The shadowy “rescue” by Yad Vashem of Holocaust-era wall paintings from Ukraine — viewed as outright theft by officials in Eastern Europe — has renewed debate over who “owns” the Holocaust.
The Jerusalem-based Holocaust museum has come under fire for removing a set of wall paintings by a renowned Polish-Jewish artist killed in the Holocaust.
In its defense, Yad Vashem said it had the “moral right” to the paintings by Bruno Schulz, a writer and artist shot down by an SS officer in the Ukrainian village of Drohobych in 1942 because he was a Jew.
The action — which some have compared to Israel’s rescue of Israeli hostages in Entebbe in 1976 or its bombing of the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981 — has raised the question of who owns the Holocaust, who owns Holocaust commemoration and who has rights to the Jewish heritage in post-Communist Eastern Europe.
“Israel has a long tradition of ‘evacuating’ Jewish cultural treasures that were deemed in danger after the Holocaust,” said Bernhard Purin, director of the Franconian Jewish Museum in Fuerth, Germany.
But, critics says, such decisions cannot be made unilaterally in today’s Europe, where Jews are trying to strengthen a local identity and promote the recognition that Jewish heritage is part of Europe’s cultural patrimony.
“There may be arguments for transmitting cultural monuments from the Diaspora to Israel,” Purin said. “But I would wish that Israeli institutions would start to discuss this issue with institutions and organizations in the affected countries and also that institutions, like Yad Vashem would observe international standards of museum ethics and monument preservation.”
London-based Anne Webber, commenting on behalf of the European Council of Jewish Communities, the Commission for Looted Art in Europe and the Conference of European Rabbis, also took issue with Yad Vashem’s action.
“The murals by Bruno Schulz are an important part of the heritage of the Jews of the Ukraine,” she said. “While appreciating the value that Israel puts upon this legacy, the living European Jewish communities must be able to commemorate their history and cherish the memories of their Holocaust victims through the artifacts that have survived.
“Artifacts such as the Schulz murals are a unique memorial of what happened in a particular time and place, and they are a monument to the history and culture of the Jews of this part of Europe,” she said.
The paintings in question, illustrations of Grimm fairy tales, were the last known works painted by Schulz, whose works are highly regarded in Poland and elsewhere in Europe. He had been ordered to paint them in the bedroom of the child of the local Nazi commandant.
They were discovered in February by a German filmmaker who had gone to Drohobych to make a film about Schulz.
The discovery caused a stir in Poland and Ukraine, and discussions began about making a Schulz museum on the site, with funding from a German foundation.
“The planned museum would have provided an ideal opportunity to strengthen awareness in the Ukraine and beyond of what befell the Jewish people, and would have helped build relations between Jews and the local communities,” Webber said.
In May, however, Yad Vashem officials went to Drohobych and physically removed five large fragments of the murals, spiriting them out of the country and to Jerusalem.
The circumstances surrounding the removal and export of the paintings are murky.
What seems clear, however, is that local officials in Drohobych — wittingly or unwittingly — helped Yad Vashem circumvent stringent state laws protecting cultural heritage.
Yad Vashem said it took the paintings with the “full cooperation” of local authorities, including the mayor, “to the extent that the municipality even assisted in the provision of materials required for packing the sketches.”
In a statement, Yad Vashem said local authorities gave assurances that the municipality was responsible for such issues in town.
“It was and is still clear to Yad Vashem that the Drohobych municipality was aware of the laws of its own country,” it said.
Like other countries, however, Ukraine 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. No one has explained how Yad Vashem got the paintings across the border.
The affair touched off a bitter controversy.
Whether or not local officials were involved, the impression given was that Yad Vashem had taken unilateral action that violated Ukrainian law and trampled local sensibilities.
“It looked like theft and was certainly deception,” said one New York-based expert on Jewish heritage.
Meylach Sheykhet, an Orthodox Jew involved in the preservation of Jewish monuments in Ukraine, said that while “Yad Vashem and Israel always try to represent themselves as the exclusive side to inherit the heritage left after the Holocaust in European countries,” times have changed.
“To my understanding, culture is a fundamentally important base to bridge the world, and if at some point the Jewish cultural heritage will be displayed in a Ukrainian museum it will definitely show the positive developments and it will definitely bridge the world,” he said.
“In other words, Ukraine also has to have rights to have some of the Jewish heritage to display the Jewish presence in Ukraine,” Sheykhet said.
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.