PARIS (Jan. 28)
French Jewish community leaders expressed astonishment at revelations published this week that French national museums failed to seek the rightful owners of nearly 2,000 works of art looted from Jews during World War II. The French daily newspaper Le Monde on Monday published excerpts of a confidential report by France’s public spending watchdog, the Cour des Comptes, indicating that for more than 50 years, officials of state-run museums had made little or no effort to return paintings and sculptures seized from Jews during the Nazi occupation of France.
“It’s shocking,” said Emmanuel Weintraub, vice president of CRIF, the umbrella group of secular French Jewish organizations.
“I’m convinced that in most cases, people preferred not to open a Pandora’s box. They knew the deportees weren’t going to return, so they figured what was left belonged to them.”
Serge Cwajgenbaum, secretary general of the European Jewish Congress, said the museums carried out a “deliberate and political act to hide the origins of these works and not to try to return them to their owners.”
The revelations in Le Monde came just days after Prime Minister Alain Juppe, addressing Jewish leaders, announced that he would name a commission to investigate the extent of seizures of Jewish property by the Nazis and by France’s collaborationist Vichy government.
Calling it a “national duty,” Juppe said the commission could be in place within a week.
Weintraub praised the initiative, but said that “it’s not a question of monetary compensation.”
“It’s a matter of shedding light on dark and particularly unpleasant corners of the Second World War,” he said.
He said the revelations about the works of art were “just the tip of the iceberg,” adding that he hoped that the government probe would also look into unopened archives from the wartime Office of Jewish Affairs.
The archives, he said, would help trace the ownership of other looted Jewish property that included apartments, businesses, jewels and bank accounts.
The decision to form an investigative commission comes amid calls from Jewish groups for several European countries to shed light on their wartime dealings with Nazi Germany.
Switzerland and Sweden, which were neutral during the war, have come under mounting charges that they profited from gold and other assets seized from Jews during the Holocaust.
Last week, in the wake of increasing pressure from Jewish groups and American legislators, the Swiss government announced that it would help establish a fund to begin compensating Holocaust victims and their heirs whose assets were deposited into numbered Swiss bank accounts during the war years.
Similar allegations have also been directed at French institutions.
In September, the Paris municipality froze all sales of city-owned apartments after revelations that some of them had been seized from Jews deported to concentration camps or fleeing persecution.
Jewish leaders initially welcomed Juppe’s announcement that an investigation would be launched, but they were more subdued after the Le Monde article was published.
The Cour des Comptes, an agency not unlike the U.S. General Accounting Office, said in its report that several museums were involved, but that the Louvre was in possession of most of the works — 1,878 — while the Musee d’Orsay, also located in Paris, had 85.
The works included paintings by impressionists Claude Monet, Alfred Sisley, Pierre Auguste Renoir and Paul Gauguin as well as sculptures by Auguste Rodin.
“Under the circumstances, it would be impossible not to report that the state, and in particular the management of the Musees de France, will have failed in their obligation to publicize the works” so that they could be reclaimed by their original owners, the agency said.
The affair “illustrates how a troubling situation was able to perpetuate itself for 50 years without anyone, foremost the head of the Musees de France, being moved,” it said.
Le Monde said the Cour des Comptes sent its report to the head office of the Musees de France, as well as to the Justice, Culture and Budget ministries on Jan. 22.
According to Le Monde, when the Cour des Comptes queried the museums, all but the curator of the Musee d’Orsay tried to minimize the importance of the works in their possession.
The treasures, most of which had belonged to Jewish art collectors, were returned to France from Germany at the end of the war and entrusted to state museums in 1949 for safekeeping until their owners or heirs could be located.