January 26, 2020
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Dark Chapters From The Past

France resists claims that it has usurped property and art objects looted from Jews during World War II

Dark Chapters From The Past

EUROPE has been undergoing dramatic self analysis for the last several months, regarding the extent of its collaboration with Hitler's Nazi Germany during World War II. A wave of allegations concerning the conduct of occupied France and 'neutral' Switzerland and Sweden has forced Europeans to come to terms with their collaborationist past.

In France, a secret government report leaked to the newspaper Le Monde alleges that nearly 2,000 works of art plundered from Jewish collectors by the Nazis now hang at the Louvre and other French museums. The City of Paris has also been accused of owning apartments which were seized from Jewish families by the occupying Nazis and never returned.

In Switzerland, Jewish groups allege that the Swiss government held gold seized by the Nazis in Swiss banks and failed to account for missing assets of holocaust victims. There have also been reports that Swiss government officials destroyed documents to hide the truth. In addition, Switzerland's ambassador to Washington was forced to resign after arguing in a message back to his government that "Switzerland should declare war on Jewish groups".

In Sweden, reports are surfacing that the esteemed Wallenburg family credited with saving many thousands of Jewish lives was allegedly also making vast sums of money at the time by doing business with the Nazis. "I'm afraid we will see many things that are not comfortable," said a representative of one of Sweden's Jewish groups.

During the German occupation of France from 1940 to 1945, tens of thousands of valuable works of art were looted from Jewish collectors by the Nazis. The prominent French Jewish Rothschild family alone reportedly lost 3,978 art pieces to the Nazis. Most art work stolen was returned after the war, but the confidential government report leaked to Le Monde states that I,995 paintings and sculptures stolen from

French Jewish families were never returned. Instead, they now hang in France's famous museums, such as the Louvre and the Musee D'Orsay in Paris. Among the stolen pieces are paintings and drawings by Courbet, Monet, Rodin, Picasso, Renoir and Cezanne. According to the report, one of the most famous paintings in this collection of stolen works, is a self-portrait by Cezanne which hangs in the Musee D'Orsay. Other confiscated works include a bust of courtesan Madame de Pompadour now at the Elysee Palace, home of President Jacques Chirac and a Rodin sculpture at the Matignon, the residence of Prime Minister Alain Juppe.

Francoise Cachin, the director of national museums in France has strongly disputed the Le Monde report, maintaining that it is preliminary and the information incomplete. In response, Hector Feliciano, the author of a book called The Lost Museum which parallels much of the information in the leaked government report describes his frustration in trying to elicit a response from France's museums. "I was often blocked when I tried to find the names of the curators or the lists of works of questionable provenance," says Feliciano. When Feliciano asked museum officials whether an inventory of stolen items was completed, he was told there was no inventory. "After a while, you develop a suspicion they don't want to find the owners, and they want to keep the works," Feliciano told the Washington Post.

Apartments currently owned by the City of Paris were among those seized by the Nazis from Jewish families during the war according to Private Domain, a recent book by Brigitte Vital-Durand, reporter for the Left-inclined newspaper, Liberation. Over

75,000 French Jews were deported by the Nazis to concentration camps in Germany and Poland during the war. Of these only 2,900 survived. Many of the apartments in which they lived, in the heavily Jewish quarter of Le Marais, for example, were initially taken by the Nazis. After the war these fell into the possession of the French government. While some apartments were returned to French Jewish families, the State made little effort to return the property if there were no immediate heirs. Durand claimed that 100 of the 318 buildings that the city owns may have belonged to Jewish families.

Durand's book and the subsequent reports caused an outcry in the French Jew-ish community, who pressed the issue of State profit from the victimisation of its Jewish citizens. Angered by the allegations, the Mayor of Paris, Jean Tiberi, initially criticised those who wanted to "demonise the City of Paris for commercial and political ends". However, just as quickly Tiberi yielded to public pressure, suspending the sale of city-owned property until its provenance could be determined, saying that it would be "immoral for the City of Paris to sell a building it had obtained this way".

Anxious to appear conscientious in resolving these conflicts and in order to pre-empt the kind of political problems that have engulfed Switzerland, French Prime Minister Juppe recently announced the formation of a committee to identify all property stolen from Jewish families during the war. Juppe said the formation of the commission was "more than a moral step, this is a national duty".

THE subject of lost property is part of a larger canvas that has not only revived ethical questions about Europe's conduct during the war but also challenged their national mythologies.

Switzerland is credited with maintaining a neutrality during the war that allowed safe passage to thousands of Jews. Its neutrality conjures up images of the free Alps and a country from which the Allied forces launched covert operations against the Germans. Today, much of this has been called into question by claims that Swiss neutrality actually enhanced lucrative business dealings with the Nazis. The Swiss are accused of buying gold from the Nazis and hiding the true extent of their financial collaboration. They are also accused of refusing to acknowledge the claims of Holocaust victims and their heirs to accounts from World War II and before. Ambassador Jagmetti, the Swiss envoy to Washington, called these accusations, "a war that Switzerland must wage and win".

 Similarly, the Swedes are struggling with their own allegations of a less than heroic past. The aspect of Sweden's wartime history that is best known is Swedish neutrality. Sweden assisted in the rescue of Jews through the great Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenburg whose bravery saved thousands of Jewish lives. But apparently, this neutrality also provided opportunity for the Wallenberg family and the Swedish government to make great sums of money from doing business with the Nazis. For example, it was the Wallenburg family who sold ball bearings to the Nazis and the Swedish government which allowed German troops to travel through Sweden on military operations. This aspect of Sweden's history has been little known and no one is very keen to deal with it. As in the case of Switzerland and France, the Swedish government too has appointed a commission to look into its wartime past.

The reaction of Jewish groups to these revelations can be summed up as "moral not monetary". While there may be little possibility of ever retrieving or even accounting for all the lost monies during the war, Jewish groups have pressed for further investigations as a necessary and even healing process—part of making peace with the past. For those who are uncovering dark chapters in their history, there is reluctance at the prospect of facing hard truths. But there is also the optimism of a post-war generation, which is able to ask these bold questions. As Nisell, head of the Jewish Community of Stockholm said: "It's a matter of cleaning up your own history, I have no respect as a Swede, as a Jew, until we do".

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