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Sunday, September 17, 2006

They were all people


The 20,946,000 victims of Nazi Germany were all people, and some people, amazingly, survived, and some of the murdered are lucky enough to have living descendents. Today, over 60 years after the defeat of the Nazi Regime, the custodians of the possessions looted from the victims refuse to return the objects to the actual owners or their descendents.

The art world is plagued by discoveries that museums and private art owners are holding and displaying works which were stolen from Jewish families. Some of these families have descendents who can prove family ownership and want their families' possessions back. A number of the paintings are worth millions of dollars, painted by world-reknown artists, and they've been traded a number of times over the decades. So here, the controversy is more than nostalgia. Money adds to the pain and complications.

But there are cases in which only nostalgia is involved, like the saga of the suitcase. The Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum in Poland shows a display of suitcases packed by the Jews who thought they were were just being "transferred" to a ghetto or "innocent" work camp. It was part of the psychological preparation used by the Nazis to prevent organized "refusal." It just so happens that one of the suitcases, artistically arranged by the French artist Christian Boltanski , belonged to the father of Michel Lavi-Leleu, who is alive and fighting for the right to reclaim the bag.

Language shows a nation's culture and values. Whenever I have to teach my students the meaning of the term "Lost and Found," I tell them that there is no exact translation in Hebrew. In Hebrew we have the phase " Ha'shavat Aveida;" it mean "Returning the Lost Item to Its Owners." It is light years away from the phrase I grew up hearing: "Finders keepers; losers weepers."

The curators and administrators of the various museums which have been set up in the Concentration Camps and those responsible for items stored by the Nazis never saw their mandate as being the return of the items to their original owners. For them, the Jews were murdered and that's it. The fact that some survived and others have descendents is more an annoyance than anything else.

I generally avoid Holocaust memorials. I don't like the fact that they are commercialized and that funds which should be going into Jewish Education to perpetuate the Jewish Nation is instead "celebrating" murdered Jews, without even stressing the fact that they were murdered. The verb used in Yad Veshem is "perished."

Combining these two issues means that, "never say never," I have no plans of visiting any Holocaust memorials.

I hope that there will be a change in policy, and survivor families will receive all items without having to spend thousands of dollars and untold emotional energy on legal battles.

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