[Editor's note: This is the first of three articles on the November 15, 2019, one-day colloquium convened by the CIVS in Paris, France]
As is the case with all celebratory anniversary conclaves, the organizers are those who know more about what needs to be feted than the attendees to the erstwhile fiesta. After twenty years of existence, the “Commission pour l’indemnisation des victimes des spoliations (CIVS)” shared their 20-year odyssey through the wreckage of the Second World War exemplified by the staggering material, financial, and emotional losses suffered by the Jews of France during four endless years of persecution at the hands of a pseudo-legal French authority and German occupation forces.
A host of speakers were invited to share their thoughts with an audience of at least 400 participants who mostly hailed from the United States, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and, of course, France. Much to my surprise, about one fourth of the participants were researchers, a pattern that has emerged over the past several years around similar international gatherings in London, Bonn, and Berlin, to name a few. The usual NGOs connected with art restitution matters were also in evidence—the Holocaust Art Restitution Project (HARP), the Commission for Art Recovery (CAR), Mondex, the Claims Conference, the Commission for Looted Art in Europe (CLAE)—as well as perennial personalities operating on the fringes of the art restitution community and constantly fighting for what they perceive is their rightful share of the “business.” An ugly thought.
As seen from the outside in, the proceedings began with a predictable self-congratulatory tone, where speakers highlighted the many accomplishments recorded by the valiant civil servants working tirelessly to restore a symbolic sense of justice to families broken and torn asunder by the horrors imposed upon them by those who despise Jews and covet their property. All of this in a country which has a terrible time facing its recent past in an open manner. Much has been done since 1945 but far more needs to be done still.
It is with that in mind that my cynicism was quickly checked when speaker after speaker articulated self-critical thoughts, most of whom belong to a coterie of—now—dignified, erudite, skilled elderly gentlemen and gentlewomen responsible for creating the CIVS and for shepherding it through the torturous and treacherous waters of accountability for crimes committed against the Jews of France and their possessions.
To be quite frank, I left satisfied that I had witnessed a historical event and been given a fairly reasonable balance sheet of two decades of activity on behalf of Jewish victims. In France, that counts for a lot.
The proceedings took place not too far from UNESCO in a building which houses administrative offices subordinate to the Prime Minister’s cabinet. It was miserably cold and wet outside, which made it easier to allow ourselves to be penned inside an auditorium which, although comfortable, gradually became stuffy and unbearable. But the high concentration of human-generated heat only exacerbated the situation. I am digressing….
To be continued…