NEW YORK, July 17 (JTA) — Yad Vashem’s secretive and controversial acquisition of a Holocaust-era mural two months ago has inspired not just international anger, but a bitter joke circulating on the Internet.
Why, poses the joke, didn’t representatives of the Jerusalem-based Holocaust museum appear at a recent ceremony commemorating the 1,600 Jews murdered in 1941 in the Polish village of Jedwabne?
The museum said it boycotted the ceremony because a plaque at the site does not acknowledge that it was Poles, not Germans, who massacred the Jews.
But the joke’s punch line offers a different explanation: “Because there were no murals to be had.”
“That kind of joke wouldn’t have happened before, because Yad Vashem had huge moral authority,” said Konstanty Gebert, a Polish Jewish journalist and editor of the Polish Jewish magazine Midrazs.
Speaking at a New York forum on the implications of Yad Vashem’s “rescue” of a mural by Bruno Schulz, which angered Polish and Ukrainian officials, Gebert reflected the dominant view of panelists and audience members: The action was a grave, perhaps even immoral, mistake.
The controversy occurs amid larger questions over who has the right to heirless Jewish property, particularly items confiscated during the Holocaust. Such debates have intensified with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc and with the push toward restitution for slave labor and seized properties.
Yet it also comes at a time that Eastern European governments are perceived as being cooperative in Jewish restitution matters and as Jewish life has enjoyed a revival in Eastern Europe.
Another factor is that the Holocaust increasingly is seen as more than just a Jewish issue, but — particularly as ethnic cleansing and genocide have resurfaced in other parts of the world — as an international symbol of evil.
Wesley Fisher, a panelist who is director of external affairs for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, noted that with widespread interest in the Holocaust and a proliferation of Holocaust museums, “It’s not surprising that the demand for Holocaust-related items is growing like mad.”
Convened this week by the National Foundation for Jewish Culture and the American Jewish Committee, the forum was attended by approximately 40 Jewish artists, thinkers and museum officials.
Several speakers suggested that the move threatens ongoing restitution negotiations with European governments and is an example of Israeli insensitivity toward Jews in the Diaspora.
Representatives of the Ukrainian and Polish governments were invited to the forum, but did not attend. Yad Vashem, which is widely viewed as the international guardian of Holocaust memory, sent representatives to the event and was defended by two panelists.
The defenders did not provide new information about the decision to remove the mural, and museum officials would not comment further.
A Polish Jew known more for his magical realist writing than his visual art, Schulz was forced in 1942 to create the mural — scenes from Grimms’ fairy tales — to decorate the bedroom of a Nazi officer’s child in his hometown of Drohobych, which is now part of Ukraine. He was murdered shortly after by another Nazi officer.
Yad Vashem removed the mural in May, apparently with the permission of local, but not national, authorities. It has said in a printed statement that it has the “moral right” to the paintings because Schulz was a Jew killed in the Holocaust.
The statement also said that, had it not intervened, the murals would have been neglected, a premise that has been vehemently disputed.
Schulz is considered “one of the key figures of Polish literature in the 20th century” and his work is also popular in Ukraine, Gebert said. Before Yad Vashem claimed the mural, there apparently had been talk of making it the centerpiece of a local museum dedicated to Schulz’s life and work.
Ukrainian officials said Yad Vashem’s move violates a law barring the removal of pre-1945 cultural objects, art works or antiquities without a special permit.
Polish officials also expressed anger about the move.
Yad Vashem’s action — which many have compared to the 1976 Entebbe rescue of Jewish and Israeli hostages in Uganda — sends a bad message to European authorities, said Samuel Gruber, director of the Jewish Heritage Research Center in Syracuse, N.Y.
Jewish leaders have pressured European municipalities to follow certain procedures before doing anything that will affect historic Jewish sites, such as synagogues and cemeteries.
But “when the foremost Holocaust institution comes and does what municipalities have been chastised for doing, it creates chaos,” Gruber said.
The dispute, said Poland’s Gebert, is not just about Israel flouting European authorities, but about Israel’s failure to recognize the resurgence of Jewish life in these countries. Approximately 400 Jews live in Drohobych, but they were not consulted on the matter.
To say that a Jewish artist’s work unquestionably belongs in Jerusalem “invalidates us — not just the small Jewish communities in Ukraine and Poland, but also the Diaspora,” Gebert said.
Some speculated about what Schulz himself might have thought of the issue.
Daphne Merkin, a novelist and essayist, said, “Aside from the fact that” Schulz “would have been amused by the whole thing, I think he would have been all for Yad Vashem.”
Merkin attributed the internal Jewish debate over the matter to what she called a Jewish tradition of appeasement and “self-abnegation.”
“It boggles my imagination to be discussing the rights of the Polish community and of the Jewish community of 400,” she said. “If they’re that interested, let them to come to Israel” to see the mural.
Tobi Kahn, a visual artist, said, “I love the idea of an Entebbe raid, but what happens if the next time someone goes in and they’re taking our work?”
Melvin Jules Bukiet, a novelist and fiction editor of Tikkun magazine, vigorously defended Yad Vashem.
Schulz “lived as a Jew and died as a Jew. I see no more appropriate repository” for his work “than Yad Vashem,” said Bukiet, who sits on Yad Vashem’s board
The issue’s emotional rawness — linked to leftover pain from the Holocaust, bitterness over the recent Jedwabne controversy and simmering tensions between Israel and the Diaspora — was evident in the testy exchanges.
In making his case that Schulz’s work would be better preserved in Israel than in Poland — where Schulz was “not treated very well” — Bukiet displayed a book Schulz had illustrated that was printed in Poland — upside down.
One audience member urged Jews to look beyond the tensions, however.
“I’m particularly frightened at this moment, given the geopolitical situation, to be sitting here publicly criticizing Israel about its moral fiber,” said Gabe Goldstein, a curator at the Yeshiva University Museum in New York. “The priority is remembering the Holocaust.”