Even today, Germany has no law to recover the Judaica plundered on Kristallnacht

Unlike acclaimed works of art, thousands of items stolen on Kristallnacht are lawfully held and sold on, François Rolland says

November 08, 2018 12:07

The orders arrived in Heidelberg shortly after midnight on November 10, 1938. Agents from the local Gestapo office were to immediately retrieve all objects of value from the town’s synagogues.

That was how Torah scrolls, prayer shawls and a majestic solid silver Chanukah Menorah were looted. The chanukiah was particularly valuable: it was donated in 1698 by Samuel Oppenheimer to mark the reestablishment of Heidelberg’s Jewish community after 300 years of banishment.

The Jews had been expelled in 1389 by the local prince so that their property could be handed over to create the university and house its students. Now history was repeating itself.

About an hour later, the brownshirts broke into the main synagogue and torched it. Jewish homes were stormed, possessions thrown onto the streets, and men rounded up for deportation to Dachau.

That evening, the Gestapo and brownshirts brought their plundered Judaica to the Stiftsmühle Hotel in the nearby village of Ziegelhausen as trophies to celebrate their deeds.

Members of what became a local old Nazis’ club was still meeting at that hotel in the late 1960s. Their loot, according to what elder members of the local Jewish community have told me, was still in their possession.

Since last summer I have been investigating the whereabouts of this plundered Judaica — in particular, the Oppenheimer Menorah.

During the war, the Nazis sent the Judaica plundered from all over Eastern Europe to Prague. The plan was to create a Jewish anti-museum there once the Shoah was complete.

By 1950, some 50 warehouses in Prague were — according to a Der Spiegel report from 1988 — left filled to the rafters with Judaica, all in the hands of the new Czechoslovakian Communist regime.

But in an effort to obtain hard currency, the government employed the few surviving Jewish men to haul the objects across the Iron Curtain and dump them on the antiquities market in exchange for western currency.

British Jews are among those who got in on the trade as late as the 1990s for personal gain. Objects from Prague are still in circulation today.

Back in Ziegelhausen, I found a retired pastor and theologian who has collected thousands of pieces of Judaica, much of which comes from this trade. Antique dealers sourced them through “Jews from the east”, he said, referring to the Czechoslovakian middlemen.

He showed me a half-burnt Torah scroll in his cupboard and a Jewish family recipe book that he says was picked off the street 80 years ago in Heidelberg.

No indication, yet, of the menorah’s fate, but my investigations did reveal something significant: according to the law in Germany, from where so much was plundered and destroyed on Kristallnacht, this pastor has committed no crime.

There is a five-year statute of limitations for theft, so he is considered the owner and could lawfully sell them tomorrow if he so desired. The same applies to any items that may still be in circulation around the village of Ziegelhausen.

Unlike the hundreds of Jewish-owned works of art, many of which have rightly been returned to the descendants of their pre-war owners, there is no legal recourse to confiscate Judaica.

The likelihood is that they will never be returned.

François Rolland is a French researcher based in Heidelberg

November 08, 2018 12:07

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