Documenting the tragic human stories behind the Nazi confiscation of art in Bohemia and Moravia
Documenting the tragic human stories behind the Nazi confiscation of art in Bohemia and Moravia
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The Museum of Applied Arts in Prague's Old Town houses some impressive collections, including porcelain, jewelry, clocks, furniture and costume. It is one of the city's most popular museums, and its collections bear witness to Central Europe's rich cultural history. But behind each exhibit there is also at least one human story, and a new book, called 'Navraty pameti' or 'bringing back memory' reminds us that these stories can sometimes be tragic. The book maps the several hundred artifacts in the museum's collections that had belonged to Jewish owners before the German occupation in World War Two. During the war, property belonging to anyone not considered racially pure was confiscated with an obsessive thoroughness, and the great majority of the rightful owners perished in the Holocaust.
The book's authors, Helena Krejcova and Mario Vlcek have painstakingly tried to map the story not just of these stolen artifacts, but also of the people from whom they were stolen. Helena Krejcova gives one example:
"The story that made the biggest impression on me was that of Kamila Mautnerova, who has a sugar bowl illustrated in the book. The bowl is all that remained of her family. Her husband was arrested and sent to a concentration camp. She - with two small children and her mother-in-law - was deported via the Terezin ghetto to the east. He was executed, and fourteen days later the rest of the family was killed. It must have been awful for the family to be separated like that. They must have thought about each other, and they all had such a dreadful fate. This sugar bowl really is the only thing left to remind us of the family."
The bowl that Helena Krejcova points out is a beautiful and delicate piece of Bohemian crystal dating from the turn of the century, and like all the other works that have been uncovered, it is illustrated in the book. The president of the Federation of Jewish Communities in the Czech Republic, Tomas Kraus, sees the book as a monument to the victims.
"I think that what is very important is to make a commemoration of these people, because this is a monument to these people, somehow a reminder that this was a very significant community in this country. It still is, but at that time there were very many art collections inside the community, and art collectors, but nobody mentions them now, because nobody knows about them. So this book is for the first time trying to trace the fates of these families."
Tomas Kraus points out that the Federation of Jewish communities in the Czech Republic played a central role in getting the book published.
"It is the outcome of a joint effort of our federation and the Czech government. In the late 1990s there was an effort internationally, which I think we can say was started here in Prague, to find out what we now call the 'Holocaust assets'. A very important part of these assets is art and art collections. We have established a joint commission, together with the government, and one of the outcomes of the commission is to research the archives, and to research also the museums, because until now we were not quite sure what part of the collections, not just in the Museum of Applied Arts in Prague, but in all museums and galleries around the country, include former Jewish property confiscated during the Nazi time and which in many cases was never returned."
One of the original impulses was the idea of returning property to people who had it confiscated - or to their heirs. In practice that has proved very difficult.
"It is very difficult because the main obstacle is that there are no heirs. It goes hand in hand with legislation adopted by the Czech parliament. The legislation enables the return, but only to those heirs in direct heritage line, which is also a bit of a complication."
So that means children and grandchildren.
"Exactly. Another problem is there is a lack of documentation. So even people who might have survived - the second or third generation - who would be able to claim, don't know that they can. So a very important part of this work is to spread about the word of these possibilities."
The work of mapping what happened to the confiscated works of art and their owners has only just begun. But the example of the Museum of Applied arts is now being followed by other museums and galleries, including Prague's National Gallery. The work is far from easy, especially given that the years of German occupation were followed by forty years of communism, when collections were broken up still further, with little or no consideration for their original owners. The research is being carried out through a special documentation centre, set up six years ago on the initiative of the Czech Government. Its board is chaired by Pavel Jirasek.
"There is a lot of work to do, because in Czech museums there are around 64 million collection items, and to do provenance research among such a huge number of collection items is really a difficult task. Many items have already been returned but there are still many unclear cases we have to focus on. In the special databases www.restitution-art.cz, there were about seven thousand objects published and according to Law 212 from the year 2000, about one thousand objects have already been returned."
Helena Koenigsmarkova is director of the Museum of Applied Arts. She is convinced of the significance of such research.
"I think it's very important. It may be too late already, but at least it is there, because that kind of book will stay, somehow, for ever."
So, do you think in a sense that it's part of the conscience of the museum, that it should explore the origins of its collections?
And there is a paradox in that the more successful you are in your research, the more likely you are to lose some of your prize exhibits, objects which will be returned to their original owners or their heirs...
"There are about 300 objects published in this book, so in relation to our whole collection, it's not so much."
And what are some of the most interesting objects?
"A very important part of this collection is Meissen porcelain, which had been part of the private collection of Viktor von Kahler, who was a famous collector in Prague, and also from Josef Pollak, another collector of antique objects, especially Meissen porcelain. In Pollak's case he collected many miniature paintings on porcelain - of Czech origin and very good quality."
Helena Krejcova picks up the story of Viktor von Kahler:
"The collector Viktor Kahler managed to emigrate in time, and after the war he tried to trace his collection in the various occupied zones of Germany, especially the American zone. He wrote a detailed description of what had been in his collection. He referred to one particular teapot, which was quite unique and was well-known in specialist circles. It was one of the earliest known Meissen teapots - in the form of a Chinaman, as was popular in the Baroque period. He is standing on a toad, and the lid - on his head - was also in the form a toad. The handle was of pure gold, in the form of a girl. I'm afraid that it will never turn up. I rather fear that during the war, someone went off with the gold handle and broke the rest."
The Meissen teapot is just one of many artifacts that are probably lost for ever, but as the book, Navraty pameti, shows, much does survive. The book is beautifully produced, with colour illustrations of each of the confiscated items still in the Museum of Applied Art's collections. The text is in Czech, but with summaries in English, including the often moving biographies of those from whom the items were stolen.
The illustrations also include some extraordinary photographs from the time of the occupation. These black-and-white images document the work of the body set up by the Nazis to collect and redistribute property confiscated in Bohemia and Moravia. The organization was called the Treuhandstelle - in German Treuhand means literally "true hand" and the warped National Socialist logic behind the name was that property would come into the "true hands" of the ethnically pure. Still more grotesque was the fact that the Nazis forced members of what remained of the country's Jewish communities to carry out the day-to-day work documenting the stolen property. Sooner or later, they too were sent on to the camps. Tomas Kraus reminds us that the Nazi's crimes went still further than that:
"This is one of the Nazi atrocities because it was not only that these people had to do it, but the whole process of the Holocaust - or Shoah - was financed from Jewish sources. It was from these confiscations, with German accuracy, which might seem perverse in a way, that even the accounting was done from Jewish assets. Part of this confiscation was art."
The depth of research into the details of how this whole horrific process was carried out makes the book an important document of Holocaust research in the Czech Republic, and reminds us vividly of the fate of Czech citizens, singled out for discrimination and ultimately annihilation, just because of their origins.
Documentation Centre of Property Transfers of Cultural Assets of WW II. Victims: www.centrum.usd.cas.cz/
Museum of Applied Arts, Prague: www.upm.cz
Database of Works of Art from the Property of Victims of the Holocaust: www.restitution-art.cz
Books for this programme supplied by Shakespeare and Sons.