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Case Involving Auschwitz Artifacts Highlights Ethical Dilemma for Museums

September 11, 2006
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Museums chronicling Jewish life and death — including the Holocaust — safeguard the memory of millions who can no longer speak. These institutions often rely on artifacts — items bequeathed by those who want to share their family’s history with the world for posterity, to tell their stories.

But at former Nazi concentration camps that are now museums, the artifacts were largely items that were already on site, so they were obtained without the consent of former owners or their heirs.

So who has the right to claim them?

It is perhaps the ultimate ethical nightmare for a Jewish museum.

That nightmare is embodied in the case of Dina Gottliebova Babbitt, who has a claim against the Auschwitz Museum in Poland.

The 83-year-old Jewish artist, Czech-born and now living in California, was forced by the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele in Auschwitz to paint watercolors of gypsies — also known as Roma — as part of his effort to document their genetic inferiority.

Babbitt has unsuccessfully been trying for years to get seven of her paintings back from the Auschwitz Museum. The museum argues that the artworks’ role as crucial evidence in one of the 20th century’s greatest crime against humanity supersedes her ownership rights and her emotional attachment to the works that saved her and her mother’s life.

Museum spokesman Jaroslaw Mensfelt suggests that acknowledging owners’ rights to thousands of Auschwitz artifacts would undermine the museum’s ability to educate the public at a time when Holocaust denial has reached new levels. He explains the museum’s position, which it is also taking with a French man who took legal action earlier this year in an attempt to reclaim his father’s suitcase.

“A good example is the Arbeit Mach Frei gate. We know the author of this sign. Within the Babbitt way of thinking, why shouldn’t the author claim the gate and hang it on his wall?”

Despite Mensfelt’s reasoning, Babbitt’s case has elicited outrage among artists and museum directors that a concentration camp survivor should be thwarted by a museum devoted to depicting Jewish suffering. But experts in curatorial ethics and historians are by no means united about the museum’s position.

The International Council of Museums has 21,000 members in 141 countries and works in tandem with UNESCO.

The chairman of the council’s legal committee, Patrick Boylan, accused the Auschwitz Museum in an e-mail of behaving like a institution wanting to keep Nazi-looted art from Jewish heirs. “That the museum is going to keep the disputed items because [the museum asserts] they are more valuable to the museum than to the legal owner is deeply repugnant in ethical terms — and an argument that Jewish and other groups demanding Holocaust restitutions have strongly denounced when museums or governments have refused to return items from public museum collections.”

To those focused on Holocaust education, the need for the public to be aware of what Babbitt’s paintings represent is paramount. The works are part of an exhibition on the Nazi’s attempted extermination of the Roma. Estimates of gypsy victims range from 250,000 to half a million, but what is agreed upon is that they lost a greater percentage of their ethnic group, about 50 percent, than any other group besides Jews.

A permanent exhibition on the Roma’s plight only opened four years ago at Auschwitz, representing society’s late awakening to their suffering.

Czech Roma activist Karel Holomek said, “The most important thing are the circumstances under which these portraits had been made and for which purpose. They acted as one of the instruments of liquidation of the Roma people and as a proof of their imperfection of their anthropological attributes — according to the Nazi theory. The portraits belong to the place where they are and there they should stay.”

Yehuda Bauer, a renowned Holocaust scholar and adviser to Yad Vashem, also said the Babbitt paintings were essential to the museum.

“Do you think that if Rembrandt was alive, he should have the right to reclaim his paintings, whether paid for or not, as his private property, six decades after he had painted them?” Bauer wrote in an e-mail.

He added that it was “a scandal” for Babbitt “to demand that pictures of Gypsy victims that testify to genocide should become her private property, to be sold on the market or hung in her private apartment.”

Babbitt has expressed a desire to move the paintings to an American museum.

Kalman Sultanik of the Auschwitz International Council said that although he thinks that this move would be wrong, the Auschwitz Museum needs to reach some sort of compromise with Babbitt that would honor her role as the painting’s creator.

The Holocaust Museum in Washington would not weigh in on the Babbitt case, although in a written statement the museum expressed understanding for both sides in the conflict.

A Yad Vashem spokeswoman noted that the museum had dealt with a handful of victim claims, some concluding with the return of property.

Michaela Hajkova, a curator for the Jewish Museum in Prague, explains that she had dealt with a small number of situations in which heirs sought to recover artworks.

The most significant case for the Prague museum’s collections involved 174 expressionistic portraits of life at the Theresienstadt camp painted by artist Bedrich Fritta before he was murdered at Auschwitz. The hidden paintings were given to the museum by Fritta’s friend after World War II, and it was only in the mid-1990s that Fritta’s son Tomas claimed them.

“We knew he didn’t have the facilities to store these or a clue of how to take care of them. We knew the paintings were essential as documents from evidence. We were worried they might be destroyed,” said Hajkova.

But even with that knowledge, “We just gave them back,” said Hajkova. “We recognized his moral right.”

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