal and haphazard. Occasionally, a community like that of Danzig saw the writing on the world and sent its ritual objects forth—a kind of ceremonial objects Kindertransport process—hoping to reclaim them when the horror had ended. But by then there was no community to do the reclamation and the objects were happily ensconced in primarily British and American collections—in museums as much as or more than synagogues. Poorly detailed acquisition records in these collections and limited identification marks would make it problematic for such objects ever to find their way back to the home which is no longer a home.

But—well when I used to direct the B’nai B’rith Klutznick Museum over a decade ago, I became acutely conscious of the conundrum I would face were someone to walk in one day and say—referring to a splendid pair of Shabbat candlesticks from Danzig dating, perhaps, from 1685 and inscribed with the name of the family that commissioned them—“that’s my family; we were from the destroyed Danzig Jewish community. I’d like to have them back within my, family…” How could I verify that s/he was who s/he claimed to be?

How would my responsibility, as someone who believes in restitution of Nazi-plundered art to those from whose families it was taken, play out a against my responsibility as the keeper of a kind of public trust—which public trust, as I interpret it, is to tell the story, again and again, of those candlesticks in terms of their style, the importance of the Hebrew inscription in confirming that they were Shabbat candlesticks and not merely mantel piece candlesticks, the story of the Danzig community and its fate?

What of more obscure ceremonial objects on the one hand, or more clearly identifiable works of art—signed drawings and paintings, say—on the other. Had I a Pissarro in my collections and the provenance path led to a given claimant, there is little doubt in my mind that my primary sense of obligation would be to return it, and allow that claimant to determine its private or public future.

My museum, if it were to effectively fulfill its obligation to teach about Jewish history and culture, Jewish legal and moral thought, could hardly claim to live up to that responsibility if it denied the right of an individual or family to regain a work that had once belonged to him/her or their family—even if that act might remove an important teaching instrument from the public eye.

This is a can of worms, isn’t it? Should the Schultz paintings have come to Israel, rather than remaining in the place where he was murdered? Would they serve a better educative purpose where more people would see them, in Jerusalem than in Ukraine? Would they serve a better educative purpose in Ukraine, where the Jewish vibrancy that once prevailed there died with individuals like Schultz, than in Israel, where Yad VaShem continues to astonish the museum world with innovative ideas and every year is marked by a Yom HaShoah commemoration?

I am not certain of the answers, but I am certain that we must continue to force institutions and even governments to continue to ask these questions and to be willing to consider answers that may not necessarily leave them in possession of works that have somehow arrived at their doors, as if the diaspora of these objects has inherently ended and as if, no questions asked, they have found their appropriate place as part of the process of Jewish preservation and continuity far from their original homes.