03 August 2013

Researching heirless property in Israel

by Shir Kochavi

The end of the Second World War arrived at a time when Israel (then, Palestine) had been fighting for independence both in the political field and on its territories. The new State (est. 1948) was perceived and promoted as ‘the land of the Jewish people’, and many Holocaust survivors were arriving to settle from Europe. Israeli representatives urged the Allied countries (the U.S., UK and France) to send the young State monetary support (compensations) and remaining cultural property that belonged to Jewish communities from Europe.

Mordechai Narkiss, the first director of the Bezalel Museum and Gershom Scholem, of the National Library, were two important personalities who went, between 1949-1953, to the Central Collecting Points in the US and in the British Zones of Occupation in Germany to evaluate property and select objects to transfer to institutions in Israel.

Their cooperation with organizations like the JCR (Jewish Cultural Reconstruction) and the JRSO (Jewish Restitution Successor Organization) resulted in thousands of books and manuscripts and pieces of Judaica and works of art being sent to Israel.

In correspondence from that time period, we often find references to different messengers sent from Israel to countries around the world. Many were sent on behalf of Jewish organizations like the WJO (World Zionist Organization), The Jewish Agency and the JDC (Joint Distribution Committee). While Israeli messengers assisted Jewish communities around the world to reestablish themselves in a variety of fields, others went to Europe hoping to find remains from Jewish communities that perished during the Holocaust.

One of such messengers was Miriam Novitch. Born in 1908 in White Russia, she moved to France before the outbreak of the Second World War and was arrested in 1943 as a resistance fighter. She was released from Camp Vittel in 1944 and came to Israel in 1946. She devoted her life to Holocaust documentation and research, and often went back to Europe. Novitch worked with several institutions in Israel, most notably the Ein Harod Museum (est. 1937) and the Ghetto Fighters House (est. 1949), where many of the objects that she had brought during her travels in Europe can be found today.[1]

The whereabouts of objects apportioned among Israeli institutions such as the Jewish Orthodox council and the office for Education remains unclear today, especially when it comes to books and Judaica.

Books and Judaica were often allotted to libraries, synagogues, schools and other institution across the State. The idea was to make these objects (formally belonging to perished Jews) available for use by Jews living in the newly independent State. At the time, there was a general dearth of books, Judaica and many other objects for teaching and learning in Israel.

In 1965 the Israel Museum succeeded the Bezalel Museum and absorbed many of its collections, including works of art and Judaica shipped in the early 1950’s from the Munich and Wiesbaden Central Collecting Points. The objects were catalogued and divided between the relevant departments where they are kept today. In 2007 the Museum uploaded images and information about these objects, a collection known as the “JRSO Collection” [Jewish Restitution Successor Organization] onto the website of the Israel Museum.[2] The following year, the Museum devoted an exhibition to this collection, the first-ever organized in Israel on the theme of “Orphaned Art: Looted Art from the Holocaust in the Israel Museum”.

These are some of the many ways by which European objects found their way into Israel after the Holocaust. Part of our research and documentation work focuses on:
  • understanding the context of an object; culturally, economically, historically etc. 
  • the people who were involved in the creation, evaluation, acquisition or transport of an object 
  • the political and cultural views at the time are taken into account and serve as background for any inquiry. In some cases this information can assist in locating the object, when its whereabouts are unknown. 
Shir Kochavi (M.A.) is a researcher at the Company for Location and Restitution of Holocaust Victims’ Assets in Israel. She has been researching heirless cultural property in Israeli collections and the dispersal of works of art by the JRSO (Jewish Restitution Successor Organization). Shir recently participated in the PRTP-Zagreb where she was introducing the notion of "heirless" cultural property and the postwar work of the JRSO in Allied-occupied Germany and Austria.
[*] Source: http://www.infocenters.co.il/gfh
[1] At the Ghetto Fighters House she established a large collection of testimonies, films, art and other objects which she collected throughout her visits to Europe.
[2] Further information about the JRSO Collection can be found: http://www.imj.org.il/Imagine/irso/