The Nazis’ brutality was of such a nature and scale that it can be difficult to give proper attention to their prodigious theft of property, which is at the center of two recent and compelling books.
Simon Goodman’s “The Orpheus Clock” describes the efforts of descendants of one of Germany’s prominent Jewish banking families, the Guttmans, to reclaim artworks purchased in the 19th and early 20th centuries and looted by the Germans during World War II.
The author’s father, Bernard Goodman, was exceedingly reserved and rarely spoke of the past. It was only after Bernard died in 1994 that Simon and his brother Nick gained insight into their father’s pain. Boxes of correspondence revealed Bernard’s decades-long struggle for restoration of his family’s paintings, unique silver collection, furniture and home.
Bernard had grown up near Amsterdam in a mansion that showcased the family’s art collection. When Germany invaded the Netherlands, Bernard was studying in England (where he Anglicized his name), and his sister was in Italy. Believing they could weather the storm, their parents Fritz and Louise did not attempt to flee. After being deported to Theresienstadt, Fritz was tortured and murdered in a nearby prison and Louise was killed by gas in Auschwitz.
Their art collection, ranging from Bosch to Renoir, found its way into many hands. After the war, when the Allied governments’ Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives groups (the so-called Monuments Men) located art looted by the Nazis, their guiding principle was to restore it to its country of origin on the assumption the government would return the art to its proper owners. However, some countries sought to retain items for their own benefit. And their efforts were strengthened in cases where there had been forced sales, which were effectively robberies with the veneer of a legal transaction.
If the obvious villains in “The Orpheus Clock” are the Nazis, the revelation is the shameful behavior of the post-war Dutch government, which deflected the Guttman descendants’ efforts to reclaim their lost property and their approximately 700 paintings that had been returned to the Netherlands. Bernard Goodman’s efforts were met by outrageous demands and outright theft.
Once they made their late father’s efforts their own, the Goodman brothers also encountered unsavory ethical behavior among auction houses and art collectors. Persistent, in 1996 they launched the first legal case to be tried in the United States that sought the restoration of Nazi-looted art. Beyond seeking justice for their own family, they played a significant part in prompting auction houses and museums to take seriously the provenance of the works in their possession.
Thanks to several popular books and films, stories of Nazi-looted art have received wide recognition. Fewer people are familiar with the fate of Jewish books. Although the Nazis are associated with burning Jewish books, they were far more likely to collect them. They systematically raided private and communal libraries across Europe, amassing millions of Jewish books and documents.
The question of what should be done with these plundered materials after the war was a pressing one for Zosa Szajkowski, the enigmatic figure at the center of Lisa Moses Leff’s “The Archive Thief,” which recently received the 2016 Sami Rohr Prize (which carries the highest purse of any award for Jewish writing). Born in a Polish shtetl in 1911, Szajkowski moved as a teenager to Paris, where, under the tutelage of Elias Tcherikower, a historian at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, he became a groundbreaking researcher of French Jewry. He managed to leave France in 1941 and returned as a paratrooper and interpreter in the United States Army.
While stationed in Allied-occupied Germany immediately after the war’s end, Szajkowski came into contact with vast numbers of Jewish materials the Nazis had seized. As valuable as the Monuments Men’s efforts were, a significant shortcoming was the aforementioned policy of sending items to their country of origin, without consideration as to whether the owners had been Jewish or not. As a result, hundreds of thousands of books whose owners had been killed were destined for locales that no longer had large Jewish communities.
Szajkowski took it upon himself to intercept this process, and he shipped a considerable amount of material — periodicals, books, documents and more — to the United States (primarily to YIVO, which had relocated to New York). Believing there was no Jewish future in Europe, he wanted the materials to have a home in areas where they would be used to advance Jewish culture.
Not long thereafter, the Allies’ policies changed to favor Szajkowski’s position, with recognition of the unique nature of “orphaned” Jewish books and objects, and the importance of finding appropriate destinations for them. The organization Jewish Cultural Restoration, founded in 1947 by historian Salo Baron (and soon led by Hannah Arendt), became the chief actor in this effort.
Over time, even as he was writing prolifically on Jewish history, Szajkowski’s heroic efforts gave way to problematic behavior — he reportedly stole documents from European archives and sold materials with questionable provenance to unwitting American Jewish scholarly institutions, effectively reshaping the environment in which Jewish history could be researched. Szajkowski killed himself in 1978 after having been arrested stealing documents — not from a European archive, but from the New York Public Library.
Leff, who teaches history at American University, does an excellent job of tracing Szajkowski’s mysterious life and showing the moral complexity of his crimes. It is impossible to separate Szajkowski’s thievery from questions of where Jewish culture — particularly in the pre-digital age, when virtually every document had a definitive home — should be studied and lived out in the aftermath of the Holocaust.
Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library, a project of Jewish LearningWorks, in San Francisco. All books mentioned in this column may be borrowed from the library.
“The Orpheus Clock: The Search for My Family’s Art Treasures Stolen by the Nazis” by Simon Goodman (368 pages, Scribner)
“The Archive Thief: The Man Who Salvaged French Jewish History in the Wake of the Holocaust” by Lisa Moses Leff (286 pages, Oxford University Press)