Memory is also about justice

Institutions like Yad Vashem must be as careful about accepting honors as they are in conferring them.

October 22, 2007 21:29
Memory is also about justice

yad vashem 298.88. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)


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Yad Vashem will be honored Friday, in the presence of Spain's royal family, with the Prince of Asturias Award for Concord, for its work in fostering memory and overcoming hatred and racism. The award ceremony, to be broadcast live on Spanish television from Oviedo, gives Avner Shalev, the chairman of Yad Vashem, the opportunity to exercise the institution's ethical leadership and remind Spain of its moral commitment to return Nazi-era looted art to victims and their heirs. There is no question that to do so could be awkward, far worse than the guest who thanks the host for the banquet invitation while complaining loudly from the dais about the meal. Nonetheless, having fought to ensure its centrality in international Holocaust education and commemoration, Yad Vashem's representatives can do no less. The annual award from the Prince of Asturias Foundation goes to individuals or institutions whose work has made an exemplary contribution to mutual understanding and peaceful coexistence, to the struggle against injustice or ignorance, and to the defense of freedom. The prince, Felipe de Borbón, is the son of King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia. THIS IS quite a season for Spain and the Holocaust. Not only will Yad Vashem get an award, but its International Institute for Holocaust Studies organized the first international conference on the Holocaust in Spain, which was held last month. The day Spain opened its Holocaust conference, its lawyer was in federal appellate court in Pasadena, California, arguing that a state-financed museum should be allowed to retain a Camille Pissarro painting, "Rue St.-Honoré, Après-Midi, Effet de Pluie" (1897). The painting was coerced from Lilly Cassirer Neubauer in 1939 in exchange for permitting her and her husband, Otto, to flee Germany. Her grandson, Claude Cassirer of San Diego, has been trying to recover the painting for seven years. After five years of diplomatic efforts - including help from the US State Department - failed, Cassirer, now 86, filed a lawsuit. The Pissarro is in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid. It was part of the $2 billion private collection of Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza, a Swiss industrialist. Thyssen-Bornemisza, whose fifth wife held the title "Miss Spain 1961," sold the collection in 1993 to the Spanish government for $350 million. The price was reduced because the state, in the museum's words, was "no ordinary purchaser." Instead, it acquired a series of obligations along with the collection, including an agreement not to sell any of the works. The government also renovated the Villahermosa Palace, near the Prado, to house the collection, and a museum expansion is under way. Despite the expenses, the government says it does not own the painting. It says the Pissarro is owned by the Thyssen-Bornemisza Foundation, a Spanish non-profit cultural corporation that the government created to conserve, promote and exhibit the collection. The board is chaired by the Minister of Culture; eight members are appointed by the Spanish government and the remaining four by the Thyssen-Bornemisza family. The baron died in 2002. His widow has the office of "vice chairlady for life." IN THE last decade, there have been four international conferences on Nazi-era assets and on Holocaust education, as well as the creation of international and national task forces on Holocaust education. It was understood that Yad Vashem's participation, if not its leadership, was essential to ensure the caliber of the educational content. To be taken seriously, nations and conferences wanted Yad Vashem's stamp of approval on their programs, and Yad Vashem attained nearly diplomatic status. When Sweden, for instance, opened its International Forum on the Holocaust in January 2000, Yad Vashem's Yehuda Bauer, the "senior academic adviser to the forum," shared the spotlight with (among others) then prime minister Ehud Barak, Swedish prime minister Göran Persson, German chancellor Gerhard Schröder and Czech president Vaclav Havel. YAD VASHEM'S stature will be further enhanced Thursday when Shalev receives France's Légion d'Honneur from President Nicolas Sarkozy at a ceremony at the Elysee Palace in Paris. The French and Spanish awards, Shalev said, "express a deep understanding that the memory of the Shoah - the murder of the Jews that took place in the center of Europe - has profound significance and meaning for the coexistence of the family of nations, today, and throughout the ages. Our commitment to education, to building a better future through our confrontation with the past is strengthened by this recognition, and emphasizes the awesome responsibility that Yad Vashem bears." Having earned its international status, Yad Vashem is obliged to use it. Holocaust education and commemoration institutions generally don't want memory and education polluted or diluted by material claims. Nonetheless, memory is also about justice. Cultural properties are not in the same league as dormant bank accounts and war-era insurance policies. The theft and destruction of artworks and artifacts were linked to the Nazis' determination to annihilate a people, its heritage and its culture. Institutions must be as careful about accepting honors as they are in conferring them. The value of the Prince of Asturias Award for Concord is not in a certificate, a sculpture or a cash prize, but is based on the performance of those who present it. In 1998, the State Department convened an international conference on Holocaust-era assets. Spain was among the 44 nations that agreed to the so-called Washington Principles. This is a set of non-binding protocols that call for identifying Nazi-looted artworks that have yet to be returned, and resolving ownership claims with Nazi victims and heirs without litigation. In the past nine years, however, these moral principles have rarely been put into practice. Instead, they have been reduced to serious sentiments to be dusted off for ceremonial occasions. Here is such a ceremonial occasion. Thyssen-Bornemisza bought the Pissarro in 1976; Spain bought it from the baron. Both are innocent in the confiscation from Lilly Cassirer Neubauer. Morally, however, no one should be permitted to exploit the Nazis' persecution of the Jews. This is part of Yad Vashem's ethical message, and the ceremony in Oviedo is the occasion to remind Spain that more important than conferring an award is a gesture that is, as the ethicists say, a public disavowal of evil. The writer is the author of Confronting the Perpetrators: A History of the Claims Conference (Vallentine Mitchell).

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