An international controversy has erupted after officials from Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial secretly removed from Ukraine Holocaust-era wall paintings by a Polish Jewish artist.
After the officials removed the wall paintings by Bruno Schulz — which were discovered this winter in the Ukrainian village of Drohobych — Yad Vashem said it had acted to preserve the work of a Jewish artist who was a Holocaust victim.
“The correct and most suitable place to commemorate the memory of the Jewish artist, Bruno Schulz — killed by an SS officer purely because he was a Jew — and the place to house the drawings he sketched during the Holocaust is Yad Vashem,” Yad Vashem spokeswoman Iris Rosenberg said in a statement.
But the move triggered outrage in Poland and Ukraine, where Schulz’s works are revered as national treasures — and where removal of art from the wartime period is strictly regulated by law.
A leading international Jewish monuments expert called the move “plunder” and said it could set back by years the progress of Jewish monument preservation.
Jews in both Ukraine and Poland expressed shock at the secret removal of the paintings and expressed concern that it could provoke an anti-Semitic backlash.
“I am very disturbed and ashamed,” said a member of the board of the Union of Jewish Communities in Poland. “I think the paintings should remain in their place. Only there, in their original place, can they be fully meaningful. Money for their restoration was already found.”
Because of its actions, Yad Vashem will now “be perceived with suspicion,” he added. “What a shame.”
Indeed, a cartoon last week in Rzeczpospolita, a leading Polish newspaper, showed two Chasidic Jews standing by the walls of Jerusalem, commenting, “And to think it all started with one little fresco.”
The cartoon also depicts a long truck — labeled “Yad Vashem Institute” and driven by another bearded Jew with sidelocks — that drives by with an entire Polish city on its trailer.
“It’s a big story here and a real embarrassment,” said another Jewish source in Warsaw. “Everyone is either shaking their heads with disbelief or smiling cynical smiles of belief.”
The murals, scenes illustrating Grimm’s fairy tales, were the last known works painted by Schulz, a Polish Jewish artist and writer who was shot down by an SS officer on a Drohobych street in 1942.
Schulz, who was from Drohobych — a Polish city that became part of Ukraine after World War II — was ordered to paint the murals for the bedroom of the child of the local Nazi commandant, Felix Landau.
They were discovered under layers of surface paint, in what is now the pantry of an apartment in the house, by German filmmaker Benjamin Geissler, who went to Drohobych in February to make a film about Schulz.
It was known that Schulz had painted the murals, but it was Geissler who located the house. He searched for the paintings with the cooperation of the current residents.
“The discovery of the previously unknown Schulz works caused a stir in Ukraine and Poland,” a Jewish source in Warsaw said. “Discussions began about making a Schulz museum on the site, and apparently the German Krupp Foundation even offered substantial funding for its creation.”
In mid-May, however, experts sent by Yad Vashem arrived in Drohobych and physically removed five large pieces of the murals from the walls and somehow smuggled them out of the country.
Soon after, Yad Vashem published a news release saying that the paintings were in Jerusalem and had been removed by Yad Vashem conservators led by Marek Shrayberman.
The statement said Yad Vashem had paid the current owners of the apartment $100, adding that it had a letter from the Kalyuzhnyi family donating the paintings as a gift to Yad Vashem, in full agreement with local Drohobych authorities.
Yad Vashem said the removed pieces show a princess, a horse-drawn carriage and several other figures, including two dwarfs.
It said the murals are being restored and will be put on display at Yad Vashem’s new historical museum in Jerusalem, slated to open in 2004.
Local authorities in Drohobych sharply deny any cooperation in the removal of the paintings. They point out that Ukrainian law — like similar laws in other countries — bars the removal of pre-1945 cultural objects, art works or antiquities without a special permit.
National culture authorities in Ukraine said they learned of the paintings’ removal only from the media.
The affair was front page news in Poland, where officials and intellectuals described Yad Vashem’s methods as vandalism.
Poet Jerzy Ficowski, Poland’s leading expert on Schulz, called the removal of the paintings a “criminal act” and expressed shock that an institution of Yad Vashem’s standing would be party to such an undertaking.
The Polish Ministry of Culture issued a protest and said it expected the Ukrainian authorities to investigate.
The scandal has added fuel to fiery debates over the fate of Jewish property in post-Communist Europe.
Schulz was a Jew and a Holocaust survivor, but in Poland he is regarded first and foremost as a Polish writer.
In a letter published in Poland’s Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper, one of the 400 or so Jews still living in Drohobych voiced dismay.
“Not just Jews and Poles,” wrote 80-year-old Dora Katznelson, “but also Ukrainians who read every day in Ukrainian newspapers about the barbarous theft of Schulz’s paintings, cry in wonder, ‘Yad Vashem? It’s impossible.’ “
In the United States, Samuel Gruber, president of the International Survey of Jewish Monuments and one of the world’s leading experts on Jewish heritage sites, warned that Yad Vashem’s action could set back the cause of preserving Jewish monuments.
“In my view, this action by Yad Vashem was not only arbitrary, uninformed and ill-advised, but it has the potential of setting back by 10 years the progress in protection and preservation of Jewish sites and monuments, including Holocaust sites, mass burials, and others places presumably of concern to Yad Vashem and Holocaust survivors,” he said.
“Ukraine today, despite its problems, is not to be treated as Uganda or Iraq,” he said.
“In recent years, laws and procedures have been adopted to deal with this sort of situation,” Gruber said. “By this action, Yad Vashem gives the green light to any number of institutions and individuals that claim a ‘moral right’ to plunder cultural heritage without consultation and consideration by all concerned parties.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.