15 October 2017

So I Have Been Thinking…

[Note: The following text is a reaction/thought piece to a recent query. Since this blog page is about thinking, these are things to think about. The raising of questions can be as important as having absolute answers.]

by Ori Z. Soltes

A recent question prompts me to think: When Dina Gottliebova-Babbitt found herself in Auschwitz as a 17-year old, she probably did not expect her or her mother to survive (her father and fiance did not). But fortunately not only did she have significant talent as an artist but in an odd turn of fate, Josef Mengele, the notorious primary physician-in-residence at the camp, noted for his horrific experiments on his limitless supply of patients, had an interest in her art. Not because he was an art devotee, mind you—although many of the Nazi brass were, infamously enjoying Beethoven by night while beating prisoners to death by day, or ingathering Rembrandts and declaiming Schiller’s poetry in between consigning victims to the gas chambers. No, Mengele’s interest was more practical: he felt that the black and white photographic possibilities available to him could not capture the emotion sliding across the faces of his patients, to say nothing of their skin tones, and he hoped that Dina’s portraits of these victims (particularly Roma victims) would serve that purpose. Apparently they did—well enough, in any case, for her to use her skill as a bargaining chip not only for her own survival but that of her mother.

By now Dina Gottliebova’s story is known to some: that she came to the United States, ending up in California where she also married a fellow artist, Art Babbitt, and both of them had successful careers as cartoonists. It was only many decades after the war, when the issue not only of the Holocaust but of Nazi-plundered art surfaced in a world that had been in a deep slumber regarding such issues, that Gottliebova Babbitt began to wonder if those portraits had survived. It turns out that seven of them had. She sustained a long legal fight with the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum authorities regarding ownership of the works—at one point the director of the museum opined that the real owner was Mengele, since he commissioned and, one might say, paid for them. That Director was fired shortly thereafter, but in the end little satisfaction for Gottliebova Babbitt was achieved by the time of her death from cancer in 2009.

The Museum refused restitution, although they required her authorizing signature every time one of these images was used. They also offered her financial compensation, which she refused, but instead asked that the money the museum paid for the right to exhibit the works be donated to organizations that assist the Roma. To me the issue has always seemed almost uniquely soluble among the myriad issues that form part of the ongoing saga of Nazi-plundered art and its restitution or non-restitution. Since there are multiple works in this case—seven, to repeat—it seems to me that they could be shared between the artist and the museum, with perfect copies of those in the hands of the one while the originals are in the hands of the other (the technology of this is a no-brainer in this day and age)—cycling them every, say, three or five years, so that both sides are always in possession of three (or four) and over a complete cycle each side has had possession of all of them.

I propose this, since the most substantial ground upon which the Museum stands in refusing restitution is that they require the images as part of the exhibition-cum-educational program in which they are always engaged. So in fact they would always have some, just not all of them in their possession. (And do they exhibit all seven at once anyway? No paper conservator would advise that). Were there only one of these paintings I admit that the solution would be more difficult—although one could even propose a similar back-and-forth between original and copy over a prescribed period of time with a single work at issue. In any case, the question of the artist’s rights as opposed to an educational institution’s rights remains problematic—and it does not become simpler once the artist is gone and the question moves on toward the artist’s survivors. And then the issue of how many survivors and how many works of art muddies things further. I don’t claim to have a one-size-fits-all answer to the question—appropriately enough, since time is continuing to demonstrate that the number of Holocaust “stories”—whether regarding art of other matters—is endless.

But the question pushes my thoughts in two further, somewhat related directions. One is this: Recently a colleague from Iraq—who manages to continue her work, with little pay under unimaginably difficult conditions, of trying to document and protect all of the antiquities that are at risk in that country the tearing to shreds of which was facilitated by our own country—asked one of my American colleagues: “why don’t you return our material?” Having asserted that “you” should not include him, but the American government, he also clarified what she meant by “our material.” As some may know, our troops were empowered to remove, among other things, many objects relevant to the long-gone Jewish community from Baghdad. These are mostly manuscript-type material, documents, mostly only one or two centuries old, although the Jewish community in Iraq traces itself back to the Judaean exile following the Babylonian destruction of the First Jerusalem Temple in 586 BCE.

I myself got to see this material. From the description leading to what I saw in our National Archives I expected thousand-year-old Torah scrolls, at least, and was sort of disappointed, frankly, that the collection was so much tamer than I had hoped. On the other hand, the work being done by the archives’ conservationists was extraordinary—spectacular, really—and there is something enormously intriguing even about report cards from schools of a few generations ago, with their names, grades, comments and photos of the students; it brings to life a community that has since vanished in a unique manner.

So what was my Iraqi colleague’s beef? That these documents are part of state-owned material, kept and carefully preserved until the Americans swept in and carried them off. The American claim—including certain important members of the American Jewish community—is that this material records a community that, mostly gone, is and will further be forgotten if we don’t preserve its memory by adequately conserving, protecting and presumably at some point displaying the documents (here’s a question: when? where?). The implication is, of course, that none of these activities was happening or can happen in Iraq.

My colleague disagrees: the documents were being cared for by the state, by dedicated state employees like her, because they recognize the importance of Jewish communities in the history of Iraq, and how important it is to preserve that part of their history—and not just that part represented by substantial ancient monuments. So we find ourselves in the crossfire of a question parallel (not identical, for various reasons) to that raised by Gottliebova Babbitt’s paintings and the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum. Who owns this odd collection of “Judaica” since there is no longer a Jewish community in Iraq? That question cannot be disentangled from the question of who is best equipped to preserve and display these items.

We have, of course, loaded the dice by tearing apart that country, but the amazing thing is that there continue to be people like this colleague who continue to do their preservationist jobs. So if we refuse to return the material to the Iraqis, are we merely being the British Museum redux vis-à-vis the Parthenon Marbles: asserting with the superiority of a colonial power that we can take care of their heritage better than the natives can? Could we return some of it and mount a serious exhibit on the Jewish community of part of it—or an exhibit of all of it that travels for a few years before the whole thing goes back to a Baghdad where we even help assure that adequate facilities are there to receive it? I think once more of a parallel: we Americans exhibited art from Germany after the war, and when some members of the government and art community wanted us to keep it, other, wiser voices prevailed, arguing that if we did that, we would be no better than the German art-plunderers—or, as the Cold War took shape, the Soviet Red Army Trophy Squad thieves.

We always come back to the first question: what are we-as humans, as Americans, as whatever subsets of either of those categories we want to throw into the rhetorical hopper? And that leads me to a second offshoot of the Gottliebova-Babbitt question that is also very current, albeit having nothing to do with either the Holocaust or art plunder, but having everything to do with the role of art as an educational instrument—which was the main basis for the Museum’s argument against the artist’s claim for restitution. I recently led a study tour to Russia, and my group and I visited a number of smaller towns not far from Moscow—part of what is known as the “Golden Ring” for their importance with regard to churches, cathedrals, monasteries and kremlins—including Suzdal, Vladimir, Yaroslavl and a few others. I was struck in these places how—in spite of the sense one received in the early 1990s of a tearing down of public monuments; statues of Marx, Lenin, and Stalin in particular; in a repudiation of nearly 75 years of Soviet history and oppression—there remained in very town, in the main square, some statue of Lenin, standing, declaiming, striding.

It was clear—and I discussed this with local guides and others—that a decision was made to keep these images intact, since they are part of the history of Russia, and not to tear them all down as symbols of an oppressive Soviet regime that ruled Russia for a period of time. It is essential that people remain aware of their history—the bad parts so that they are not repeated, the good parts so that they may be emulated. This is an idea particularly connected to a dictum associated with the philosopher Santayana, and the Russians seem in this case to get the idea.

Should we not get it, as well? I could not be more disgusted by the American history of slavery or the recent extraordinary upsurging reminder that racism, antisemitism and a host of other forms of bigotry still prevail in our country. But I strongly believe that tearing down public statues of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson is not only not the answer, it runs contrary to the educational potential of art, especially public art. Do we, by the way, also tear down statues of other slave owners, like Washington and Jefferson? Or do we use all of these images as a stepping-off point to remind and educate ourselves to what we were when not at our best and to what we still need to do to make ourselves better—as individuals, as communities, and as a country?

Was Lee’s sin that he owned slaves or that he saw Virginia first and the Federal Union second—or both? The point is: it doesn’t matter. What matters is that we need to ask about these things, try to understand them and use them to better our world. Instead of tearing down or covering up these statues, or carting them off to museums, why not use them as the basis for an annual, dynamic program (have schoolkids take part in a kind of American Passion Play!) in which the story of what was wrong—and also what was right—about these people will encourage us to work actively to improve our communities.