Austrian museum reaches settlement over Nazi-looted artwork


Vienna's Leopold Museum said on Thursday it had reached a settlement over five Nazi-looted works of art in its collection that will return two of them to the heir of their original Jewish owner, a victim of the Holocaust.

The five pieces, all by Austrian painter Egon Schiele, had been owned by Viennese businessman Karl Maylaender, who died after being deported to a labour camp during World War Two. The museum will return two watercolours, including a self-portrait of Schiele, to Mayhlaender's 95-year-old heiress.

The remaining three pieces will stay in the museum, which owns the world's largest Schiele collection.

“This is a happy day,” Austria's Culture Minister Josef Ostermayer said at a news conference. The long-running discussion had cast a shadow over the museum and now a “Solomonic solution” had been found, he said.

Under Adolf Hitler, the Nazis forced Jewish artists and collectors to sell or give away their works, and many pieces were confiscated outright. A law Austria introduced in 1998 directed that its museums return the looted art, and major works have been given back to descendants of the former owners.

However, the Leopold Museum – privately funded and therefore not obliged to follow the law – would have preferred to keep all five drawings. In 2011, it sold one Schiele painting so it could pay $19 million to the heirs of a Jewish art dealer and – as part of the deal – keep another painting.

The New York-based heiress with whom the museum reached Thursday's agreement, who officials connected with the case said preferred to remain anonymous, had turned down an offer of money and insisted on getting the artwork back.

The Austrian Jewish Community, which backed her, said the now-found agreement was a good solution. “I am happy that the heiress can still enjoy the drawings,” community representative Erika Jakubovits said.

Elisabeth Leopold, widow of museum's late founder, Rudolf Leopold, who bought the pieces in 1960 from a Maylaender friend, said: “I have made a huge sacrifice in memory of Karl Maylaender.”

Hunt for Nazi art shows museum failings, former minister says


A German pensioner's decision to let experts check his art trove for Nazi-looted treasures contrasts sharply with the approach of some museums that may hold works stolen from Holocaust victims, a former minister said on Tuesday.

Over 2,000 German museums hold works created before 1945 and acquired after the Nazis came to power in 1933, according to the Institute for Museum Research in Berlin. Some of them could have been looted or extorted from Jewish owners by the Nazis.

But only 285 museums, or less than five percent, have researched the ownership history of such works.

“It's not as if museums haven't been doing anything, but because of budget issues, they haven't done as much as they could have,” Michael Naumann, a former German culture minister, told Reuters on Tuesday.

Elderly recluse Cornelius Gurlitt, whose hoard of some 1,400 art works was discovered in February 2012 in his Munich flat and confiscated by authorities in a tax probe, agreed on Monday to allow a task force of art experts to study the collection.

In exchange for his cooperation Gurlitt, whose art dealer father took orders from Adolf Hitler to buy and sell so-called 'degenerate art' to fund Nazi activities, will get back those works whose provenance is not in doubt.

Gurlitt also agreed to waive Germany's 30-year statute of limitations, under which he could be considered the legal owner of the paintings.

ACCELERATE RESEARCH

Gurlitt's move should “inspire those who own looted art to act morally”, Naumann said. But he added there should also be legislative possibilities to accelerate provenance research.

The German government and the state of Bavaria have agreed to pay for research of the works found in Gurlitt's apartment and for any additional works not yet confiscated.

In January, World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder accused German museums of neglecting their duty to come clean about works they hold that were looted from Jews by the Nazis.

“They know what's been stolen,” Lauder told Reuters in an interview during a visit to Berlin. “And what they've been doing is turning a blind eye.”

Since 2008, Germany's Bureau for Provenance Research has offered funds to study the ownership of cultural artifacts in public collections. As of January 2013, only 58 applications from museums had been submitted.

In an interview with Spiegel Online last month, Monika Gruetters, Germany's culture minister, said she had doubled the bureau's 2014 budget for such projects to four million euros ($5.52 million), with additional resources and structures planned for 2015.

She said experience gained through the research of Gurlitt's collection would help guide a future national centre she hoped to establish to support public organisations in the search for Nazi-looted art in their collections. ($1 = 0.7249 Euros)

Reporting By Monica Raymunt; Editing by Michael Roddy and Tom Heneghan

Nazi-looted trove contains lost works by Matisse, Dix


Previously unknown paintings by Henri Matisse and Otto Dix are among a vast trove of Nazi-looted art found in a Munich apartment that includes works by some of Europe's most celebrated artists, German experts said on Tuesday.

Customs investigators seized the 1,400 art works, dating from the 16th century to the modern period and by artists such as Canaletto, Courbet, Picasso and Toulouse-Lautrec, last year, an official said.

They had remained silent until now not because of any “improper intentions”, they added, but because they had chanced upon the art during a tax evasion probe, which compels secrecy.

While experts consider the works to be of huge artistic value, the task of returning them to their rightful owners could take many years and poses a huge legal and moral problem for German authorities.

The haul, found in the flat of Cornelius Gurlitt, the reclusive son of a war-time art dealer, is one of the most significant discoveries of works seized by the Nazi regime. It could be worth more than 1 billion euros ($1.3 billion), according to a German magazine, although officials declined to comment.

Gurlitt, who occasionally sold paintings to support himself, has since vanished.

The paintings, which were found in generally good condition, are being stored in an undisclosed location and no list will be published – something that has been criticised by those seeking to recover lost art. The decision may be intended to deter false claims that would distract expert investigations.

“When you stand in front of works that were long considered lost, missing or destroyed, and you see them again, in a relatively good condition – a little bit dirty but not damaged – it's an incredible feeling of happiness,” said Meike Hoffmann, an art expert from Berlin's Free University who has been assessing the find.

Hoffmann said that among the previously unknown paintings was a self-portrait by Dix, in impeccable condition, and probably painted around 1919.

A similarly unknown Matisse painting, of a seated female figure that he had painted several times, probably dated from the mid 1920s and was confiscated in 1942. There was also a work by Marc Chagall not previously known.

Slides of the works were shown during a news conference, including the Matisse and a group of horses by German expressionist Franz Marc.

SYSTEMATIC PLUNDER

The Nazis systematically plundered hundreds of thousands of art works from museums and individuals across Europe. Thousands of works are still missing.

Investigators made the spectacular find after Gurlitt, believed to be in his seventies, aroused their suspicions as he travelled by train between Zurich and Munich, with a large sum of cash, according to German media.

Jewish groups have urged that the origins of the art works be researched as quickly as possible, so that, if looted or extorted, they can be returned to their original owners.

For some families missing art constitutes the last personal effects of relatives murdered during the Holocaust.

“Had this discovery been made public at the time it was made, families looking for their lost art would have been able to potentially identify works within this collection,” said Julius Berman, Chairman of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany.

“Publicizing the existence of Nazi-looted art is essential to the process of finding heirs,” he added.

The group cited an agreement struck in Washington in 1998, where 44 governments endorsed a set of principles for dealing with Nazi-looted art, including that every effort should be made to publicise it.

Besides paintings the haul included a large number of drawings and pastels on paper.

“We were able to confiscate 121 framed art works and 1,285 non-framed works, including some famous masterpieces,” Nemetz said. “We had concrete clues that we were dealing with so-called 'degenerate art', or so-called looted art.”

NAZIS' DEALER

Cornelius's father Hildebrand Gurlitt was, from 1920, a specialist collector of the modern art of the early 20th century that the Nazis branded as un-German or “degenerate” and removed from show in state museums, or displayed simply to be mocked.

Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels recruited Gurlitt to sell the “degenerate art” abroad to try to earn cash for the state. Gurlitt bought some for himself and also independently bought art from desperate Jewish dealers forced to sell.

Investigators said the collection comprises works which are clearly from the Nazi regime's state-owned collection of “degenerate art”. Others, which may have had several owners or may have been extorted from owners fearing Nazi persecution, will need extensive research.

Jonathan Petropoulos, a history professor at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California, and author of “The Faustian Bargain: The Art World in Nazi Germany”, said: “Hildebrand Gurlitt became a dealer for Hitler and went to the Nazi art-looting headquarters in Paris where he presumably got a lot of works.”

Gurlitt, who fled to the West after the war, claimed he had lost all his art and papers in the bombing of Dresden. “Obviously that was a lie,” Petropoulos added.

Germany has faced criticism that the restitution process is too complicated and lacks sufficient funding.

Restitution groups and lawyers have often criticised state and museum authorities for not doing enough to research works' origins themselves and instead leaving the onus on relatives.

Artist displays what’s missing in a ‘Box’


It’s hard to believe that Dwora Fried — a native Austrian with unruly, fiery red hair, a lesbian, world traveler, mother of four and daughter of a Holocaust survivor — is able to create artwork just as complicated, dynamic and vivacious as herself, all within a wooden box that’s only 31 centimeters wide, 21 centimeters high and 8 centimeters deep.

Each box is open on one side, revealing a complex scene within. 

In one, chairs hang from the ceiling and walls, a young boy in a Nazi salute stands in an open door with his pants down, a young girl stands behind a screen, and slippers sit on the floor. 

Fried prefers not to discuss her work because she believes everyone should interpret the art in his or her own way, but every box has a story with meaning to the artist. 

The Hancock Park resident recently had her artwork displayed in the Museo Ebraico di Venezia (the Jewish Museum of Venice) in the New Ghetto of Venice, Italy, as the exhibition “Outsider in a Box.” The show ran from June 2 to Sept. 12. Next, it will move to Vienna, where it will be on display at the Galerie Benedict from Oct. 17 to Dec. 17. 

Born in the Austrian capital, Fried has been creating art for as long as she can remember. After growing up in Vienna, she moved to Israel in 1968, attending Tel Aviv University and Avni Institute of Art and Design, getting married and raising two children. In 1978, Fried moved to Los Angeles and met her current partner. The two celebrated their 32nd anniversary on Aug. 22. 

Fried has always focused on her artwork, but also spent some time working at Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles. Fried said it has taken her 62 years to finally fully dedicate herself to her art. 

Fried said she gains artistic inspiration from her background. Her recently deceased mother was sent to the Nazi death camp Auschwitz at the age of 11, stripped of any real childhood or innocence. She was later liberated in Bergen-Belsen after walking what was known as a “death march.” Then, weighing close to 70 pounds, she was hospitalized with typhus. 

Fried’s mother moved to Israel after the war with her sister and brother-in-law, eventually meeting Fried’s father and moving to Vienna, where she lived until her death in April 2013. 


Dwora Fried

In honor of her mother’s lost youth, Fried searches flea markets around Europe for kids’ toys from the 1940s and ’50s. Old toys, dolls, miniature figures and other children’s paraphernalia often appear in Fried’s work. 

There are specifically Jewish undertones, too. For Fried, Judaism is connected to the Holocaust — a negative connotation to her religion that creates a certain inner struggle. 

“What I’m trying to express is the dichotomy between growing up Jewish and having Judaism really be muffled by all the stuff that was connected to it,” Fried said.

As a result, Fried said she’s never felt any real sense of belonging anywhere during her life.

“I keep re-creating the feeling of what it was like growing up. That’s pretty much it, even when I do stuff that has nothing to do with my childhood per se, I can recognize that feeling of impending doom, not belonging, a kind of anxiety.” 

Fried said as a child she felt she had to tiptoe around her mother, afraid if she asked the wrong question her mother might keel over from a heart attack and die. 

In part, this anxiety explains Fried’s choice of a box as the vehicle for her art. She said the box can portray a lot but also captures the claustrophobic feeling a painting can’t, as it exceeds two-dimensional limits and has a foreground and background someone can touch.

Having lived in Vienna, Tel Aviv and now Los Angeles, Fried said she still searches for the feeling of home. Her art, she said, reflects this inability to handle a part of her identity.

Despite this struggle, she may have found a temporary solution in her work.

“I always used to see my friends being patriotic or religious or having some kind of thing that they belonged to, and I never had that feeling,” Fried said. “Doing art makes you belong to whatever you’re doing at that moment. I belong to my art.”

Dr. Seuss and the Holocaust in France


Seventy years ago this week, 15-year-old Annie Kriegel was sitting in her Paris high school classroom, taking an exam, when her mother suddenly burst into the room and warned her not to come home—the Nazis were preparing to round up and deport any Jews they could get their hands on. 

More than 3,000 miles away, the cartoonist known as Dr. Seuss was setting pen to paper to alert America about what was happening to the Jews in France.

Annie found a place to stay that night. The next morning, as she later recalled, she was making her way towards the city’s Jewish quarter when, “at the crossing of the rue de Turenne and the rue de Bretagne, I heard screams rising to the heavens.” They were “not cries and squawks such as you hear in noisy and excited crowds, but screams like you used to hear in hospital delivery rooms. All the human pain that both life and death provide. A garage there was serving as a local assembly point, and they were separating the men and women.”

Stunned, the teenager sat down on a nearby park bench. “It was on that bench that I left my childhood.” (Kriegel’s experience is recounted in Susan Zucotti’s 1993 book, The Holocaust, the French and the Jews.)

Over the course of the next two days, more than 13,000 Jews were rounded up in Paris by the Germans, with the active collaboration of the Vichy French government headed by Nazi supporter Pierre Laval. The majority of those arrested were couples with children. They were held for five excruciating days in the Velodrome d’Hiver stadium, in the summer heat without food or water. Eyewitnesses described it as “a scene from hell.” Then they were deported by train to the gas chambers of Auschwitz.

The brutal details of the roundup process were amply reported in the American press. The New York Times described the “scenes of terror and despair” in the streets of Paris, including suicides, Jewish patients dragged violently from hospital beds, and children violently separated from their parents. Unfortunately, the article was relegated to page 16.

Theodor Geisel, who drew editorial cartoons for PM under the pen name “Dr. Seuss,” was outraged by the news from France and decided to use his cartooning skills to help publicize the plight of the Jews.

The future creator of such beloved classics as The Cat in the Hat and Green Eggs and Ham employed stark and disturbing imagery in his July 20 cartoon. He drew a forest filled with corpses hanging from the trees, with a sign reading “Jew” pinned to each body. Adolf Hitler, with extra rope draped on his arm, and Vichy leader Pierre Laval were shown singing happily.

The first words of the Hitler-Laval song, “Only God can make a tree,” were taken from “Trees,” a famous Alfred Joyce Kilmer poem about the unique and eternal beauty of trees. The killers’ second line, however, “To furnish sport for you and me,” was a lyric concocted by Hitler and Laval to celebrate their “sport” of mass murder.

In one important respect, Seuss’s cartoon was prescient: unlike many of his contemporaries, he correctly perceived that France’s Jews were doomed to be killed. At the time of the roundups, the Germans claimed the Jews were being sent for “work in the East,” and the deportees’ true destination was generally unknown abroad.

One senior U.S. diplomat in France, S. Pinkney Tuck, urged the Roosevelt administration to take in 4,000 Jewish children who had been separated from their parents, on the grounds that they should be regarded as orphans since the Nazis would not let their parents survive. But State Department officials complained that Tuck was exceeding his authority, and Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles assured American Jewish Congress leader Rabbi Stephen S. Wise that the deportees were just being relocated for “war work.”

Dr. Seuss drew many anti-Nazi cartoons during his years at PM, but for reasons that are unclear, he never returned to the subject of Hitler’s Jewish victims.

The dangers of fascism seem to have haunted Seuss for many years to follow, however. Reworking a scene of a tower of turtles from one of his 1942 cartoons, he used the framework of what was ostensibly a child’s fable to inveigh against totalitarianism in his 1958 best-seller, Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories. Yertle is the king of a turtle pond who exploits his fellow-turtles in order to increase his power and personal glory. Furious when he realizes the moon is higher than he is, Yertle commands his subjects to form themselves into a tower so that he can stand on them and reach the sky.

Seuss said later that Yertle was meant to symbolize Hitler, and the story was a warning against fascism.


Dr. Rafael Medoff is founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies and coauthor, with comics historian Craig Yoe, of the forthcoming book “Cartoonists Against the Holocaust.”

Amid memories, cemetery documentary imparts lesson of Jewish survival


The Weissensee Jewish Cemetery is 130 years old and has survived the kaiser’s imperial Germany, the Weimar Republic, and, astonishingly, the Nazi regime.

It is the largest active Jewish cemetery in Europe and adds daily to the 115,600 graves on its 100-acre grounds in northeast Berlin.

Offhand, such a site seems an unlikely focus for a 90-minute documentary, but German director Britta Wauer has used her subject as a lively historical guide to Berlin’s Jewry from 1880 to the present.

Even more, “In Heaven, Underground” introduces us to the descendants of the cemetery’s inhabitants as they return from Israel and all corners of the Diaspora to pay respects to their recent and distant ancestors.

Harry Kinderman, whose father worked as a bricklayer at Weissensee, remembers the heavily forested site as an enchanted playground. There Harry and his schoolmates played soccer on the Field of Honor, where many of the 12,000 Jewish soldiers who died for their fatherland in World War I are buried.

Most remarkable is the survival of the cemetery during the Nazi regime, when the storm troopers left the gravestones and extensive archives untouched.

Local legend has it that the brownshirts feared the presence of a protective Golem, but a less fanciful explanation is that the Nazis didn’t get around to destroying the place.

Another threat was a long-standing plan to build an expressway through the forested heart of the cemetery, but the plan was put off by one municipal administration after another.

Overseeing the spiritual, and many of the practical, aspects of the place is Rabbi William Wolff. He proves to be real character, confirming again that in dialect and attitude, native Berliners are the German equivalent of Brooklyn homeboys and girls.

The rabbi explains the importance of sliding a coffin smoothly into the grave and observes that a well-conducted funeral is more important than a wedding ceremony, because “you can help the people more.”

Over the decades, business at the cemetery held pretty steady, except during two dark periods. One was in 1942 and 1943, when Berlin Jews facing deportation committed suicide in large numbers.

Another was during the Soviet occupation of postwar eastern Germany, when the Berlin Wall cut off the Weissensee cemetery from the more populous Jewish community in West Berlin.

Also, the cemetery was largely neglected during the communist era; weeds sprouted on the grounds and the facilities fell into disrepair.

As if to compensate for this neglect, after Russia opened its borders to Jewish emigration, Berlin’s Jewish population expanded rapidly, to the point that Russian émigrés now make up more than 70 percent of the capital’s Jewish community.

For Germans wishing to show their remorse for the crimes of their fathers, the cemetery has become a focal point. Groups of German military reservists show up regularly to perform volunteer maintenance, and students from a nearby high school come to make rubbings of the gravestone inscriptions and to learn the meaning of sitting shivah.

There are other visitors, such as two German researchers taking an inventory of the birds of prey, who find the jungle-like enclave in the middle of the city an ideal venue for their pursuit.

But most of the visitors are descendants of Berlin Jews, seeking some reconnection with their forebears.

After living 30 years in New York, Berlin-born Baruch Bernard Epstein returned to discover, amid tears, the grave of his grandmother.

Daniel Hakerem was born in Israel, the son of German-Jewish refugees. Visiting Weissensee, he, too, found the grave of his grandmother.

Also making an appearance is a group of Israeli soldiers, joined by German troops to pay their respects.

And so the tradition continues in the country once destined to be Judenrein, while a film tackling what could have been a rather morbid subject turns into an affirmation of survival and hope.

“In Heaven, Underground” opens Jan. 13 at Laemmle’s Town Center in Encino.

Two Nazi-looted paintings restituted to Vienna family


Two paintings confiscated by the Nazis from a Jewish family in Vienna have been returned to its heirs following two years of negotiations.

The London-based Commission for Looted Art in Europe announced Wednesday that a work by Carl Christian Vogel von Vogelstein (1788-1868) was delivered by the Dresden Gemaldegalerie museum to London to be given to the heirs of the Rosauer family in Vienna. Another work, by Johann Baptist Lampi the Elder (1751-1830), was returned to the family in late 2010. It had been in the custody of the German government.

“We are very pleased that both the government and the museum returned the paintings,” Anne Webber, co-chair of the commission, told JTA Wednesday. “The process in both cases took longer than might have been expected, and we hope that one of the changes that might result from this is that [there will be] clear claims procedures that set out the framework of the process.”

The works were among 160 that belonged to three sisters, Malvine, Eugenie and Bertha Rosauer. Forced by their brother to remain unmarried, the sisters lived together in an apartment in Vienna.

Malvine died there in 1940 and the two younger sisters were murdered in Treblinka in 1942. Of the entire family left in Vienna, only one great-nephew, the late Rudolf Epstein, survived. He had managed to save a watercolor painting of the family’s home, in which many of the artworks were portrayed. The only other evidence is a list of property that the sisters had to provide to the Nazis.

Painstaking detective work revealed that the two now-restituted paintings were among the works that ended up in the hands of Hitler’s art dealer, Julius Bohler of Munich. They changed hands several times before settling in the Dresden museum. Negotiations for their return began in 2009.

Webber told JTA that clues have been found and now other works are being traced as well.

“Uncle Rudy said these paintings were stolen from my uncle and aunts, and when the time is right you must look for them,” Susan Freeman, who was born in Vienna in 1936, told JTA. She and her parents fled to England in 1938.

“This is the first homecoming, and it was such an emotional moment to feel that the aunts were there,” Freeman said. “Rudy would have been over the moon.”

Swiss report: Museums should investigate Nazi-era art


A Swiss government report has concluded that the country’s museums should more intensively investigate whether they hold artwork looted during the Nazi era.

The report, published this week by the Federal Culture Office, summarizes the results of a survey of 551 Swiss museums on the state of their provenance research, according to the Claims Conference, the main Jewish organization on restitution issues.

The Swiss government commissioned the survey in 2008, in advance of the of the 2009 Holocaust Era Assets Conference in Prague. The outcome of the conference is also summarized in the newly released report.

The report of the survey’s results found that information and awareness of the issue of Nazi-looted art should be improved in public and private museums; that museums need to intensify provenance research; and that access to the results of provenance research should be simplified.

Of the 416 museums that responded to the survey, 25 stated that works in the possession of their institutions may be affected by the issue of Nazi-looted art, while 43 reported that they had undertaken provenance research on works owned by their institutions.

Some 108 museums established after 1945 indicated that they have not conducted any provenance research.

At the end of the Prague conference, Switzerland was one of 47 countries that signed the Terezin Declaration, which included a commitment to continue working on this issue

The Nazis looted an estimated 650,000 art and religious items from Jews and other victims, according to the Claims Conference.

Gov. signs, vetoes Holocaust-related bills


Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, faced with two bills rooted in the Nazi era, has signed one and vetoed the other.

With hundreds of legislative bills on his desk and a looming deadline, Schwarzenegger on Thursday night signed into law a bill benefiting descendants of Jewish art collectors, whose paintings were taken by the Hitler regime.

The law, which applies to art, cultural, historical and scientific artifacts looted during the last 100 years, extends the statue of limitations for initiating recovery lawsuits from three years to six.

In addition, the countdown doesn’t begin until the former owner or his heirs first discover in what museum, gallery or private collection the disputed art is located.

Likely to be affected immediately by the new law is the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, which is being sued by the daughter-in-law of a Dutch-Jewish art collector for the return of the diptych “Adam and Eve.”

Painted by the German artist Cranach the Elder in 1530, the work is valued at $24 million.

At the same time, the outgoing California governor vetoed a bill that would have required companies bidding for a piece of the state’s lucrative high-speed rail contract to disclose their roles in transporting Jews to Nazi concentration camps.

The legislation, which overwhelmingly passed the state’s assembly and senate, did not name a specific company. However, the bill’s chief sponsor, Woodland Hills Democratic Assemblyman Bob Blumenfield, made it clear that the main target was the French national railway SNCF, or Societe Nationale du Chemins de Fer Francais.

In vetoing the Holocaust Survivors Responsibility Act, Schwarzenegger said he sympathized with victims of the Nazi deportations, but that the legislation “needlessly places the state in a position of acknowledging the activities of companies during that time.”

SNCF is now expected to bid for a major role in the $45 billion project, which is expected to zip passengers by 2020 from Los Angeles to San Francisco and Sacramento at speeds of 220 miles per hour.

Blumenfield had charged earlier that SNCF had profited from its wartime collaboration, had never admitted its actions, disclosed its record, or be held accountable to victims.

In their defense, SNCF officials asserted that the French railway system was under German control during most of the war and that the Nazis executed about 800 railroad workers and deported another 1,200 for disobeying orders.

Following Schwarzenegger’s veto, the railroad company released a statement that “The atrocities committed by Nazi Germany during WWII were so horrific that we can never forget, nor should we. That’s why SCNF will continue its commitment to complete transparency of its WWII history, and will voluntarily comply , and even exceed, the requirements [the bill] would have mandated.”

Blumenfield pledged that he would hold SCNF officials to their promise.

Return of Nazi-Looted Art Proves a Good History Lesson


LOS ANGELES—It was a mix of state ceremony, mutual admiration fest, education forum and Seder symbolism when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who orchestrated the event, returned two Nazi-looted paintings to the grandchildren of the original Jewish owners, on behalf of the State of California.

The setting last Friday (4/10) was the historic Leland Stanford Mansion in Sacramento, usually the venue for feting heads of state, and the honorees included the lawyer who had FILED THE CLAIM[sued California] to recover the Italian Renaissance paintings FROM THE STATE.

The story began in 1935, when the Hitler regime confiscated the paintings of premier Berlin art dealers, Jakob and Rosa Oppenheimer, and sold them at a forced Judenauktion, or Jew auction.

The Oppenheimers had previously fled to France where, after the Nazi conquest, Jakob died in poverty while Rosa perished in Auschwitz.

Following the forced 1935 auction, three of the paintings were subsequently bought by press tycoon William Randolph Hearst, who apparently knew nothing of their provenance. He added the new acquisitions to his collection of 25,000 paintings at the Hearst Castle in San Simeon, along California’s central coast.

In the 1950s, the 165-room castle was turned over to the California State Parks Department and now welcomes over a million visitors a year.

Two decades ago, Paris-based attorney Eva Sterzing started tracking paintings from the former Oppenheimer collection at European and American museums and eventually discovered the three paintings by 16th century Venetian artists at the Hearst Castle.

After thoroughly researching the evidence for two years, lawyers for the state parks and attorney general offices validated the claim of the Oppenheimer heirs.

However, rather than quietly arrange for a transfer, both sides agreed on an unusual deal to derive a permanent history lesson form the fate of the Oppenheimer family and their paintings.

The lesson unfolded, and was transmitted live on the governor’s web site, as Schwarzenegger and state officials met with two Oppenheimer grandchildren, Peter Bloch of Boynton, Florida and Inge Blackshear of Buenos Aires.

Sharing the stage were two oil on canvas paintings on easels, about to be returned to the Oppenheimer family after a 74-year interval.

One painting shows an elderly bearded man with a book and necklace of shells, thought to be by Giovanni Cariani, the other a portrait of a nobleman, attributed to an unnamed student of Jacopo Tintoretto.

Placed separately was the third painting, a photographic reproduction of “Venus and Cupid,” attributed to the school of another Venetian master, Paris Bordone. Through an amicable agreement, the original of this painting will remain on display at the Hearst Castle, together with reproductions of the two returned paintings.

“As of today, guides will be instructed to tell visitors about the history of the paintings and about the atrocities of the Holocaust,” said Hoyt Fields, director of the Hearst Castle museum.

Attorney Bradly (ok) Torgan, one of the main state negotiators with the Oppenheimer heirs, drew a more personal lesson from the experience. After conducting a second Seder at his home the preceding night, Torgan saw a parallel between the return of the painting and “the story of the Exodus, which is a commemoration of the Jews’ flight, of liberation, and, ultimately, the journey home.”

Bloch, in accepting the two paintings, thanked the State of California on behalf of nine heirs on three continents and expressed the hope that “other states will follow suit.”

Throughout the 30-minute ceremony, Schwarzenegger served as the designated cheerleader, again and again calling for rounds of applause to thank the Oppenheimer heirs – and even their lawyer – for their generosity and good will.

In an interview afterwards, Schwarzenegger explained his personal interest in the case and the purpose of the preceding ceremony.
“I was born two years after World War II in Austria, where there were atrocities and crimes against Jews, who were robbed of everything,” Schwarzenegger said.

“So I am of the next generation and we have to be different. We have to try to give back what we can.”
The governor is well aware of his star power as body builder, Hollywood actor and politician.

“My being here will be reported in the media and whatever California does is widely copied, so we’re sending a great signal to the rest of the world,” he said.
Neither Bloch nor other participants would talk about the dollar value of the two returned paintings, but given the number of far-flung heirs, the paintings will most likely be sold and the proceeds divided among the heirs, Bloch said.

Hearst Castle is the 25th American museum to have negotiated settlements over Nazi-looted art during the past decade.

‘Europa’ docupic tracks Nazi looting and the fate of art masterworks


The Nazi regime was not only the world’s greatest murderer, but the biggest thief as well. High on the list of loot were Europe’s master paintings and sculptures, with failed artist Adolf Hitler and his avaricious henchman, Hermann Goering, personally spearheading the plunder.

More than 60 years after the fall of the Third Reich, the fallout from the great Nazi robbery is continuing, with thousands of art works still missing or sought by their original, largely Jewish, owners.

The story, as meticulously tracked in the two-hour documentary, “The Rape of Europa,” is complex, but even those unenthused by visits to galleries or museums will find the plotline riveting.

Numbers alone don’t tell the story, but they are staggering. In total, the Nazis seized some 600,000 paintings, drawings, sculptures and Judaica artifacts during their 12-year reign, according to historian Jonathan Petropoulos of Claremont McKenna College, one the top experts on the subject.

As one small example, a detachment of the U.S. Army’s “Monuments Men” found 6,500 paintings and sculptures in one Bavarian salt mine alone and sent them to a collection point, which held 27 Rembrandt paintings.

Petropoulos said in an interview that up to 100,000 looted artworks might still be missing; some were destroyed but others may not be rediscovered for generations.

Hitler’s obsession with art was as monumental, and as fervently anti-Semitic, as his other manias. As a struggling young artist, Hitler was twice rejected for admission to Vienna’s Academy of Fine Arts. The film’s narrator ponders how the course of history might have been changed if Hitler had not been turned down by the academy’s heavily Jewish faculty.

Hitler’s revenge fantasy included the construction of a grandiose Fuehrer Museum in his hometown of Linz to house the greatest of his looted artworks. Up until his last hours in his Berlin bunker, Hitler reworked his delusional plans for the museum.

Following their leader’s example, his top honchos became avid art collectors, none more so than Goering, Hitler’s chief deputy and commander of the German air force. At the height of the Battle of Britain, which Goering promised would bring England to its knees through ferocious air raids, the corpulent field marshal found time to visit Paris 20 times and select paintings from Jewish homes and art dealers.

During the course of wartime battles and air raids, some of the great architectural landmarks of Europe were damaged or destroyed. In the fighting in Italy for Pisa, for instance, the Leaning Tower was spared, but the famed frescoes of the Campo Santo were heavily damaged.

As Nazi armies retreated, they vented their fury by blowing up Florence’s 13th century bridges and trashing the homes of Tchaikovsky, Pushkin and Tolstoy in Russia.

“Rape of Europa” opens and closes with shots of Maria Altmann, the 91-year-old Cheviot Hills resident who battled the Austrian and American governments for seven years to recover five paintings by Gustav Klimt taken from her Viennese family and valued at $300 million.

In one of the landmark cases in the history of looted art, E. Randol Schoenberg, Altmann’s lawyer, took the case up to the U.S. Supreme Court and won.

The film is the work of three San Francisco-based veterans of PBS documentaries, Richard Berge, Bonni Cohen and Nicole Newnham. Cohen is also the founder of Actual Films, which produced “Rape of Europa,” and she and her colleagues worked seven years on the documentary, basing it on Lynn H. Nicholas’ book of the same title.

The filmmakers have crammed a remarkable amount of information and historical context into their work, enlivened by vintage footage of Hitler and other Nazi art connoisseurs and the work of Allied recovery teams.

Among the most vivid images is a ghost-like Louvre in Paris in 1939, emptied of its 35,000 works of art in advance of the German onslaught. Another is the picture of cheering Florentines lining the streets to welcome the return, on U.S. Army trucks, of the city’s looted paintings.

The saga is not over yet. Many paintings will likely never be recovered, and the tedious work of returning others to their original owners is still continuing.

Schoenberg told The Journal that he is now involved in a suit by the descendants of a Dutch Jewish family to recover two life-size painting of “Adam and Eve” by the 15th century German artist Lucas Cranach the Elder from the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena.

“The Rape of Europa” opens Sept. 28 at Laemmle’s Royal Theatre in West Los Angeles, Playhouse 7 in Pasadena, Town Center 5 in Encino and Claremont 5 in Claremont.

For additional information, visit http://www.therapeofeuropa.com and http://www.menemshafilms.com.

Crossroads School thanks its courageous music man


Crossroads School in Santa Monica might not be where one would expect to find the archived works of a celebrated composer who survived Dachau and Buchenwald, especially when one considers that the Vienna-born Herbert Zipper worked as an educator at a variety of institutions of higher learning, including USC and the New School for Social Research in New York. But when Zipper died at the age of 93 in 1997, he left his papers to the K-12 school where he taught musical composition and theory in his retirement years. His relationship with the school was such that co-founder and former headmaster Paul Cummins wrote Zipper’s biography.

“[Zipper] helped steer Crossroads into arts education” and had an “impact on the curriculum” that is still felt to this day, said David Martino, Crossroads archivist and curator of the April 22 exhibition, “Herbert Zipper: Courage Teacher,” which marks the official opening of the archive to the public.

Among the items to be found in the permanent collection are a German-language letter sent by Zipper on Buchenwald Konzentrationslager letterhead and the original manuscript of “Dachau Song,” Zipper’s stirring anti-Nazi anthem,which was initially titled, “Arbeit Macht Frei,” the ironic words hanging above the Dachau gate, which translate roughly as “Work will set you free.”

On April 22, six tall panels — collages of musical notations, photos and other artifacts — will be displayed in the high-ceilinged, first-floor lobby of the school’s Paul Cummins Library. The panels document Zipper’s long life and career: his days in Vienna before the war; his time in the concentration camps in 1938 and 1939; his wartime work in the underground in Manila, radioing Gen. Douglas MacArthur about the movements of the Japanese; and his postwar career in the United States.

Despite all the inhumanity he witnessed and endured, Zipper never battled depression nor lacked for style. One characteristic picture of him at the archive shows Zipper wearing a bow tie and gray suit, sporting a smile on his face.

“I’ve seen pictures of him from the 1900s to the end of his life, and he went through the Holocaust and World War II, and I think I’ve only seen one picture where he looked unkempt,” Martino said.

Zipper hailed from a well-to-do family and was exposed to classical music at a young age, studying with well-known composers like Maurice Ravel and Richard Strauss. Later he became a composer and teacher himself, leading orchestras in Manila, Brooklyn, Chicago and Los Angeles.

Perhaps his greatest achievement, though, was when he convinced an SS guard in Dachau to get him violin string. Zipper and his fellow inmates then stole wood wherever they could find it, cobbled together makeshift instruments and performed compositions such as “Dachau Song,” whose lyrics were written by poet Jura Soyfer, another prisoner. Known in German as “Dachau Lied,” the piece was first performed in an abandoned Dachau building filled with latrines.

Of the secret concerts in the Dachau outhouse, Martino added, “It helped keep people’s sanity and dignity.” Yet even before Zipper came up with this scheme, he began reciting Goethe to others in the concentration camp, refelcting his belief that the arts gave people their humanity.

In addition to the Holocaust-related items, the archive’s permanent collection also includes a telegram signed by General MacArthur expressing his gratefulness for the “splendid contribution” of the Manila Symphony Orchestra, which, conducted by Zipper, performed for American servicemen after the city was liberated.

Zipper might never have led that orchestra or many others were it not for his father, a successful inventor, who was able to secure his release from Buchenwald in 1939, before the Final Solution became official Nazi policy. But Zipper’s time in Dachau was marked by all the indignities and torture that were characteristic of the Holocaust. Zipper saw many fellow inmates murdered. He himself suffered several broken ribs on the way to Dachau when an SS guard leveled him with a rifle butt, which also closed his left eye.

After he got out of Buchenwald, Zipper showed great insight into the Nazi psyche in a letter to his friend Eric Simon, in which he noted that the SS guards “were replaced every half hour” because otherwise they might begin to identify with their captives. “Nazi ideology does not permit free reign of the raw instincts of brutalized monsters. That would be a mistake, because eventually the worst brute after a while will have spent his sadistic impulses and for at least a time may become tame.”

Zipper might not be as famous as Ravel, Strauss or Erich Wolfgang Korngold, a friend who became a film composer in Hollywood. But Zipper was the subject of an Oscar-nominated documentary, “Never Give Up.” And his work lives on in myriad students whom he taught around the world, from China and the Philippines to Germany and the United States. He infused them all with the possibilities opened up by the imaginative realm.

As he once said, “We have to see the world as it is, but we must think about what the world could be.”

“Herbert Zipper: Courage Teacher” will be on display Sunday, April 22, 2-5 p.m., at Crossroads School, Paul Cummins Library, 1714 21st St., Santa Monica. For more information, call (310) 829-7391 ext. 259 or visit

Films: just what made Adolf run?


Since the Fuehrer took over Germany in 1933, hundreds of feature films, TV miniseries and documentaries have tried to answer the question: Just What Made Adolf Run?
 
One of the more useful — and odder — examples is “Black Fox: The True Story of Adolf Hitler,” which won the 1962 Academy Award for documentaries.
 
The films screens Sept. 18 and kicks off the 11-part “Oscar’s Docs: Part Two,” a retrospective of the top full-length and short documentaries from 1961 to 1976.A primary virtue of “Black Fox” is to cram into its 90 minutes a concise, highly visual history of Hitler’s career arc, from his birth in 1889 to his suicide in 1945, with the hanging of his top henchmen following the Nuremberg trial as a postscript.
 
Using little-known historical footage, the film touches Hitler’s school days, failed artist’s career in Vienna, World War I combat, unsuccessful 1923 putsch, imprisonment and early leadership of the Nazi Party to his better-known roles as initiator of World War II, murderer of millions, and defeated warlord.
 
With equal economy and skill, filmmaker Louis Clyde Stoumen and narrator Marlene Dietrich sketch daily life in Germany under the Kaiser, the Weimar Republic, and the Nazi regime.
 
In what must have seemed like a brilliant concept at the time, Stoumen likens Hitler’s rise to the medieval fable of Reynard the Fox. Reynard is a shrewd trickster, who gains dominance of the animal kingdom by a combination of ruthlessness, hypocritical piety, and the promise to save the animals from the wolf (read Joseph Stalin).
 
Abetting the fox are the bear (Hermann Goering) and the donkey (Joseph Goebbels).
 
The film intercuts between the real Hitler and his foxy alter ego, but the allegory becomes increasingly labored and fades away toward the end of the documentary.
 
Following the “Black Fox” screening on Sept. 18 are two other films of special interest.
 
“Chagall” on Sept. 25 is a short documentary that combines an analysis of the artist’s painting with his personal story, against a backdrop of world events of the time. The film was shot when Chagall was in his 70s and won a 1963 Oscar.
 
“Number Our Days” will be shown Nov. 27. The 1976 Academy Award winner affectionately portrays the residents of the Israel Levine Senior Adult Center in Venice as the landscape and population changes around them.
 
Oscar’s Docs” will be presented on consecutive Mondays at 7:30 p.m. from Sept. 18-Nov. 27 at the Linwood Dunn Theatre, 1313 N. Vine St., Hollywood.

Community Briefs


Five Klimt Paintings Arrive in L.A. — After 68-Year Wait

After waiting and hoping for 68 years, Maria Altmann last week celebrated the arrival in Los Angeles of a world-famous portrait of her aunt, which was stolen from her family by the Nazis. She was joined at the event by hordes of museum officials and international journalists.

The occasion was the first American display of five paintings by Viennese artist Gustav Klimt, including the gold-flecked portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, the aunt of the now 90-year-old Altmann.

The Klimt paintings were at the center of a bitter, seven-year legal and diplomatic battle between the Austrian government and Altmann, with the ownership finally ceded to Altmann after crucial decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court and an Austrian arbitration panel.

The five paintings, including a second portrait of Bloch-Bauer and three impressionist landscapes by Klimt, are valued at about $300 million.

Altmann last saw the paintings in 1938, shortly after Nazi troops marched into Vienna and confiscated the “Jewish” art collection of the Bloch-Bauers, who fled the country.

Her first reaction at once again seeing the “Golden Adele” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art was, “The painting looks bigger here.”

Visitors, too, marveled at the spectacular portrait, much richer in the original than in innumerable reproductions, with thick applications of gold paint.

Beaming broadly, Altmann told guests, “I’m just so very happy that after so many years, my wish came true. Sixty-eight years ago, these paintings were hanging in my uncle’s home. Sixty-eight years they stayed in Vienna, which used to be my hometown. Now my hometown is Los Angeles and the paintings have followed me home. After a long stay away from my family, we can enjoy them now in Los Angeles.”

Asked if she bore any resentment against the Austrian government, which tried tenaciously to keep the Nazi-looted art in a Vienna museum as a national treasure, Altmann responded, “I am a person that tries not to resent. I was very angry at times, but now that we have resolved the matter, I try to see all the good points.”

She then paid her respects to two men present who carried the fight to its successful conclusion. One was Viennese editor Hubertus Czernin, who started digging into the Austrian archives in 1998 and in a series of articles, forced his countrymen to face the injustice done to the Bloch-Bauer family.

The other was E. Randol Schoenberg, who as a young Los Angeles lawyer, took on what seemed like a hopeless case and single-handedly overcame the massed legal opposition of both the Austrian and U.S. governments. Schoenberg paid tribute to Czernin as the man “responsible for awakening Austria from its slumber regarding the paintings in its collection.”

Schoenberg arrived from Israel for the LACMA opening the day after hearing Zubin Mehta conduct the Israel Philharmonic in works by his two famous grandfathers, Arnold Schoenberg and Eric Zeisl.

Martin Weiss, the Austrian consul general in Los Angeles, also declared his satisfaction that his country’s arbitration panel, rather than a U.S. court, had made the final decision to return the paintings to Altmann.

The Klimt exhibit at LACMA will continue through June 30, but after that, their destination is uncertain.

Austrian authorities have declared that they do not have the budget for the estimated $125 million purchase price of the “Golden Adele” or the $300 million for all five paintings, plus a sixth still being contested, though some efforts are under way to attract private Austrian donors.

Acquisition by LACMA would be a huge coup. Some knowledgeable observers consider that possibility as an acid test of the ability of Michael Govan, the newly named LACMA director and CEO, to propel the Los Angeles institution into the forefront of national museums.

The final decision will be up to Altmann, who after a full day still had enough energy to entertain her family and close friends at afternoon tea.

Like most upper-class Austrian Jews, Altmann was raised in a largely assimilated, nonreligious environment. When the time comes, however, she says she plans to show her support for the Jewish communities in the United States and Austria, for Israel and for the Los Angeles Opera.

As part of the Klimt exhibit, expected to draw some 150,000 visitors, LACMA plans an open conversation on May 7 with Altmann and Schoenberg, and repeated screenings of the film, “Klimt: Adele’s Last Will.” For information, call (323) 857-6564

–Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

Anti-Semitic Acts Rise in State, Decline in Nation

An increase in anti-Semitic incidents in California last year contrasted with a broader national drop in incidents of Jewish hatred in 2005, according to a new Anti-Defamation League (ADL) report.

The ADL’s annual “Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents” reported 247 acts of anti-Semitic vandalism or harassment in 2005 in California, compared to 237 in 2004 and 180 in 2003. Nationwide, the ADL audit reported a 3 percent drop in anti-Semitic incidents between 2005 and 2004, from 1,757 last year compared to 1,821 the year before, with 2004 marking the highest year for such incidents since 1994.

Specifically, the ADL said it received reports on 173 acts of harassment and 74 acts of vandalism in California in 2005, compared to 181 acts of harassment and 56 vandalism reported in 2004. The California incidents included swastikas painted on playground equipment at a Jewish preschool in Riverside County and an elementary school in the San Fernando Valley, where schoolchildren were heard yelling, “Burn the Jews” and “Hitler was right.”

“We’re definitely seeing more of the California stuff in more suburban, remote areas,” said Amanda Susskind, the ADL’s Southwest Pacific regional director. “What concerns us is this more casual use of hatred and anti-Semitism — something short of a crime.”

Last summer, a Los Angeles man was indicted on federal charges for allegedly mailing out 52 syringe-filled manila envelopes to government offices and randomly selected L.A. home addresses with traditionally Jewish last names, containing letters bearing the phrase, “Die Jew Die.”

Overseas, the Paris office of the Simon Wiesenthal Center said April 4 that it is working with the Frankfurt Book Fair to keep anti-Semitic books out of the upcoming fair this fall.

The German book fair officials asked for help after the center reported that during the Casablanca Book and Publishers’ Fair in February, vendors were displaying geography books with Israel-free maps of the Islamic world, Arabic copies of Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf,” an Egyptian-published Sept. 11 conspiracy book and “The Protocols of the Sages of Zion,” as well as the Egyptian-Syrian-published title, “The Beginning of the End of the Nation of the Children of Israel.” –David Finnigan, Contributing Writer

Natchez Thanks Milken Students for Hurricane Aid

More than 100 Jewish high school volunteers from Los Angeles were thanked for helping the city of Natchez, Miss., recover from Hurricane Katrina.

The students, who attend Milken Community High School, joined local black residents Tuesday night at the historic Zion Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Natchez, alternately singing “Oseh Shalom” and black gospel tunes in a ceremony attended by Mayor Phillip West and other Natchez dignitaries.

During their five-day trip to Mississippi, the students bought $50,000 worth of groceries and other necessities for the city of 18,000, which absorbed more than 30,000 Katrina evacuees from New Orleans last year. — Jewish Telegraphic Agency

 

Wiesenthal’s Work Beyond Words


Simon Wiesenthal devoted his life to tracking down Nazi war criminals, and his life and that effort unfold in a new exhibit at Los Angeles’ Museum of Tolerance.

Wiesenthal died last week at 96 at his home in Vienna, and this exhibit was quickly but lovingly put together at the museum, which is part of the L.A.-based Simon Wiesenthal Center. The center, though named for Wiesenthal, was not founded nor run by him. Yet there’s an indelible connection between the center’s work and Wiesenthal’s own mission — and he donated many personal effects to the museum.

The exhibit’s powerful collection of photographs, awards and artifacts is a virtual walk through history with Wiesenthal, seemingly, as your personal guide. There are his personal pencil sketches of the camp as well as photos and handwritten notes.

One photo is of an American flag, fashioned by the prisoners from scraps of clothing, before American soldiers liberated the camps. The flag contains 56 stars because the prisoners were unsure how many states were in the United States.

“They handed the flag to the American soldiers when they walked into the camps as a gift for setting them free,” exhibit curator Eric Saul said.

Wiesenthal and his wife, Cyla, were among the camp survivors, though they lost dozens of family members. By the end of the war, the couple had been forcibly separated, and each believed the other was dead. The exhibit’s treasures include notes written by Wiesenthal and his wife after the war, but before they were reunited. There’s also archival material from each of their childhoods. Cyla died in 2003.

Wiesenthal, who was barely alive when liberated, began his Nazi-hunting quest as soon as his health permitted. He first began the process of gathering and preparing evidence on Nazi atrocities for the War Crimes Section of the U.S. Army. He worked for the Army’s Office of Strategic Services and Counter-Intelligence Corps and headed the Jewish Central Committee of the U.S. Zone of Austria, a relief and welfare organization.

As the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union intensified, both sides lost interest in prosecuting Germans, and Wiesenthal’s volunteers, succumbing to frustration, drifted away to more ordinary pursuits. In 1954, the office in Linz was closed and its files were given to the Yad Vashem Archives in Israel, except for the dossier on Adolf Eichmann, who, as chief of the Gestapo’s Jewish Department, had supervised the implementation of the “Final Solution.”

Wiesenthal never gave up on tracking down Eichmann or others, determined that the world wouldn’t forget those who died. He worked out of a small office in his home using telephone books to track down war criminals, many of whom hadn’t even bothered to change their names after the war.

According to Museum of Tolerance Director Liebe Geft, when Wiesenthal found a Nazi criminal — and no one would pursue the suspect — he would hold a press conference to shame the world into it.

His efforts paid off in the apprehension of some 1,100 war criminals. Through Wiesenthal’s work, Israeli agents eventually captured Eichmann and brought him to Israel to stand trial. He was ultimately convicted and executed. The exhibit includes a rogue’s gallery of the war criminals he helped to expose and bring to justice.

Wiesenthal wanted everything to proceed according to law. He opposed the hit squads formed by some survivors who sought to kill Nazis after the war.

“He didn’t believe that was right,” exhibit curator Saul said. “He believed becoming murderers wasn’t the answer, but bringing them to trial would better serve the memories of the dead.”

Saul recalled Wiesenthal’s explanation that he was out for justice rather than revenge, and an assurance the world would never forget: “Wiesenthal would often say, ‘Every day is remembrance day for me.'”

A refusal to bequeath collective guilt on the entire German nation made Wiesenthal a popular speaker among German youth.

The exhibit, Geft said, is a poignant reminder of a time the world would have chosen to forget, if not for Wiesenthal and a few others.

According to Saul, although Wiesenthal only achieved a 10 percent success rate on convictions, he was not daunted. It was all about the process of justice for him.

“When people view this exhibit, they should realize that not all, but a little justice was done,” Saul said.

Wiesenthal refused a salary for his work and lived instead off royalties from his books.

The 12 books he authored are displayed, along with honorary diplomas and certificates from various universities. Numerous magazine articles chronicling his work are prominent throughout the exhibit.

He was as little concerned with honors as with money. Saul recalled visiting Wiesenthal’s home and finding that he kept his medals and awards under his bed, collecting dust.

“He was however, proud of his distinguished award from the Polish government, the highest they could bestow on a citizen. It meant something to him because Poland was his homeland,” Saul said.

Some of these medals also are shown in the exhibit.

Not everyone was a fan. On display, among the letters from dignitaries and admirers, is hate mail. At least twice, bombs were placed at his doorstep.

The exhibit also portrays a private side of Wiesenthal, including his stamp collection. But this hobby found its way into his work.

“It was the stamp collecting that led him to Eichmann when he realized he could track war criminals through postmarks,” Saul said.

Geft said she hopes to create a permanent Wiesenthal exhibit as part of the Museum of Tolerance.

“Maybe some child will visit this exhibit and step forward to become another Simon Wiesenthal,” Geft said. “We encourage everyone to come and sign the book and write a message to keep his work and the memory alive.”

Saul said Wiesenthal once told him, “When I go to heaven and they ask what I did on earth, some will say ‘baker, laborer, doctor.’ I will say, ‘I never forgot you’ to the 6 million I will meet there.”

But the photos and archives also underscore Wiesenthal’s service to future generations. He once said, “The only value of nearly five decades of my work is a warning to the murderers of tomorrow, that they will never rest.”

Simon Wiesenthal Exhibit at the Museum of Tolerance, 9786 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. Free with museum admission. For more information, call (310) 553-9036 or visit

Artful Solution to Nazi Looting


After six years of litigation and diplomatic battles over Nazi-looted art, in a legal case stretching from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., to Vienna and back, the Austrian government has agreed with Maria Altmann, an 89-year old widow, to let arbitration decide who now owns masterpieces that once belonged to her family.

At stake are six works painted by Viennese artist Gustav Klimt, valued at $150 million and considered treasures of early 20th-century art.

The most famous among them is a gold-flecked portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, a member of a prominent Viennese Jewish family and the aunt of Altmann, a Cheviot Hills resident.

In 1938, the paintings were confiscated by the Nazis and eventually ended up at the Austrian National Gallery, where they are on display.

A major break in the litigation came last June, when the U.S. Supreme Court rejected pleas by both the Austrian and American governments and ruled that Austria could be sued in a U.S. court.

The Supreme Court decision helped Austria “to finally see the light,” said E. Randol Schoenberg, Altmann’s lawyer, and encouraged the country to consent to arbitration, which Schoenberg had first proposed in 1999.

Under the agreement, announced May 18, both sides have appointed one representative, who will jointly name a third member to the arbitration panel. All three will be Austrian legal experts, who are to render a nonappealable decision by Nov. 1.

The longtime court opponents reacted to the new agreement, hammered out over the last two months, with considerable relief.

“I feel very good that the case will finally be resolved, after waiting, waiting and waiting some more,” Altmann said. “We could have had this result six years ago, when I wrote a letter to the Austrian authorities offering just such a resolution, but they never even sent a response.”

Altmann said she had complete confidence in the fairness of the Austrian arbitration panel. She indicated that if the decision goes her way, she would not insist on the physical return of all the paintings, but consider a monetary settlement.

Martin Weiss, the Austrian consul general in Los Angeles, hailed the agreement as heralding “a very good day.”

He and attorney Scott P. Cooper, representing the Austrian government, expressed satisfaction that the case will be decided in Austria and under Austrian, rather than American, law.

The arbitration panel will have to resolve two key points: The first is whether, under conflicting wills written by the Bloch-Bauers, the paintings rightly belong to Austria or to Altmann. The second is how a 1998 Austrian law on restitution of Nazi-looted art applies to this case.

The Austrian decision to submit to arbitration could have considerable impact on other countries. Many of their museums have been reluctant to settle cases of paintings in their possession that were originally taken by Nazis from their Jewish owners outright, or through forced sales.

A current case involves a painting by impressionist Camille Pissarro hanging in Madrid’s Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum. The painting was sold by a German-Jewish family under Nazi pressure for a fraction of its value.

For five years, Claude Cassirer, 84, of San Diego, a descendant of the painting’s former Jewish owners, has sought the painting’s return.

Spain will host an international Conference on Anti-Semitism and Other Forms of Intolerance on June 8 in Cordoba, and advocates for Cassirer are hoping to draw wider attention to the dispute over the Pissarro painting.

“The government of Spain would be well advised to follow the Austrian model,” Schoenberg said. “The claimants are getting very old and it is unconscionable to drag out the cases any longer.”

 

High Court’s New Territory: Nazi Loot


"I feel that I gave my best performance at the right time and in the right place," said a jubilant E. Randol Schoenberg.

Schoenberg’s performance hadn’t won him an Oscar but something else that he believed was infinitely more important — an appearance before the U.S. Supreme Court.

The 37-year-old West Los Angeles attorney, partner in a two-man law firm, was pleading a case he had pursued for nearly six years and against formidable opposition. On the other side was not only a nationally known law firm with 600 lawyers, but also the U.S. Department of Justice, with its huge resources, and the Austrian government.

Schoenberg represented Maria V. Altmann, an 88-year-old Cheviot Hills resident, who is seeking to recover six paintings — now valued at $150 million — by Austrian artist Gustav Klimt, including a portrait of her aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer.

The paintings were confiscated by the Nazis when they took over the Bloch-Bauer mansion in Vienna and the rest of Austria in 1938. They are currently in the hands of the Austrian Gallery, which claims that Bloch-Bauer willed the paintings to the gallery before her death.

Altmann is contesting this claim, but the Supreme Court hearing on Feb. 25, the first art theft case of the Nazi era to reach the highest court, revolved around a more fundamental legal question.

"The basic issue is whether a foreign country can be sued in an American court," said professor Michael Bazyler of the Whittier Law School, whose recent book, "Holocaust Justice," analyzes the Altmann case.

Schoenberg answers yes, and two lower courts agreed with him. But the U.S. government, backing the Austrian claim, fears that if the Supreme Court upholds this position, the United States, in turn, could be sued in foreign courts and this could lead to a flood of World War II property claims.

Scott Cooper of the Proskauer Rose law firm in Century City, representing the Austrian government, did not respond to a request for comment.

The Supreme Court will not rule on the case until the end of June, but if it favors Altmann’s plea, the case will be returned to a Los Angeles Superior Court judge, who will decide to whom the paintings belong.

For Schoenberg, the grandson of two world-famous Viennese composers, Arnold Schoenberg and Eric Zeisl, the David vs. Goliath case goes beyond prestige and money.

"Having grown up in an Austrian Jewish exile family, which had close friendship ties with the Altmann family in Vienna, the case has deep emotional and personal meaning for me," he said.

Two days before the Supreme Court hearing in Washington, another case rooted in the Holocaust era and also centering on federal vs. state jurisdiction unfolded in a Los Angeles court. It pitted survivors Manny Steinberg of West Hills and Dr. Jack Brauns of Covina, both in their late 70s, against the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims (ICHEIC) and its chairman, former U.S. Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger.

Steinberg, Brauns and their attorney, William Shernoff, had earlier filed suit in a California court, charging ICHEIC with unfair business practices. They accused the commission of being in league with Assicurazioni Generali of Italy, one of Europe’s largest insurance companies, to stonewall, deny or lower 60-year-old, justified insurance policy claims.

The commission countered by filing a motion for dismissal of the case but lost when U.S. District Judge Ronald S. W. Lew denied the motion and ordered the case returned to a California Superior court. Underlying the legal wrangling of which court should try the case was an important fact of litigation, Shernoff said.

"We have found that the judiciary in state courts, particularly in California, are sympathetic to survivors, while federal courts are more disposed toward the insurance companies," he said.

Law professor Bazyler observed that the "threshold question" of which court has jurisdiction in a given case may determine 90 percent of the outcome.

"Once the jurisdiction is decided, the parties usually settle," he said.

Attorney Constantinos Panagopoulos of New York, defending ICHEIC, said in a phone interview that his client had been "diligent" in processing survivor claims and that he would vigorously contest the survivors’ charges in California courts.

On the same day that it heard arguments on the Altmann art theft case, the U.S. Supreme Court also ruled that states were within their rights to deny scholarships to students studying to be priests, ministers or rabbis. The decision revived some of the contentious issues of church-state separation and also divided national Jewish organizations, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported.

The ruling was hailed by the American Jewish Committee, American Jewish Congress and the Anti-Defamation League but denounced by the Orthodox Union and Agudath Israel of America.

Shoah’s Belorussian Cowboys


The Bielski Brothers: The True Story of Three Men Who Defied the Nazis, Saved 1,200 Jews and Built a Village in the Forest," by Peter Duffy. (Harper Collins, $25.95).

"Defiance: The Bielski Partisans. The Story of the Largest Armed Rescue of Jews by Jews During World War II," by Nechama Tec. (Oxford University Press, 1993).

For years, the mythology of Zionism led us to believe that the establishment of the State of Israel represented a bold alternative to the passive victimization of the European Jewish community. Whereas European Jews had "submitted" to their treatment, with fatal consequences, Israeli Jews would never let anyone destroy their homes, culture and lives. That was the line, anyway. The truth, as is so often the case, was more complicated, and no one should know that better than we Americans.

America’s sense of self-definition has been on display more blatantly than ever, it seems. Led by our administration, we have embraced the "cowboy" ethic: seemingly down-home while at the same time unilaterally aggressive. Simultaneously, we’ve had to face how that character is interpreted by others. The Wild West is also a myth, of course, one that captures the ideals of America much more than its infinitely varied reality.

I was reminded of these paradigms while reading Peter Duffy’s new book, "The Bielski Brothers," which chronicles a truly amazing group of Jews who survived the Holocaust in Belorussia by forming a partisan brigade that fought the Nazis and saved as many Jewish lives as possible.

Led by the charismatic Tuvia Bielski and two of his brothers, this partisan unit all but explodes the idea of the passive European Jew. In the end, they saved 1,200 Jews from extinction. Their story is one of heroic bravery: ghetto breaks, disruption of German rail service, even the establishment of a working shtetl deep within the forest. Add to this the inherent danger of being a Jew on the run during World War II, and the narrative can’t help but be thrilling.

Duffy is right to find an extraordinary story in the details of the Bielski partisan unit. He is not, however, the first to do so. Nechama Tec’s study, "Defiance: The Bielski Partisans," was published in 1993, and provides an interesting contrast to Duffy’s account.

The books cover primarily the same material, with the same basic goal. Duffy’s is by far the better read, despite his penchant for one-line cliffhangers and the liberal use of exclamation points. His book is organized by chronology, giving the story a natural arc and momentum. Indeed, Duffy has written a fast-paced, exciting book.

The same cannot be said of Tec — a survivor herself — whose writing is more academic, less showy. I suspect, however, that Tec’s is the more thorough of the two, not least because she actually interviewed Tuvia Bielski two weeks before his death.

The fact that the books relay slightly different accounts of events is understandable. Memory, after all, is mutable, and different people will remember events differently. No, the distinction between these tellings lies in how much humanity each author is willing to accord its story’s heroes.

Both writers support Tuvia Bielski, even when his decisions seem questionable. This is understandable, since it was he who had the vision and strength of character to hold together a fractious group of fighters and civilians during that most harrowing of times. He was also human, although Duffy hardly conveys that. His Tuvia Bielski is the John Wayne of the forest, tall, gallant and noble. Indeed, some survivors talk of Bielski in terms that approximate images of heroism gleaned from the movies. Tec, however, does not shy away from his flaws, and so finds the human even inside the leader.

Extraordinary times call for extraordinary responses, and Tuvia Bielski and his brothers, children of a poor mill owner, rose to the challenge. But even during the Nazi years, people are people, as Tec shows. Just because he saved Jews does not mean that Tuvia was a saint. He was tall, and he rode a white horse, but he brought his weaknesses — drinking, womanizing — into the forest with him. Similarly, the partisan unit was driven as much by petty politics as by the more dangerous incidences of treachery that both Duffy and Tec discuss. Favoritism, greed, jealousy: all these were as important in the organizational life of the brigade as the wide-scale anti-Semitism around it.

Overall, non-fighters are given short-shrift in Duffy’s book. Women, for example, had an especially hard time. Deemed unfit for fighting and surveillance, excluded from decision-making and the industries that were eventually established, women were in more danger of rape and murder by both Nazis and partisans and so often entered into "marriages" with fighters in order to ensure their own safety. But Duffy, who is more interested in a story of strength and moral certainty, devotes one sentence to the very different experiences of men and women.

In short, Duffy’s is an extremely American book: it streamlines the story — removes characters, nuance and even episodes in the name of a more exciting tale. It feeds the need for simple heroics that Americans crave, especially during our own uncertain times. Tec’s is knottier and not as well-organized, but, in the end, more truthful for letting all her figures remain human even during a time of brutal, dehumanizing terror.

Carlyle Discusses Dangers of ‘Hitler’


Robert Carlyle, of "The Full Monty" and "Angela’s Ashes" fame, gives a striking performance in the title role of the CBS miniseries "Hitler: The Rise of Evil." The film, which airs Sunday and Tuesday (May 18 and 20) at 9 p.m., focuses on Hitler’s life from Munich beer hall orator in 1920, through his political machinations within the Nazi party and against the Weimar Republic, ending in 1934 with the consolidation of all state power in his hands. Speaking with a pronounced Scottish burr (which he suppresses in the film) from his home in his native Glasgow, the 42-year-old actor discussed the challenges and rewards of his role with The Jewish Journal.

Jewish Journal: What were your thoughts when you decided to take the role of Hitler?

Robert Carlyle: At first I was frightened because I realized the potential dangers and pitfalls. But I decided I wouldn’t do a carbon copy of Hitler. I would do my own interpretation, that I could explore him like any other character. Then a window opened up and I wasn’t frightened any more.

JJ: One of your fellow cast members, Peter Stormare, said, "I can’t imagine being Bobby [Carlyle] and having to look at himself as Hitler every day because of all the images that flash before your eyes, all the time." What were your feelings?

RC: Once shooting began, in my quiet moments, I tried to empty myself of the character on a daily basis, rather than store it up for four months. Also, as Hitler, I didn’t look at all like myself. I had the mustache, a false nose, cheek pieces and more weight as Hitler got older.

JJ: What was your working day like when you were shooting the film in and around Prague?

RC: It took around one-and-a-half hours for the makeup and I worked 14-15 hours on an average day. As we went further along, the days got even longer.

JJ: I understand that you were offered the role of Hitler three times before you took this one.

RC:Yes, the first time was about three years ago but it didn’t come to anything. Another time was for the film "Max" [in which Hitler was played by Noah Taylor]. Five months before I started the CBS job, I worked for three months on a BBC television production which started with Hitler in the bunker and we flashed back to his earlier life. So I had already learned a good deal about the character.

JJ: I believe the BBC project was canceled, partly due to strong Jewish protests.

RC: I’m not sure. I heard that there were funding problems because the American studio partner backed out. I don’t know about Jewish protests, but if there were any I would understand that.

JJ: One of the concerns raised when CBS announced the project was that any good actor would try to find the human elements in Hitler and therefore make him more sympathetic.

RC: It wasn’t a question of searching for the human traits. I didn’t have to find that to get close to the character. I thought Hitler was very cunning and had a belief of you’re-either-for-me-or-against-me. I tried to focus on these things.

JJ: Were you aware of the objections raised by some Jewish spokesmen and organizations in the early stages of the CBS project?

RC: Not at all. I didn’t know what was going on behind the scenes. But I knew from the beginning that if I gave as honest a portrayal as I could, it would be all right. I didn’t want to upset anyone.

JJ: After you finished shooting, did you go through a decompression stage?

RC: Yes, I took off and spent a month in the country. A few weeks ago, I went back to London for some final dubbing and suddenly saw "my" Hitler on the monitor. And I said to myself, "Jesus, what a pompous little prick" and then, "You’ve done your job."

Rabbis, Scholars OK CBS ‘Hitler’ Pic


There were nights, CBS Television president and CEO Leslie Moonves remembered, “when I lay in bed looking up at the ceiling and asking myself, ‘Is this the right thing to do? Will it open old wounds? Are we creating more anti-Semitism?'”

Moonves had good cause for sleepless introspection. Since announcing last July that CBS would air a prime-time four-hour miniseries on the early life of Adolf Hitler, media critics and Jewish spokesmen have had a field day.

They feared that the early Hitler would be “humanized” into a sympathetic figure as an abused child and misunderstood artist or as a German Rocky who overcame tremendous odds, and even that the film might trigger pogrom-like outbursts. Moonves, much of whose grandparents’ family in Poland perished in the Holocaust, even took flak from his own relatives.

Now, with “Hitler: The Rise of Evil” broadcasting Sunday, May 18 and Tuesday, May 20 at 9 p.m. during the ratings sweeps period, the CBS chief is breathing easier.

After previewing tapes of the film, a half-dozen Holocaust scholars and prominent rabbis have generally given it thumbs up, with most appraisals ranging from the positive to the enthusiastic.

Some of the turnaround can be credited to an entirely new script and complete revision of the original project, starting with the metamorphosis of the title from (a “misspoken”) “Young Hitler” to “Hitler: The Early Years,” “Hitler,” “Hitler: The Origin of Evil” and finally to the present title.

The earlier critical volleys and advice from Jewish leaders consulted by the producers apparently gave a substantial push to the fundamental revisions.

In its final form, the film briefly touches on young Hitler’s brutal and domineering father, his troubled adolescence, his rootless existence in Vienna as a failed artist and his enthusiastic soldiering in World War I.

But the bulk of the film deals with Hitler’s career from a Munich beerhall orator in 1920, through his political machinations within the Nazi party and against the Weimar Republic, ending in 1934 with the consolidation of all state power in his own hands.

In stark statistics and pictures, an epilogue summarizes the utter devastation wrought by the Führer on Europe and the Jewish people.

“I think any fears in the Jewish community that the film would glorify Hitler have been allayed,” said noted Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum. “It successfully narrates Hitler’s rise to power and shows clearly how those who tried to manipulate him were instead manipulated by him.

“Historians may have some trouble with interpretation, as they always do, and with some composite figures, but, in general, the film deals well with a part of Hitler’s life that people need to know,” said Berenbaum, director of the Sigi Ziering Institute for the Study of Ethics and the Holocaust at the University of Judaism.

Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, warmly applauded the film.

“It delivers a very powerful message, especially to young people, how many times Hitler could have been stopped in the early years, how potent evil is and how fragile democracy is,” he said.

A similar theme was emphasized by Rabbi Harvey Fields of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, who counts the Moonves family among his congregants. Fields, who had voiced strong objections to the initial script, noted that the final film “raises significant lessons for us today about the dangers to democracy of political and religious fanaticism, from whatever source.”

Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, praised the film and acknowledged that his earlier fears about the project had been unjustified. However, he would have liked to have seen the presence of a more substantial Jewish character and strongly urged a sequel which would take the Hitler story to its end in 1945.

“There are now youngsters who know nothing about World War II and the Holocaust, who didn’t see ‘Schindler’s List,’ and who need to know,” Hier said.

Rabbi and author Joseph Telushkin, an early adviser on the project, described the film as “very powerful, which gives dimension to Hitler but does not soften him. In no way does it downplay the depth of his anti-Semitism.”

All of the cited experts gave much of the credit for the effectiveness of the film to Scottish actor Robert Carlyle, whose portrayal of Hitler, Foxman said, is “frighteningly brilliant.”

One dissenting view came from philosophy professor John K. Roth, director of the newly formed Center for the Study of the Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights at Claremont McKenna College. While acknowledging the complexity of the subject and the overall usefulness of the film, Roth felt that Hitler, perhaps to avoid any sympathy for him, came across as “too histrionic and crazed, and insufficiently nuanced and ambiguous.”

The danger in such a portrayal is that “it plays into the stereotype of Hitler as a crazy man and that viewers will say ‘I now understand who he was.’ It might be better to live with some ambiguity and to admit that we don’t really understand Hitler.”

Elie Wiesel, who has long been disenchanted with “dramatic” interpretations of the Holocaust and the Hitler era, had a lengthy critical exchange with Moonves. Wiesel viewed the tape quite recently but could not be reached for his evaluation.

Two aspects of Hitler that the film does not explain, and which, indeed, may be beyond explanation, are his charisma and almost hypnotic effect on his followers, especially women, and what triggered his murderous hatred of Jews.

On the first point, Berenbaum cites an exemplar, if not an understanding, of Hitler’s magnetism, by quoting from the autobiography of Albert Speer, an urbane and sophisticated architect and later Hitler’s armaments minister.

Out of curiosity, Speer went to hear Hitler speak in 1930 and, on the way, saw some posters of the Führer, which Speer viewed as Chaplinesque caricatures.

But, Speer wrote, “Three hours later [after hearing Hitler speak] I left the beer garden a changed person. I saw the same posters … but I looked at them with different eyes. A blown-up picture of Adolf Hitler in a martial pose, which I had regarded with a touch of amusement on the way in, had suddenly lost all its ridiculousness.”

The roots and launching point of Hitler’s virulent anti-Semitism continue to baffle the experts. Theories abound — a brighter Jewish classmate in school, a Jewish doctor who performed a mastectomy on Hitler’s beloved mother, the poisonous anti-Semitism of Vienna, or simply the oratorical success of his anti-Jewish tirades — but a definitive answer may never be found.

Almost as interesting as the miniseries itself is the exemplar of “Hitler: The Rise of Evil” on the vagaries of filmmaking, especially when the subject retains its hold on the sensitivities and unhealed wounds of millions.

The project was first presented to Moonves about 18 months ago by Peter Sussman, CEO of the Toronto-based Alliance Atlantis Entertainment Group.

“The Nazi era and the Holocaust have generally been dramatized from the perspective of the victim,” Sussman said. “We thought it would be interesting to approach that evil and horror in another way.”

Moonves greenlighted the project, with CBS putting up around 60 percent of the $20 million plus price tag. “In remembering the Holocaust, as we always must, I thought it important to find out what steps led up to the making of this monster [Hitler]. Not to pay any attention to that would be like sticking our head in the sand,” Moonves said.

The first script, by G. Ross Parker, was, by now-general agreement, pretty much a bust.

“It was a really simplistic treatment,” Fields said, “with different kinds of psychological interpretations and with little feel for the context and climate of the time.”

A new writer, John Pielmeier, was brought in and shooting started in early January in Prague.

Then in early April, with the film almost completed, a mini-disaster struck.

In an interview, co-executive producer Ed Gernon, a key player, pointing to the timeliness of the film, seemed to draw an analogy between the Germans’ fear and acquiescence that led to Hitler’s dictatorship with similar emotions among the American people in the run-up to the war in Iraq.

The interview was published at the height of the war and denounced, among others, by the New York Post, which claimed that Gernon had equated President Bush with Hitler.

Alliance Atlantis and CBS called Gernon’s remarks “insensitive and outright wrong” and fired him instantly. Sussman declined to discuss the incident.

During the broadcast of the film, there will be a number of public service announcements on tolerance, with guidance from the Anti- Defamation League, and CBS said it will make donations to one or more Holocaust education funds. Moonves stated that solicitation of advertisers was proceeding normally. A comprehensive study guide for high school teachers and students has been developed as a companion piece to the film.

Plans also call for the film to be sold across the world, “certainly in Europe and Israel,” Sussman said, and will be available in video and DVD format.

As for all the preceding controversy, Moonves remains unfazed.

“All of that should help the ratings,” he said hopefully. “I think the public will be curious.”

For more information, visit www.cbs.com/specials/rise_of_evil .

Absence of ‘Justice’


“Imperfect Justice: Looted Assets, Slave Labor, and the
Unfinished Business of World War II” by Stuart E. Eizenstat (Public Affairs,
$30).

“Holocaust Justice: The Battle for Restitution in America’s
Courts” by Michael Bazyler (New York University, $34.95).

In the last moments of the Clinton administration, Stuart
Eizenstat was breathless. From his posts at the European Union and the
Commerce, Treasury and State departments, Eizenstat was the administration’s
“point man” on Holocaust restitution, with a unique portfolio to pursue the
assets that were looted from Nazi victims. This was to be the final financial
accounting for the crimes of World War II. In the frenzied final days of the
Clinton presidency, Eizenstat was wrapping up deals with the Austrians and
French that — together with earlier agreements with the Germans and Swiss banks
— were worth some $8 billion.

In his memoir, “Imperfect Justice: Looted Assets, Slave
Labor, and the Unfinished Business of World War II,” Eizenstat, who will be
speaking at the University of Judaism on Sunday, March 30, recounts his five
peripatetic years as a facilitator-mediator sprinting among the various parties
in the most emotional legal and diplomatic issue of the time. On one side were
the Western European governments and businesses that faced lawsuits in U.S.
federal courts assailing them for their failure to honor war-era insurance
policies and demanding compensation for slave labor and the restoration of
dormant and unclaimed Jewish accounts in Swiss banks. On the other were the
lawyers, Jewish organizations, American regulators and Eastern European
governments that pressed victims’ claims.

“I felt like the manager of an insane asylum,” he writes.

It’s a valuable, if lopsided, book, and it contains some
surprises. The U.S. government jumped into this fray without any thought.
Eizenstat was based in Brussels, nudging the post-communist governments of
Central and Eastern Europe to restore communal properties confiscated during
the Nazi-era to religious communities, when, in June 1995, he read a Wall
Street Journal story about the dormant accounts in Swiss banks. He asked
Richard Holbrooke, his boss at the State Department, for authorization to
extend his restitution work to Switzerland. Holbrooke did not hesitate to
approve.

“No one in Washington held any meetings or weighed the
pluses or minuses,” writes Eizenstat, now an international trade lawyer in
private practice in Washington and special counsel to the Commission on Art
Recovery of the World Jewish Congress. “I just plunged in, initially with no
goal other than to find out the facts about the numerous dormant bank accounts
in Swiss hands for over five decades. There were no grand plans or strategies;
these came later.”

Eizenstat’s work on the issue entailed juggling conflicting
interests as the Swiss banks issue snowballed. Eizenstat was attempting to help
Nazi victims while trying to steady the United States’ diplomatic and economic
relations with European governments, which were roiled by the American lawsuits
and regulators’ threats of sanctions. Much of it was far beyond his control,
and he routinely battled with state and local regulators, arguing that their
threats of sanctions interfered with U.S. foreign policy. The $1.25 billion
Swiss banks settlement was under the supervision of U.S. District Judge Edward
Korman in Brooklyn, not the U.S. executive branch. Where Eizenstat did take
some control — to deal with claims against German and Austrian interests — he
freely admits in his memoirs that he used “creative accounting” and “dubious”
arithmetic to reach deals that looked better than they were.

He also was creative with funds that the U.S. government set
aside for Holocaust survivors. The funds were supposed to be “redress” for the
American failure to turn over to Jewish successor organizations the heirless
Jewish assets held by American banks after the war. Eizenstat was “rarely more
proud” than when he announced in 1997 that the United States would contribute
$25 million to a new international fund for Nazi victims. The money, he writes,
was to be used for food and social programs for Holocaust survivors in Eastern
Europe. However, 150 pages later, he recounts that, in the midst of the slave
labor negotiations, the Polish delegation was balking at the amount of
compensation being offered to its war-era forced laborers, so Eizenstat made a
“secret” deal in which Poland would receive $10 million of the $25 million.

The public did not notice Eizenstat’s efforts until May
1997, when he issued a U.S. government historical report on Switzerland’s
commercial links to the Nazis. His statement that these links helped “prolong”
the war was the sound bite that made the news. In his memoirs, however, he says
that these were “ill-chosen words” and that he could have made the same point
less harshly by saying these links helped “sustain” the German war effort.
“Prolong” is not the only thing from which he is backtracking. The cover of the
book — a swastika-shaped image superimposed over the Swiss flag — raised a hue
and cry. Eizenstat has said he regrets that the book cover offended the Swiss.
Apparently, that is not good enough. In January, a lawyer in Zurich filed
criminal charges against him, under a Swiss law that protects the flag from inappropriate
use.

Eizenstat seems to have an aversion to giving others proper
credit — even to the government he served. He refers repeatedly to the fact
that over 50 years, Germany paid DM 100 billion [$44.25 billion based on
conversion rates] to Nazi victims, without stressing that it was American
military occupation authorities who, after the war, compelled the German states
in the American Zone to enact restitution and compensation measures for
victims, and that in every subsequent treaty dealing with German sovereignty,
including reunification, the U.S. insisted that Germany retain its commitment
to Nazi victims.

In his chapter on Nazi-looted art, he discusses the “poster
child” of all successful claims: a 16th century painting by Lucas Cranach the
Elder that was looted from the collection of Philip von Gomperz, a Viennese
industrialist, and turned up at the North Carolina Museum of Art. The Gomperz
heirs, so impressed that the museum agreed to return the painting, agreed to
sell it to the museum for half its value. Eizenstat mentions by name everyone
except the woman who mediated between the museum and Gomperz heirs, arranging
both the recovery and the sale: Monica Dugot of the Holocaust Claims Processing
Office of the New York State Banking Department.

“Imperfect Justice” focuses on the political and diplomatic
aspects of Holocaust restitution. The legal dimensions are covered in
“Holocaust Justice: The Battle for Restitution in America’s Courts” by Michael
Bazyler, a professor at Whittier Law School in Costa Mesa. (I should disclose
here that Bazyler mentions me in the acknowledgments, for reading part of the
manuscript in draft.) The book, which is due out in April, is valuable as a
play-by-play of litigation on the Swiss banks cases, slave labor, Nazi-looted
art and Holocaust-era insurance policies, the latter being a topic Eizenstat
ignored. But to tell the story, Bazyler relies heavily and indiscriminately on
news accounts, especially those that bolster his points. However, most of the
news reporting of the litigation, negotiations and settlements was shoddy. Most
reporters were ignorant of the relevant history and law, and the stories were
only as accurate as the sources cited. Thus, the stories routinely were
incomplete, ahistorical and often served as platforms for partisans in the
disputes.

Despite these flaws, taken together, the two books provide
the most realistic picture yet of the road to Holocaust restitution settlements
at century’s end. Try to overlook the titles. Bazyler’s title implies that the
courts provided a remedy, although the major suits — against German companies
for slave labor compensation — failed. The Swiss banks’ settlement was not a
triumph of law and legal rights, but instead was due to Korman jawboning
everyone to reach a settlement. As for Eizenstat’s choice, it suffices to say
that Nazi victims rarely call this justice, imperfect or otherwise.

Stuart Eizenstat will be speaking and signing his book on
Sunday, March 30, at 8 p.m. at the University of Judaism, Gindi Auditorium, 15600
Mulholland Drive, Los Angeles. For more information, call (310) 476-9777 ext.
445.

He is also scheduled to speak at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books at UCLA on Sunday, April 27 from 2-5 p.m. For more information, visit

Hollywood, History and the Holocaust


Two celebrations took place in Los Angeles recently, and "Max," a new film about the young Adolf Hitler, opens today.

In a peculiar way, all three events are related.

The first celebration seems straightforward enough — at least on the surface. Sara and Charles Levin, who preferred not to give their real names, celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in November, along with their three children, their spouses, their grandchildren and about 40 friends.

The guests, aside from sharing their affection and pleasure at being together for the anniversary, were silent about a central fact: Sara Levin and her husband are survivors. When Sara was 13, she and her family were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau where Dr. Josef Mengele stood at the receiving line scrutinizing each person; some he sent directly to the gas chambers, others to the work force.

It is a story whose details Levin sometimes shares with schoolchildren and other visitors to the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance, where she volunteers three days a week as a docent. But it is a story she has never told her three children. She came close years ago when her oldest son, then 10, was watching a television drama about the Holocaust. "That could have been your mother," she told him, pointing to the screen; she was horrified when he burst into tears.

She and her husband decided never to tell the children a word about those dark teenage years in Europe. Instead, she recounts it in a low, calm understated voice to strangers — keeping the memory alive of those who survived, as well as of those who perished.

The second celebration is also a personal story, but in quite a different vein. On Dec. 5, the Shoah Foundation and founder Steven Spielberg celebrated the foundation’s eighth anniversary with a grand dinner that raised more than $500,000.

Today, Spielberg is both Hollywood’s most influential director and one of the city’s leading Jewish figures. It is no exaggeration to say that his film, "Schindler’s List," had a tremendous impact on his own life. He used the profits to establish the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation in 1994 which videotapes and preserves the testimonies of Holocaust survivors and witnesses.

The foundation also produces documentaries — eight thus far, including the Oscar-winning "The Last Days" (1998).

Ironically, Spielberg’s "Schindler’s List," along with other American portrayals, has turned out to be the most effective educational narratives produced about the Holocaust — even though the U.S. relationship was a distant one, while the European connection was far more direct and involved. Nevertheless, such American films as "Judgment at Nuremberg" and "The Diary of Anne Frank," and the television miniseries, "Holocaust," have been far more influential and have made a much deeper impact, here and abroad, than any European film.

"There is a sense, and the reception of Spielberg’s film confirms this, in which one thing doesn’t have reality in this culture until Hollywood says it does," Leon Wieseltier, The New Republic’s literary editor, told a television interviewer.

Years ago, Elie Wiesel registered his objections to the American films about the Holocaust: The experience had been too horrific, and television and movies only led to banality. He denounced the television miniseries, "Holocaust," as soap opera, but then was shocked to discover that a New York Times poll (later declared inaccurate) had shown that 22 percent of American adults had doubts about the genocide. Better to establish the Holocaust as a cultural fact in the American landscape than worry about trivializing it, he concluded.

But now we have a new film, "Max," which presents us with a portrait of Adolf Hitler as a young German war veteran struggling to become an artist in 1918, befriended by a fictitious Jewish art dealer, named Max Rothman.

Historians have objected to the portrait as being sympathetic because it concentrates on Hitler’s personal anguish as a young rejected artist, and not on the destruction he left behind in Europe, or the genocide that followed from his commands. "Max" seems to explain his subsequent behavior and, in the process, comes to rationalize it. Others have complained that the film only serves to distort history and to trivialize the past.

The process of changing Nazi history in films and television actually began some time ago in films and television. From Chaplin’s "The Great Dictator" to "Hogan’s Heroes," from Ernst Lubitsch’s "To Be or Not to Be" to "The Grey Zone," World War II and the Holocaust have been told almost solely from the point of view of the victors and the victims.

Now the story is beginning to shift once again, in a way that is disturbing, but perhaps inevitable. Films like "Max," and the planned CBS miniseries on Hitler’s life, will examine the Holocaust from the point of view of the perpetrators. We, the consumers of mass culture, undoubtedly will have to learn to live with this fact.

The cultural reality of our lives is that we must learn to come to terms with Sara Levin and the Shoah Foundation’s eyewitness tapes, no less than the dramatic Hollywood fictions that inevitably fight to replace history itself.


Gene Lichtenstein is the founding editor of The Jewish Journal.

Zachor:Remember


On Nov. 15, the Los Angeles Zimriyah Chorale, along with other Los Angeles choral groups, left for a European trip that included performances in Prague and, most notably, Nuremberg, where the chorale participated, on Nov. 25 and 26, in performances of Leonard Bernstein’s “Symphony No. 3, Kaddish,” in a concert hall built on the site of the famous Nazi Nuremberg rallies of the 1930s.

During the Czech leg of the trip, many of the choristers visited Terezin (Theresienstadt), the “model camp” at which the Nazis attempted to fool observers into believing that the Jews and others interned under the Hitler regime were well cared-for but which was really, as chorale member Sherri Lipman notes in this memoir of the trip, an “anteroom to Auschwitz.”

Our visit to Terezin was difficult. It was my first exposure to the physical reality of a Nazi concentration camp. The contrast of the trip through the lovely Czech countryside to the ancient fortress town of Terezin was heavy upon me.

Once we arrived, we had the sense of a movie set or a Disney reproduction. Terezin was, in reality, an anteroom to Auschwitz. Most of Terezin’s population was eventually shipped to that infamous place, and only a few remaining prisoners were well-fed and clothed to provide the International Red Cross and other observers with the fiction of good treatment.

I shall always remember a sense that I was being accompanied by the souls of those who had once lived there. They were there as we were shown the barracks for boys with the inscription “Yizkor” above the doorway. They shared my view of the cemeteries.

As we filed through the prison cells, the spooky showers, the dorms; as we saw the pictures drawn by the children trapped there; as we came upon the archway spelling out “Arbeit Macht Frei” (“Work Will Make You Free”), all of these images were shared in a metaphysical way with those who had gone before us.
As we sang two compositions composed at Terezin by Viktor Ullmann, who died there, I felt a sadness, yet a joy that was heightened by the sight of 2-year-old Gabriel Ellias, son of two of the chorale’s members. The music survived its composer, but we were there to keep it alive. So many people perished, yet Gabriel was there. He was our victory.

Many of us, when passing the Jewish cemetery, placed a stone on a headstone and said a private prayer for the soul it memorialized. Each of us, for our own reasons, needed to leave something there.

Our tour finally took us to the railroad siding, off the main track, where the trains disgorged their doomed passengers. The sky was very blue, the grass around the tracks deep green, and the sun had come out. Together, we chanted “El Male Rachamim” and recited “Kaddish” and then, as if the song sprang from one collective mind, we began to sing “Ani Ma-amin” (“I Believe”). Among our tears and comforting embraces, I think I found a spark of peace.

There are those who suggest that the concentration camps should be torn down and monuments placed on the sites as a memorial. I disagree. The physical reality of the camps is not a tourist magnet. The camps are testimony to what human beings are capable of doing when no one speaks out against evil. I shall carry the image of Terezin all the days of my life.

In Nuremberg

I started with rage, a blackness in my heart as we entered Nuremberg. No amount of beautiful countryside or picture-postcard houses could dilute it. No pleasant lunch with friends, crammed into a tiny restaurant room, trying to make our wishes known to a nice waitress, helped. I felt the same anger that had kept me from ever visiting Germany before or from buying a German car or studying German or appreciating the music of Wagner.

But the rage began to break up after I entered the hall with my husband and friends and began rehearsing. As we sang together, Jews and non-Jews, children and adults, a little chink appeared in my emotions. Music can do that.

In this place, which was built for Nazis, there were no Nazis.

What a joy to work with the brilliance of the Nuremberg musicians and their director, Jac van Steen. During the days before the first performance, we perfected and tuned countless sections of the difficult work, while stage business was honed and lighting effects finalized.

Finally, it was Saturday night. Meistersinger Hall, this magnificent place set on the site of Hitler’s monstrous rallies, in the city where the infamous Nuremberg Laws shackled thousands of Jews, was glittering. The auditorium was packed. We were elegant in our gowns and tuxedoes.

Never had we performed this work so well! We picked up our audience in our musical hands, the “speaker” of the piece grabbed them, and something magical occurred. There was a sense of communion, each of us linked in our own individual emotions, capturing the past and exposing it to the light. My rage eased ever so slightly and a new feeling began to take its place: hope!

When we finished, after the final “Amen” echoed through the hall, there was silence. The audience had stopped breathing and was afraid to do anything. Then, some tentative clapping, more hands, a collective roar, rhythmic applause, countless bows, flowers, our smiles.

In this place of immeasurable pain and madness, we arrived.

In this place, where once echoed the throbbing shrieks of hate, the forests of swastikas and the brutality of goose-stepping multitudes, we brought beauty.

In this place, we could never erase the past, but we could try to go forward.

In this place, I wanted to help change the future for my children and grandchildren. I wanted to show them that each of us must make a difference, by exposing blind hatred to the light of day.

My rage will never completely leave me, nor should it. I must use the power of that emotion for change. I am now a part of the future, and I refuse to let the past repeat itself. As long as I have the strength to do so, I shall try to be a voice that says we can be better.

I shall commit myself to the process of healing, so that unthinking hatreds cannot find currency in our world. It would be foolish to think that one person might make that much of a difference, but I know I’m not alone. Each of us was a part of it, and it all began … in this place.

Rescuing the Spiritual Elite


The Response of Orthodox Jewry in the United States to the Holocaust: The Activities of Vaad-Ha-Hatzala Rescue Committee, 1933-1945,
Efraim Zuroff,
Yeshiva University Press, 316 pages, $39.50

Efraim Zuroff is Israel’s preeminent Nazi-hunter, the best of the younger generation. Less of a detective or clandestine operative than his predecessors, he uses his considerable skills as a scholar and his diligence as a researcher to identify the perpetrators. He will be the last of the great Nazi hunters, because time is taking its toll on his potential targets, the youngest of which are now in their late 70s.

Those familiar with Zuroff’s work know that he has another passion: in articles and conference papers, he has chronicled the efforts of Orthodox Jews in the United States to rescue their brethren during the Shoah. More scholarly, less polemical and less reticent to consider discordant evidence than other researchers in the field, Zuroff writes with the precision of a seasoned scholar, carefully differentiating evidence from opinion and letting the documents tell the story.

It’s a little-known but important story of American Orthodox efforts to rescue yeshiva students and their teachers, facilitate their transport to Shanghai, and sustain them throughout World War II so that they could continue their studies even in the worst of times.

When the Germans invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, several prominent heads of Polish yeshivas quickly evacuated themselves and their students to independent Lithuania in the hopes of escaping the Nazi onslaught. Penniless and almost without resources, they gradually reconstituted their institutions to continue their Torah studies. Their safety was short-lived; on June 15, 1940, the Soviet Union ended Lithuanian independence. German domination endangered the physical lives of the students, while Soviet domination doomed their religious life and the institutional survival of the yeshivot.

Due to the efforts of the honorary Dutch consul Jan Zwartendijk and of the Japanese consul Chiune Sugihara, transit visas via Japan were secured toward the eventual settlement of these scholars in Curacao, which technically required no visa.

Nevertheless, Zwartendijk helped create a document that was both authentic and official and secured the passage of these students through the Soviet Union. Visas were issued until the very moment these counselor officials were forced to depart Lithuania. They were expelled by the Soviet Union at the end of August, and thereafter visas could be secured only in Moscow. Each visa became a lifeline, the difference between a difficult journey and almost certain death. Zuroff captures the drama of their efforts.

Most Orthodox rabbis in the United States were immigrants, many of whom had studied or even taught in the Polish yeshivas. In response to pleas from their friends and mentors, they founded an committee known as Vaad HaHatzala (“the Rescue Committee”) designed to raise funds and to secure the safety of the scholars forced into exile.

Their goal was to save a population that they considered as essential to Jewish survival as soldiers or Zionist pioneers. They believed in a hierarchy of values in which Torah study stood supreme. Their faith had stood the test of time and would be severely tested during this most awful of Jewish tragedies.

Zuroff, whose own sympathy for these values and these rabbis is apparent, narrates the ongoing tension that existed between the efforts of the Vaad HaHatzalah to raise funds and the general campaign efforts of the Federations. Orthodox rabbinical pleas for special treatment for the yeshiva elite fell on deaf ears. Most Jewish organizations, their resources stretched to the breaking point, were guided by other important values to save all Jews; officials desperate to feed everyone in the community were not quite sensitive to the plea for special treatment.

Zuroff also treads into uncomfortable territory for some Orthodox Jews by exposing the fallibility of these holy men. Some of the roshei yeshiva misjudged their circumstances. They refused to move, they stayed put too long, they refused to let their institutions be broken apart, mirroring many other European Jews who misperceived their plight.

Because he challenges the doctrine of the infallibility of “da’at Torah,” a doctrine now accepted as revealed truth by many in the charedi community, Zuroff has been reviled by the very community whose work he so competently examined. Perhaps I may be reading too much into the tensions between centrist Orthodoxy and its right-wing religious rival, the charedim, but Zuroff will be honored this week by Yeshiva University with the Samuel Belkin Literary Prize for outstanding work by a Yeshiva University alumnus.

In their zeal to save the Jewish future, the rabbis of the Vaad threatened and cajoled, lobbied and circumvented established processes of Jewish organizations from the Federation to the Joint. Some institutional leaders attempted to limit their fundraising opportunities; others tried to pacify the rabbis by offering them some modest support. Still others sought to restrict their efforts to Jews who were not giving to the general campaign, or to times in the year when the broader fundraising campaign was not in full swing.

As the war progressed, Orthodox leaders worked against and with the same organizations. They countered the call of the World Jewish Congress and the American Jewish Committee for “quiet diplomacy” rather than direct confrontation, but they supported the World Jewish Congress’ efforts to place a bill of particulars on the Jewish question to President Roosevelt and sided with the American Jewish Committee against public demonstrations.

How are we to know when Jewish officials truly grasped the urgency of what was happening? For secular officials, with such knowledge came a willingness to pull out all the stops, even to contemplate the violation of American law to engage in the politics of confrontation. For Orthodox Jews, with such knowledge came the willingness even to violate the Sabbath, for saving lives overrides the Sabbath. One is startled by how early some rabbis understood the plight of those they left behind.

Zuroff describes the clash of values accurately and fairly, his scholarship respectful yet penetrating. He does not debunk or dismiss but challenges and explains. Time and again he demonstrates that despite claims to the contrary and a lack of cooperation with the Orthodox rabbis, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee was responsible for the bulk of the funds used to rescue the yeshiva students. The Vaad supplemented the resources of the JDC and other organizations, and often there was resentment on the part of the rest of the Shanghai community of the additional resources that were devoted to this elite.

Lawrence Langer once described the plight of the victims as one of choiceless choices, “where crucial decisions did not reflect options between life and death but between one form of abnormal response and another both imposed by a situation that was in no way of the victim’s own choosing.” Those who attempted to save them also faced choiceless choices. Should the limited resources for sustenance and rescue be distributed evenly among all the Jews who could be reached, or unevenly, helping those who could make the greatest contribution to the Jewish future? These are unenviable choices, but they had to be made.

Zuroff has written the first of what must surely be two books. The bulk of his work concentrates on the years 1939-43, treating only in passing the pivotal year 1944 and the deep clashes within American Jewry over ransoming Jews.

He suggests how important the yield of future research may be and how permanent the changes in American Orthodoxy that the trauma of the war triggered, not only in the Americanization of European rabbis and the increasing cooperation of lay and rabbinical authorities, but also in the uneasy cooperation between the Jewish establishment and the sectarian communities.

He concludes with a critique of that very sectarianism. “Had the Vaad joined forces with the Joint, the overall results would probably have been more beneficial to the Jewish people than those achieved individually by each organization. And this too is a lesson that should be learned from the Holocaust.”
It is a lesson that is yet to be learned.

Riefenstahl Ruckus


A small but vocal group of demonstrators rallied outside Paramount Pictures in Hollywood last week, wielding signs and chanting slogans like “Jodie Foster wants to glorify a Nazi” and “Stop Jodie’s project now.”

They were protesting a proposed biopic of Leni Riefenstahl, Hitler’s favorite filmmaker, planned by Jodie Foster’s Egg Pictures, which is housed on the studio’s lot. Oscar-winning Foster is hoping to produce and star in the as-yet-unnamed movie, now being scripted by “Philadelphia” scribe Ron Nyswaner.

One would expect that a half-dozen demonstrators, most of them from the Jewish Defense League, wouldn’t capture a studio’s attention, much less elicit an in-person response from publicity chiefs. But as the participants picketed and shouted, not one but two top Paramount publicists emerged to make statements about the controversial movie.

Nancy Kirkpatrick, executive vice president of worldwide publicity, and Tim Webber, manager of corporate publicity, informed the ralliers the studio has nothing to do with the film. “Paramount is renting space to Ms. Foster, and she is doing her film here, but it’s not a Paramount picture,” Webber told The Journal. “Her production company is here on the lot, but we have many companies on the lot.”

Indeed, the movie is already drawing criticism from members of the Jewish community. “A lot of people in Hollywood are horrified at this,” Arnold Schwartzman, who won an Oscar for the Simon Wiesenthal Center documentary, “Genocide,” told the Daily News. “There will be many objections.”

Diane Jacobs, 79, said she attended the recent rally because “I’m a survivor, I lost my whole family in the camps, and I’m highly offended that Jodie Foster wants to make a movie about this woman.”

Foster has insisted that the German filmmaker needs to be portrayed. “Leni Riefenstahl’s story is something I have been dying to do for a long time,” she said in a written statement. “I see it as the acting challenge of a lifetime. There is no other woman in the 20th century who has been so admired and so vilified simultaneously. She was perhaps one of the greatest filmmakers of all time and yet her name and her work will forever be linked to the horror of Nazi Germany.”

Foster told the London Telegraph, as reported in The Forward, that Riefenstahl was “a tremendously gifted woman” who “made a lot of ugly choices at a terrible and horrible time in history.” She told the Daily News that she has met with Riefenstahl and regards her life as “a moral tale for us all. She is an extraordinary woman, sharp as a tack and as beautiful as she ever was, with a tremendous body.”

Now 98, Riefenstahl was born Helene Bertha Amalie Riefenstahl in Berlin and first aspired to become a dancer. Switching to film, she starred in and co-directed several exquisitely shot German “mountain” films and fell in with the Nazis.

She remains best known for her brilliant Third Reich propaganda films: Her documentary, “Olympia,” shot during the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, earned her a spot on Time magazine’s cover and is considered one of the best sports documentaries ever made. Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels himself awarded Riefenstahl the German National Film Prize for “Triumph of the Will,” which depicts Hitler as God-like and is widely credited for selling National Socialism to the masses. Goebbels lauded Riefenstahl’s womanly charms in his diaries.

The filmmaker, who has insisted “I was not a Nazi, I was an artist,” was, according to the Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, interned by the Allies for three years after World War II but later cleared of any wrongdoing. While she never made any other movies, she’s published well-received books of photography on undersea life and Sudanese tribesmen in recent decades. At the age of 97, she survived a helicopter crash in the Sudan that left her with broken ribs.

In an interview with the Sunday Telegraph, as reported in The Forward, Riefenstahl insists that she was naive about Hitler; that she’s “ashamed” she didn’t notice the persecution of the Jews; and that she never wanted to make “Triumph of the Will.” “And I say [to Hitler], ‘No, no, no, no,'” she recounts. “And he says, ‘Please, Leni, one film, one film of the rally in Nuremberg’… And journalists and people say that I have made the film because I am ambitious.”

Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center believes just that. He cites the archival photographs he’s seen of Riefenstahl with Hitler: “She looks infatuated with him,” he asserts. “She’s basking in the glory and the attention.”

Hier, who refused to pay Riefenstahl for the use of “Triumph” footage in “Genocide,” is concerned about Foster’s perceived admiration for the filmmaker. “If you start on that basis, it’s hard to be truthful about her during the Hitler years,” he explains. “Anybody doing a film on Leni Riefenstahl needs to show that she was infatuated with the Fuhrer and was his chief propagandist. To have assisted a person responsible for the greatest genocide in human history and to have been at his arm is not very complimentary.”

Through a Child’s Eyes


All the time Deborah Oppenheimer was growing up, her grandparents remained silent, one-dimensional portraits in a silver frame in the living room. “They were always there but never referred to,” says Oppenheimer, who is in her 40’s and the executive producer of “Norm” and “The Drew Carey Show.” “I knew virtually nothing about them.”

Her elegant, refined mother, Sylva Avramovici Oppenheimer, rarely told stories about her family. Viennese waltzes filled the air at Oppenheimer’s Valley Stream, N.Y., home; the German meals were served on German porcelain, but there was scarcely a memento of Sylva’s childhood in Chemnitz, Germany.”I tried a few times to ask questions, but she would start crying, then I would start crying, and I’d retreat because I didn’t want to cause her pain,” the producer says. “I could sense this veil of sadness that enveloped her. Her grief was vast and deep.”

All Oppenheimer knew was that just after her 11th birthday, Sylva had packed a tiny suitcase and boarded a train alone for an uncertain future among strangers. Her journey was part of the Kindertransport, a rescue mission that took some 10,000 children from Nazi-occupied Europe to safety in England. Sending her off was a desperate act of love by desperate parents, Oppenheimer knew. Sylva never saw them again. After the war, she read their names on a posted list of Jews who had perished in the death camps.

While Oppenheimer did not push her mother to relive painful memories, she hoped one day to make a documentary about the Kindertransport, perhaps when her television career was over. Then events intervened to remind her that the proverbial clock was ticking.

In 1990, during a routine physical exam, doctors found a spot on Sylva’s lung; when she died of cancer three years later, at the age of 65, her past seemed to die with her.

Then came a startling discovery: A cache of letters, hidden in a drawer, that had been mailed every day by Oppenheimer’s grandparents to her mother in England. Written on tissue-thin paper in delicate fountain pen, the letters made Oppenheimer’s family come alive for the first time. “No one, not even my father, had known that the letters existed,” says the TV executive, who is also the producer of the feature-length documentary “Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport,” which opens today in Los Angeles.

The letters included family gossip, nicknames, terms of endearment and attempts at parenting from afar. “It was thrilling to realize my mother had been so deeply loved,” says Oppenheimer, who learned of the Kindertransport’s 60th and last reunion in June 1999 and realized time was running out. “My mother’s death gave me permission to explore the subject without fear of hurting her,” she adds, ruefully.

Oppenheimer approached filmmaker Mark Jonathan Harris of “The Long Way Home,” the Oscar-winning documentary about the aftermath of the Shoah, only to find he was reluctant to begin another Holocaust film. “I think there’s a certain amount of what I’d call, Holocaust exhaust-ion,” the 55-year-old USC film professor told The Journal. “If you embark upon a film in that arena, you’d better have a fresh perspective.”He was persuaded, finally, by the chance to write and direct a movie that was as much about the resilience of children as the Shoah, a preoccupation of Harris’ since learning how his Hungarian grandfather arrived alone in the U.S. at the age of 12. “The draw, for me, was telling the story from a child’s point of view,” adds the director, whose five children’s novels are all written from a 12-year-old’s perspective.

As research, Harris and Oppenheimer read dozens of unpublished memoirs; watched Melissa Hacker’s 1995 docu-mentary, “My Knees Were Jumping: Remembering the Kindertransports”; scoured the archives of Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation; secured the cooperation of the U.S. Holo-caust Memorial Museum to view the rarest of vintage footage and artifacts. Armed with a distri-bution deal from Warner Bros., where Oppenheimer’s sitcoms are a tremendous commercial success, they set off to conduct 23 interviews with Kinder and their foster parents and rescuers in England and on the East Coast.

One woman quietly recalled how no one attended her 8th birthday party in Quakenbrueck, Germany, “the first compre-hending for a child that you are ostracized.” A Kind described being forced to work as a maid by her English guardians; a man recounted how he could not relate to his birth parents after the war; a Berlin Kindertransport organizer lamented losing his own wife and 3-year-old in Auschwitz.

The rescuer, who was gravely ill, died just five weeks after the interview. “It was as if once he had finished, he could let go,” says Oppenheimer, for whom the film was an emotional journey.

While making the movie, she discovered fragments of her mother’s story, which began at Hackney Hostel in London and continued at Cockley Cley Hall, a 5,000-acre estate near Norfolk. A Kind who had shared a bed with her mother described life in the gamekeeper’s residence, a fairy-tale-like thatched cottage with a tiny window and a mattress stuffed with twigs and leaves the girls had to knead before they slept. The woman mentioned the notched candle they kept at bedside to ration their reading; the pegs on the wall where they hung their ribbons and dresses; the harsh Jewish matron who punished the girls by withholding letters from their parents.

In summer 1999, Oppenheimer attended the reunion at Cockley Cley, where Kinder walked her down corridors, up back staircases, and into the dormitory-style bedrooms where they had silently cried themselves to sleep at night.

The producer also made her way to Chemnitz, an industrial town near Dresden, where she visited her family’s hosiery factory and the “Jewish house” where her grandparents had been confined after their home was confiscated. Across the street, she wandered the padlocked, decaying old train terminal, where Sylva had set off on the Kindertransport and her parents had boarded cattle cars to the camps.

In another part of town, Oppenheimer stood in her mother’s childhood apartment, by then a doctor’s office with a worn tile foyer; while she found nary a trace of her family’s living quarters, she comforted herself by looking out the window at the view her family surely had enjoyed. She imagined her mother playing in the garden and noted the same rhododendrons and geraniums that Sylva had planted in the backyard in Valley Stream. “I felt amazement that I was retracing the path of my mother’s life, but true sadness that I was doing it without her,” Oppenheimer says.

The film, she explains, has been a way to keep her mother present and to achieve closure since her death. “Ironically, I had to lose my mother to learn her story,” she says.

“Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport” opens Sept. 15 in Los Angeles. There is also an accompanying book of the same title (Bloomsbury, $27.50); a CD soundtrack from Chapter III Records (available in stores Sept. 26); and a display of Kindertransport artifacts, most collected for the film, to appear at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Sept. 8-24 (for information, call (202) 488-0400).

Whose Money?


Since 1996, Jewish groups and their lawyers have gone to the mat with the likes of the Germans, the Swiss and the French, extracting $9 billion in restitution for the evil wrought in Europe by Nazi forces and their collaborators.

While the entire process is gradually winding down, a few more battles loom: with the Austrian government, with museums holding looted art-work and with the U.S. companies whose wartime German subsidiaries profited from slave labor.

But the clash that promises to be particularly wrenching will actually pit Jew against Jew: what to do with the hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars in “residual” funds, those without direct heirs or claimants.

On Sept. 11, the World Jewish Congress (WJC) will formally announce the creation of a foundation – tentatively named the Foundation for the Jewish People – that will determine the spending priorities.The foundation was actually established in June in Jerusalem, but the WJC chose to announce it at a gala event in New York to honor the politicians who have played a key role in restitution, including President Clinton, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The foundation board will be made up of representatives of various Jewish organizations, Holocaust survivor groups and the Israeli government. Among the ideas floated are funding Jewish and Holocaust education, restoring Jewish communities in Europe or building Holocaust museums and memorials, said Elan Steinberg, WJC’s executive director.

“The Nazis sought to wipe out not only the Jewish people but Jewish communities and Judaism itself,” Steinberg said.

“Obviously, this has been 50 years too slow,” he added. “But I think the issue we have to address, are now forced to address, is to ensure that how these residual assets are used reflects the best interests of the Jewish people as a whole.”

Many Holocaust survivors vehemently disagree.

While they support the general need for education, commemoration, documentation and research, they believe there are more pressing needs: health care for the 250,000 survivors worldwide, including 130,000 in the United States. An estimated 1,000 survivors die each month.

“Yes, money should be spent for Jewish education and culture, but that is the obligation of klal Yisrael – of all Jews,” said Roman Kent, a survivor who serves as chairman of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and vice-president of the Claims Conference.

“But to me, this money has one specific purpose,” Kent said. “All of it should go to the survivors. As long as there are still survivors who are old and sick and needy, they are the first obligation.”

The $9 billion figure is a bit misleading, and most of it is already spoken for, according to the WJC’s Steinberg.

Per an agreement reached with Germany in July, $5.2 billion will go to some 1.25 million forced and slave laborers. In real terms, Jewish laborers will receive 30 percent of the sum, with 140,000 slave laborers collecting up to $7,500 apiece.

Of the $1.25 billion from the Swiss banks, $200 million went into a humanitarian fund for the 250,000 Jewish survivors around the world. Lump-sum payments ranged from $500 to $1,400. In the United States, nearly $30 million was allocated to more than 60,000 survivors, or $502 apiece.

According to Steinberg, France has committed to $700 million; Holland, $400 million; German insurers, $350 million-plus; various settlements for stolen artwork amount to $200 million; Italian insurer Assicurazioni Generali, $150 million; Norway, about $70 million; and Great Britain, roughly $50 million.In addition, in negotiations with the Claims Conference in the 1950s, Germany agreed to pay annual pensions to some 85,000 survivors. That total has run to nearly $50 billion and about $500 million a year.The Claims Conference is also responsible for selling off unclaimed property from the former East Germany, which now generates close to $80 million per year.

Twenty percent is allo-cated for Holocaust-related research and documentation, while 80 percent goes for social welfare programs for survivors in the former Soviet Union, Israel and the United States. This includes home care assistance for 18,000 survivors in all three regions and 3 million hot meals and 800,000 food packages per year in the former Soviet Union, said Gideon Taylor, the conference’s executive vice-president.

“We’ve been able to make a huge difference in the lives of hundreds of thousands of people,” Taylor said. “The question is, how do we use the limited resources available from restitution to help the neediest survivors all around the world? It’s what our allocations process grapples with: balancing resources with competing needs.”

Taylor concedes that not everyone will come away satisfied.

But what lies at the heart of this intracommunal debate are two contentious issues: Who are the rightful heirs to all that was lost in Europe, and who has the right to decide how the money should be spent?

Holocaust survivors and their advocates say the stolen property and assets lost did not in fact belong to “the Jewish people as a whole” but to European Jewish communities and individuals. Furthermore, they say, it is the survivors, and they alone, who are entitled to decide the spending priorities, not the groups that negotiated on their behalf.

“We’re not going to be around forever,” said Joe Sachs, co-chairman of the Florida Survivors Coa-lition. “Let’s give these people their due. Just a little justice. A little peace of mind from their health care problems in their last few years.”

Rose’s Quest


The hiding places in the title of Daniel Asa Rose’s new memoir refer to the haylofts and cellars where his relatives hid from the Nazis during the war years, and also to the suburban tool sheds and coat closets where the author crawled into during his childhood in a mostly gentile Connecticut town. The title also alludes to the author’s efforts to avoid his Judaism. Traveling to Europe to find his family’s hiding places in Belgium and France with his two young sons, Rose comes to see that hiding places are “not merely dark holes of concealment” but also “places of revelation.” The trip leads him to understand the links between present and past, his own connections to his family’s past and to the Jewish future.

“Hiding Places: A Father and His Sons Retrace Their Family’s Escape from the Holocaust” (Simon & Schuster) is the account of a trip more than 12 years ago when he was recently divorced and his now-grown up sons were 12 and 7. The story of their adventures – from scant clues they manage to track down many of the places they seek – is interwoven, in alternate chapters, with his reminiscences of growing up. Rose says it took him 10 years to write the book because it was such a “massive undertaking, dealing with my forebears, my children, my religion.” It took him considerable time to find the right voice, one that captured the irreverence of his children – one son exclaims, when he sees the number tattooed onto a relative’s arm in Brussels, “Boy, you really don’t want to lose your phone number!” – and was still respectful toward the Holocaust.

“I had to lighten it for a new generation, while at the same time pay homage,” the author, a novelist, essayist and travel writer who has won several awards for his fiction, says. Friends and relatives were surprised by his decision to take the trip with his young sons. It was an effort to reconstitute their family after the divorce, to reclaim their roots, to show the boys their history up close where it would make a difference to them. While traveling, he realizes that his sons are the ages of young relatives who were killed in efforts to escape.

Rose grew up in Rowayton, adjacent to Darien, “the proverbial anti-Semitic hamlet of “Gentleman’s Agreement.” His mother had escaped from Bel-gium in 1939 and frequently told him fairy tales from the Brothers Grimm along with the all-too-true stories of her relatives’ experiences hiding from the “Not-sees,” who “didn’t see things normal people saw.” As a kid, he was embarrassed about being Jewish, being different. On the rare occasions when the family attended synagogue, he wore an unseen transistor radio, tuned to Cousin Brucie. His worldly diamond-dealer great uncles, survivors who were the family patriarchs, and other relatives made him aware of his heritage, but he was largely unin-terested. He explains that the trip was also a kind of atonement, for the years spent making fun and mimicking his stuttering relatives who survived Hitler’s Europe.

On their trip, the three meet up with relatives in Brussels who are kind but leery of their mission, but they introduce them to another relative, who changed his name from Jacov Pesach Morgenstern to J.P. Morgan – another kind of hiding – whose diaries become the basis for their quest. Through a series of seemingly serendipitous events, they manage to find many of the places they’re looking for and also find a little-known concen-tration camp in France, near the Pyrenees, abandoned but still in its original condition.

One son, mystified by the connections they make, suggests that “maybe we’re on like invisible railroad tracks that steer us into the things we want,” and the other says, “It’s like we’re inside a video game and God is playing us.”

Rose writes well, with wit and humor and attention to telling details. From the very beginning, in fact just after the table of con-tents, readers learn that “Hiding Places” is no ordinary memoir. In an author’s note, he explains that he has “taken pains to tidy and pace the narrative, to conflate some of the characters in order to lend focus to the structure, and occasionally to imagine details in an effort to convey the deepest sense of the sagas recounted herein.” Although he sticks strictly to the facts when it comes to details of the Holocaust, his other accounts are admittedly not literal. He sees the book as on the “cutting edge, expanding the notions of what nonfiction is, redefining what the memoir is.” His approach raises important questions about how events like the Holocaust are recorded and passed on, as the generation of survivors and witnesses is aging.

The trip was life changing for all of the Roses. The author, now remarried and the father of sons who are 2 and 5 (the older boys are 20 and 24), says that he’s on a path of increased Jewish iden-tification but still “in flux, still living among the Yankees” in a small Massachusetts town near Providence, Rhode Island. He’s working on a new book that’s a sequel, again weaving his own life stories with a larger story.

The Arts


Max (Clive Owen, left) and Horst (Lothaire Bluteau) in”Bent.”


What a peculiar piece of work is “Bent.” The film version ofMartin Sherman’s play, first presented on the London stage in 1979,and later on Broadway, has taken almost 20 years to come to thescreen. It’s not difficult to see why. Not only is it turgid stuff,with a paucity of unfilmable ideas, but in an industry that sometimesseems to specialize in specious history, it will be hard to matchthis one for irresponsibility.

The chief character, Max (Clive Owen), a playboy, a main player inthe decadent gay night life of 1930s Berlin, has the misfortune ofpicking up a soldier in a cabaret-style nightclub owned by thetransvestite Greta. (The scene, incidentally, is a dreadful pasticheof every depiction of German decadence, from Christopher Isherwood to”The Damned.”) Max’s one-night stand turns out to be a chum of NaziCommander Ernst Roehm, and the evening of their tryst was the nightof the Long Knives, when Hitler purged open homosexuals from hisregime. Max’s entertainment for the evening meets a bloody end, andMax and his steady boyfriend, the cabaret dancer Rudy, take to thewoods, hotly pursued by the SS and their dog packs.

Once in the concentration camp, Max chooses to pass as a Jew,donning the yellow star instead of the pink triangle of thehomosexual prisoner; Jews get better treatment than gays, who are,according to this tale, the lowest of the low.

The argument is ludicrous. It is bad art and even worse history.That it deserves to be pilloried is obvious to anyone who cares todraw the line between fact and fiction. That it will probably not beis testament to our politically correct times.

Almost 20 years ago, when Sherman’s dubious metaphor — he wastrying to make some sort of statement about the perils to gayself-respect of remaining in the closet, at a time and in a placemuch different to ours — was being attacked in the English press,the playwright who is both gay and Jewish, and, therefore, accordingto him, incapable of being offensive to Jewish sensibilities,insisted that the criticism was misplaced. Only the plight of theJews, he said, was a strong enough image in our consciousness to makeaudiences aware of the degree of gay suffering. Arguing that the playneeded to be judged by political rather than aesthetic standards,some of the gay press, though by no means all, agreed.

Historian Barry Davis, in a review for the London-based magazineGay Left, decried what he called “the mercantilism of compassion” –the dangerous game of who suffered most.

“Whatever Sherman’s intention,” he wrote, “he appears to diminishthe suffering of one persecuted group to highlight the suffering ofanother.”

Davis, among others, was at pains to correct Sherman’s skeweredhistory, pointing out that while homosexuals were often sent toconcentration camps, they rarely ended up in death camps, at leastfor the sin of being gay. The Nazis did not exterminate gays as theydid Jews and Gypsies.

In the absence of records, estimates of the number of gays killedunder the Third Reich range anywhere from 10,000 to 100,000, butthere is no way to assess how many of those were killed because theywere gay, or how many were Jews who also happened to be gay. Gaysreturning from the camps after the war, surprisingly, were notreluctant to discuss the reasons for their incarceration.

It was a crime, punishable by death, to be homosexual in the SS.But in the German population at large, preventative detention, notdeath, was the punishment for the “crime” of being gay.

Ironically, to today’s radical right — the militias, theNeo-Nazis — Jews and homosexuals are one and the same, but in moresophisticated circles, to equate being gay with being Jewish issentimental at best and nonsense at worst.

A homosexual in the face of Nazi persecution could choose to stayin the closet. In the film, Greta, the transvestite nightclub owner(played by Mick Jagger), simply burns her wardrobe and becomesGeorge, a respectable German burgher. A Jew had no such option.

British historian Davis believes that Sherman may have based hisplay on the writings of Bruno Bettleheim in “Survival and OtherEssays,” in which the author described a camp where gays were indeedthe lowest of the low. But it was not a death camp. Those were earlydays in the war against the Jews, and Bettleheim had escaped toAmerica by the time the mass exterminations began.

In the England of the 1970s, long before we had lesbian love onprime-time sitcoms and red ribbons on every lapel, Martin Sherman maywell have felt persecuted, not least in a Jewish community that couldfind little role for an openly gay man. We hope times have changed.

Piggybacking the woes of one group onto the suffering of anotheris always tempting — witness the overheated rhetoric of some of theearly radical feminists who would have had us believe they had it ashard as the passengers in the slave ships — but it is a dangerousbusiness that can come back to bite those who avail themselves of it.

Homosexuality was rife among the SA and the SS in a culture thathad its roots in the German male-bonding ethos, the Mannebund. Andthere is little doubt that many of the female guards in the campswere lesbians.

“The trouble with creating instant victims,” says Davis, “is thatyou have to do your sums, and, in this case, there were probably moregays among the oppressors than there were gays oppressed.”

This double-edged sword was demonstrated graphically at aninternational gay and lesbian convention not long ago in Israel. On avisit to Yad Vashem, delegates were spat upon by demonstrators, oneof whom yelled, “My uncle was raped by homosexual guards in thecamp.”

It would indeed be a tragedy if Sherman’s work were to set Jewsand gays against each other in a juvenile and ridiculous “Hitlerhated me more” argument.

Happily, “Bent” is such a poor film that, with any luck, few willsee it.

Sally Ogle Davis writes about entertainment from Ventura.

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Pursuing Justice, But at WhatCost?


One could almost see historyon the march in Washington last week when the House Banking Committeeheld a day of hearings on Nazi plunder — stolen artworks in themorning, looted insurance policies after lunch — and how to restoreit to its rightful owners.

These days, of course, it is historic enough justto see a roomful of Congress members managing to tear themselves awayfrom probing the president’s underwear for a day. But the Naziplunder hearings carry a deep meaning. They represent a sort of milemarker in the mysterious unfolding of Jewish history. And notnecessarily a healthy one.

Right now, there are at least four separate billsmoving through Congress, each aimed at getting the U.S. government tohelp identify stolen Jewish assets and win them back. Last week’shearings laid out some of the legal and technical hurdles. Insurerssay much of their prewar assets were seized by communists in EasternEurope, where most Holocaust victims lived; while the firms amassednew fund reserves, these may not be applicable to the lost policies.Lawyers say that statutes of limitations on stolen property varybetween nations and even states, ensuring a jurisdictionalnightmare.

Perhaps most significant, reclaiming stolen assetswill be hampered by a chasm between two different Western legalcodes. In the common law of Britain and America, stolen goods belongto their original owner, however often they change hands. In thecivil law followed in Austria, France, Italy and much of the world,someone who unwittingly buys stolen goods “in good faith” owns themoutright, ending the original owner’s rights. In much of Europe, manyHolocaust victims simply have no legal right to their propertyanymore.

Despite the complications, sources on Capitol Hillinsist that some form of legislation will be enacted this year. Whenit is, the campaign for restitution — against Swiss banks that hidHolocaust victims’ accounts, insurance companies that wouldn’t payout their life insurance, museums that won’t give back their stolenpaintings — will take on a new profile. It will no longer be theinsurance companies against the Jews. They will be tangling with theworld’s lone superpower.

How we got here is a remarkable tale: years ofspadework by Jewish organizations, sympathetic press coverage, publicoutcry, a bill by a friendly lawmaker, overwhelming congressionalsupport.

It’s not new. Following the same script, Congress,in 1974, passed the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, making U.S.- Soviettrade relations dependent on how Moscow treated Jews. In 1977,Congress outlawed compliance by U.S. businesses with the Arab boycottof Israel. In 1978, Congress created the Office of SpecialInvestigations, the Nazi-hunting unit of the Justice Department, totrack down war criminals who settled here illegally after World WarII.

In each case, the power of the U.S. government washarnessed to an international pursuit of justice for Jews. This is nosmall thing. No government in history ever treated Jews so kindly.Nor does America pursue justice for all people everywhere. It did notact to stop the genocide in Rwanda. It dithered for three yearsbefore taking action in Bosnia. Many Americans oppose entanglement inconflicts overseas, period.

For that matter, America has its own victims ofinjustice still awaiting restitution: the remnants of the Cherokeeand Sioux, the grandchildren of black slaves. What they seem to getfrom America, more than anything, is resentment that they are stillhurting.

But when it comes to Jewish suffering, Americarises up like a mighty wave. Initiatives such as Jackson-Vaniktypically pass Congress by huge majorities, approaching unanimity.America, it often seems, simply likes Jews.

It wasn’t always so. Think back, say, six decades.In the spring of 1939, Congress held hearings on a bill to easeimmigration rules so that 20,000 German Jewish children could beplaced in American foster homes, out of the Nazis’ path. The ideadrew a storm of opposition and died in committee. At the time, therewere 60 bills before Congress to restrict immigration even further,mainly to keep Jews out. Polls showed that five of every sixAmericans opposed any easing of immigration restrictions, Hitler orno Hitler. Almost 30 percent believed that Jews were a threat toAmerica.

Sixty years ago, America refused to save Jews fromNazism. Today, America springs into action. What caused the change?One could be dewy-eyed and credit it to America’s bedrock moralfiber. But that would not explain America in 1939. One could becynical and chalk it up to our campaign financing, which favors thosewho know how to give. But that ignores the genuine good inAmerica.

In the end, one cannot explain it without talkingabout the postwar organized Jewish community. Time after time, Jewishleaders — yes, sometimes they are exactly that — managed tocrystallize an issue in terms that appealed to America’s sense ofjustice. They got the public’s attention and forged coalitions. Mostimportant, they managed, at best, to frame the debate in a way thatleft the other side looking foolish and wicked.

This time, they are trying something new. Intaking on museums and insurance companies, the Jewish community hasembarked, for the first time, on a campaign in which the crimes arenot necessarily inhuman and the enemies are not necessarily wicked.It is a battle not of good versus evil but of conflicting claims anddifferent legal interpretations. It is a battle for money.

It is a battle that leaves many Jews queasy. Mostuneasy are Holocaust survivors, who spent their lives fighting tomake the world see the incomparable evil of the Nazis’ crimes. Nowthe moral authority they amassed over a lifetime is being used todemand cash — not from Nazis but from neutral financialinstitutions. Many survivors are very unhappy about this.

Few speak out because they do not want to dividethe community. They hesitate, too, because no one wants to justifyrobbery. Most of the victims’ claims are doubtless justified. Manycry out for justice.

But in taking up these claims as the Jewishpeople’s crusade, the community’s leadership has taken a huge gamble.American Jews have had no greater weapon in the last half centurythan their unquestioned moral authority as symbols of suffering andredemption. What will remain of that authority when the dickering isdone and the insurance companies have paid us off?

J.J. Goldberg is the author of “Jewish Power:Inside the Amercan Jewish Establishment.” He writes regularly for theJewish Journal.

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