by Marc Masurovsky
On March 3, 2016, the New York Times published an article signed by correspondent Alison Smale which confirmed that the Gurlitt Task Force’s work had been transferred to the “Center for Lost Art” in Magdeburg, Germany, as part of a general overhaul of the German government’s agencies specialized in issues pertaining to looted art. Thanks to Minister Gruetters, this Center has received a badly-needed injection of funds which doubled its previous budget to reach six million euros, renewing her commitment to ensure that research would continue into the provenance of the Gurlitt collection's 1400 objects.
Culture Minister Gruetters has been sharply taken to task by domestic and international critics for the slowness of the research into the possibility that works tainted by anti-Jewish persecution and theft during the Nazi years might be part of the now-infamous Gurlitt collection, “discovered” in 2012 and made public in the fall of 2013. As of now, five paintings are known to have been linked to a victim of Nazi plunder. There are more than 1400 works in the Gurlitt hoard.
Our problem today has to do with a comment that Minister Gruetters made in response to suggestions by Germany’s Jewish community that a member of that community be appointed to the so-called Limbach commission which hears claims for restitution of looted art present in German cultural institutions. The commission’s recommendations are non-binding and, so far, have been mostly hostile to claimants who, in almost every instance, live outside of Germany and are of Jewish descent.
Hence, the Limbach Commission’s objectivity and interest in furthering justice 70 years after the demise of the Third Reich, have been repeatedly called into question. This state of affairs has not prevented Minister Gruetters from pointing out that the presence of a “Jewish figure” at the Limbach Commission would be ill-advised because “that person would be the only voice who would be prejudiced.”
The seating of a member of the Jewish community of Germany on the Limbach Commission would be viewed as injecting bias into the commission’s proceedings. Ms. Gruetters’ comment is provocative for a number of reasons:
1/ a Jewish member of the commission would automatically be prejudiced. In what direction, pray tell? For or against the claimant? As if the quality of being Jewish signified a taint on one’s capacity to be objective and impartial.
2/ the minister’s comment subsumes that Jews favor restitution and have never been known to oppose restitution.
3/ no one has questioned the prejudice or bias of the non-Jewish members of the Limbach Commission. Does the fact that the Limbach commission’s non-Jewish makeup ensure objectivity and impartiality in the proceedings to assess the merit of a claim put forth by a Jewish claimant, whose family once resided in Germany? If anything, ten years of proceedings at the Limbach Commission could make us wonder if, in fact, the commission’s good judgment is tainted, principally, because there is no “outside” voice amongst its members. In short, it behaves as an echo chamber of individuals reluctant to acknowledge the vicissitudes of history when it comes to cultural plunder on its territory, once ruled by the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP).
In passing, the presence (albeit in a minority) of members of the Jewish faith on the Gurlitt Task Force did not appear to have a negative impact on the work of that commission. If anything, those minority voices acted as foils to the “objective” wisdom dispensed by its “non-Jewish” members.
Ms. Gruetters’ tasteless comment reflects a longstanding problem inherent to postwar discussions about the Holocaust, reparations, restitution, and justice. The Jewish voice is still viewed as a voice containing implicit bias in its essence, which denies that voice the capacity to infuse critical thinking in its assessment of the consequences of genocide on individual members of the Jewish community and on the merit of claims for reparations and/or restitution.
Ms. Gruetters should understand that Jews do not speak in one single, unified, public voice on matters pertaining to restitution and reparations. In fact, that discussion is rife with dissenting opinions as one is likely to find among leaders and senior officials of Jewish organizations and Holocaust memorials voices that are indifferent or in fact hostile to restitution, especially in the cultural field. There are notable exceptions, as with the Commission for Art Recovery and the Claims Conference.
It would behoove Ms. Gruetters and other German officials, now and henceforth, to view Jewish individuals as critical thinkers rather than puppets who could not reason because of their appurtenance to their faith. If anything, debate is healthy especially among bureaucrats. It helps shake off the dust and inject fresh blood and new thoughts into an otherwise stilted conversation weighed down by the burdens of law and history, but apparently not sufficiently stirred with sprinkles of ethics and morality.