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Russian lawmakers override veto on works of art seized from Nazis

MOSCOW, April 6 (JTA) — The lower house of the Russian Parliament has voted overwhelmingly to assert Russia’s ownership of works of art seized from Nazi Germany at the end of World War II. The lower house, known as the Duma, voted 308-15 last Friday to override President Boris Yeltsin’s veto last month of a bill that claims the seized art as Russian property. Political observers said it was the first time that the 450-member house came up with the two-thirds vote required to override a presidential veto. Yeltsin is expected to try to block the measure in court if the upper house of the Communist-dominated Parliament backs it. At the end of the war, the Soviet Union dispatched special teams to collect thousands of paintings, as well as archival material that included manuscripts and photographs, from the defeated Nazis. Some of the so-called “trophy art” belonged to Germany, but some of the art had been looted by Hitler’s troops from countries overrun by the Nazis. The trophy art is significant to the Jewish community outside Russia because some of the looted works may originally have been taken from their Jewish owners by the Nazis. Members of the Duma maintain that Germany does not deserve to recover the art because of the millions of casualties Russia suffered after the Nazis invaded in June 1941, flouting a non-aggression pact signed by the two countries two years earlier. In the 900-day siege of Leningrad alone, 1 million Russians died. Some Russian Jews, like most of the nation’s population, view keeping the trophy art as a matter of historical justice. “I don’t think Russia should return art booty to Germany. We suffered a lot from the war, and those treasures should be viewed as a paltry compensation for the damage and sufferings,” said Isaak Gelbwasser, a 72, a World War II veteran. The bill creates a complicated procedure for the return of seized art treasures, in effect making it impossible for Germany to reclaim the works. But it also says cultural artifacts that were family souvenirs or archives, including letters and photographs, could be returned to their original owners or heirs “for humanitarian reasons.” The Duma’s vote last Friday angered Germany, which has long sought the return of the trophy art. The trophy art — consisting of about 200,000 pieces valued at some $65 billion — has been the subject of sensitive negotiations between Moscow and Bonn. In 1990, Germany and the former Soviet Union signed a friendship treaty that included provisions for the mutual restitution of war plunder. Yeltsin is slated to travel to Germany next week for a meeting with German Chancellor Helmut Kohl at which they are expected to discuss the trophy art. Presidential spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembsky said the Duma vote put Russia “in an extremely unfavorable position in terms of relations with Germany, the Netherlands and the number of other countries.” The Federation Council, Parliament’s upper house, is scheduled to discuss the bill April 16, a day before Yeltsin’s meeting with Kohl. The last time the upper house voted on the bill, it was passed by an almost unanimous vote. If the council comes up with the requisite two-thirds majority, as experts predict, Yeltsin would be required to sign the bill within a week.