Like many Jews, Alfred Weinberger and his wife Marie hid their belongings before fleeing as the Nazis invaded Paris. Weinberger, an avid art collector, hid his collection of precious paintings and jewelry in a secure Paris bank vault. The Weinbergers survived the War, but were never reunited with their belongings — the vault was looted by the Nazis.
In New York, earlier this week, their granddaughter Sylvie Sulitzer, a French citizen born following the War who lived with her grandparents for several years, saw one of those paintings for the first time.
The story of Alfred and Marie and their lost collection is unfortunately not unique.
Nazis not only looted banks, they gathered art off the walls of Jewish homes.
The Nazis established an office charged with the responsibility of acquiring such art.
They looted over 100,000 pieces, keeping track of each and every item.
In their arrogance, they kept impeccable records documenting their activities, thus making it all the easier for Sulitzer to finally be reunited with the work looted from the Paris bank.
A 1919 painting, "Deux Femmes Dans Un Jardin" ("Two Women in a Garden") by French impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir is in fact one of his last works.
This Renoir work — and all the others from the Weinberger collection — was listed by name in Nazi records.
In World War II's aftermath the art world was flush with art. This was despite the fact that the provenance of much of that art was questionable. Many private individuals, and even reputable institutions and museums, elected not to ask the obvious questions.
It is the acquisitions which were important.
As long as there was a line of succession, however dubious it was, the art was bought, shared, donated, and displayed.
"Deux Femmes Dans Un Jardin" made its way from Paris to South Africa to London to Zurich and finally to Christie's in New York. The art spoke for itself, the people kept mum.
Eventually, those lucky enough to survive the Nazi killing machine, and then their children and grandchildren, began to demand the return of their family possessions. Court cases ensued. Settlements were made.
The Nazis lost the War, yet their spoils remained and were traded. Such is the nature of war. The prophet Hosea, in The Bible, in Hosea chapter 10, verse 13, describes the evil inherent in profiting from the pain and destruction of others.
He says, "You have plowed wickedness and reaped the thriving crop injustice."
This type of behavior was to be expected from Adolf Hitler and his Nazi army.
They kept track of the name of each piece of art. Art was precious and to be preserved, Jewish lives were not. But that museums chose to knowingly profit off the loot of Jews murdered by Nazis — that still boggles the mind while unsettling the soul.
These centers of culture were profiting from Nazi theft — giving the Nazis a posthumous victory. Many museums and institutions proudly hung the works on their walls and in their galleries, others put them into storage hoping that, with time, the claims would die down and the pieces could emerge from hiding.
The FBI does not agree and has been tracking the works of art for years.
It's the stuff that movies are made of. And the 2015 hit movie "Woman in Gold" starring Helen Mirren is a powerful example of the fight by a Holocaust survivor from Vienna to regain her family's possessions.
Some museums — acknowledging that the works were probably stolen or looted — are actually fighting to keep the Nazi art they have acquired.
Neither the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California nor the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art at the University of Oklahoma denies that some of the art they have is stolen.
Yet, these institutions continue to argue, through their lawyers, that the families of the original owners did not move fast enough in making their claims and as such, they have forfeited their ownership.
To make matters worse, this past July a federal court inCalifornia sided with the museum ruling that the artwork will remain in the museum.
Other museums fully acknowledge the status of some pieces in the collection.
The Louvre in Paris has created a permanentexhibit of looted art.
The Louvre has thousands of pieces. They are paying tribute to the destruction wrought by the Nazis and are trying to reunite the art with the families from which it was looted.
To date, the French have successfully returned 45,000 to the families of the original owners.
Sylvie Sulitzer will probably have to sell "Deux Femmes Dans Un Jardin" to cover the cost of recovering the famous work. She was visibly shaken when she saw the painting and thanked everyone helping her to get it back.
Ms. Sulitzer said, "It's a lot of emotion because you really realize how people are concerned about what happened because it's so easy just to say okay it's the past . . . we'll never forget. We can't forget. But it's very important that we, me, as a human, as a Jewish person, to consider that you have people who work for the justice."
Six million Jews were murdered by the Nazis. That evil will never be erased, that pain cannot be eased. But at least one woman received some small portion of justice.
Micah Halpern is a political and foreign affairs commentator. He founded "The Micah Report" and hosts "Thinking Out Loud with Micah Halpern" a weekly TV program and "My Chopp" a daily radio spot. A dynamic speaker, he specializes in analyzing world events and evaluating their relevance and impact. Follow him on Twitter @MicahHalpern. To read more of this reports — Click Here Now.
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