Legacies of war: The World Jewish Congress struggles to bring large-scale Nazi theft to light


Contributing Writer

by Alexa J. Williams '14 Arts Editor

by Alexa J. Williams ’14
Arts Editor

This January, the World Jewish Congress attempted to call attention to one of the many unhealed scars left by World War II: the inconceivable amount of stolen wealth that has yet to be returned to the Jewish community.

The World Jewish Congress urged the German government to prioritize finding for returning the vast collection of stolen artwork currently housed in homes and museums. The statement was probably provoked in part by the discovery of approximately 1,500 works of stolen art in the apartment of German citizen Cornelius Gurlitt. Though the hoard was discovered in 2011, the discovery was only made public in November.

At the beginning of World War II, with the German economy completing faltering, the Nazis took to looting art, jewels and other precious items from the territories they invaded, raiding both private collectors, often Jewish, and museums.

The dollar value of the stolen wealth was enormous—easily amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars—and nearly 70 years after the war, much of it has yet to be returned.

An article in LIFE Magazine’s October 2013 issue on “The Most Notorious Crimes in World History” estimated that there are still hundreds of thousands of unreturned works of art—the last prisoners of World War II.

Undoubtedly, the German government has a responsibility to correct the large-scale theft. Although the media spotlight has fixated on this issue in recent months, it’s still  dangerously easy for the international community to forget about the lost.

As with gun control legislation in the United States, any progress on such issues occurs in small installments, provoked by specific incidents, and loses momentum quickly once public attention shifts. The result in the case of the stolen art is a lack of steady pressure on the German government to increase its efforts to find the lost caches of stolen artwork.

Of course, it is infinitely harder for the German government to return stolen works of art than to make reparations in cash—and finding the stashes of artwork is only one complication. Current German laws can’t force museums or individuals to hand over looted artwork.

According to a recent article in “The Economist,” Gurlitt has not returned any of the artwork that was discovered in his apartment in 2011. Even after stashes are uncovered, deciding to whom the art should be returned is a complex problem.

In order to make any real headway on the issue, the World Jewish Congress has called for changes in German legislation, as well as the establishment of an international commission to help track down the heirs of the art’s rightful owners. German authorities have responded positively to the pressure, announcing intentions to double state funding for the search for stolen artwork. Hopefully, the international public will maintain its focus on the issue, and will continue to pressure Germany to make further progress on what is undoubtedly an important issue.

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