Robbing the Jews in WWII Paris: Places, Traces, and Images

Monday 10 February, 2014
7pm, $0

New York University, Maison Français
16 Washington Mews

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Héctor Feliciano, independent scholar
Sarah Gensburger, CNRS-Paris
Beth Karlsgodt, University of Denver
Stéphane Gerson, NYU

Several “discoveries” of paintings taken from the Jews by the Nazis during World War II have been taking place since the late 1990s. As the recent case involving German art dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt demonstrates, however, these discoveries and their media coverage do not give an accurate image of anti-Semitic looting during that period. The upcoming release of George Clooney’s movie The Monuments Men (February 2014) provides an opportunity to delve into the politics and everyday practices of plunder, which were at once more banal and more widespread than the focus on the art masterpieces suggests. 

During the war, the world center of the art market, Paris, happened to be the main site of Nazi looting. The plunder of Jewish property, which began with the arrival of German troops in June 1940, applied only to art collections at first. But as soon as the Final Solution was devised in January 1942, confiscations spread to the entire Jewish population, most of which comprised poor immigrants from Eastern Europe. As our panelist Sarah Gensburger explained in a recent New York Times op-ed, stripping Jews of their belongings was part and parcel of the effort to destroy them; pillage was an essential tool of extermination. This widespread plunder, known asMöbel Aktion, occurred in France, Belgium and the Netherlands, but more than half of the dwellings were emptied in Paris. From 1942 to 1944, 38,000 apartments inhabited by Jewish families were stripped bare by French moving companies at the request of the German authorities. Belongings of Jewish families who had been deported became goods. 

Taking stock of recent scholarship while charting new directions, this roundtable will apprehend the looting of Jewish property as a complex process that must be inscribed within the geographical and social space of Paris. In doing so, our panelists will describe the way in which spoliation spread across the city and pay attention to the traces it left (or not), from the “disappeared” painting to the pictures of their work taken by the NaziDienstestelle Westen (DW) and Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR). Stepping outside the Jeu de Paume site and going beyond praise for the postwar recovery of artworks—a place and a perspective that are central to George Clooney’s movie—this roundtable will localize looting within specific places and recover its lasting imprint within Parisian architecture as well as photography. 

The speakers will approach this question from different disciplinary angles:

éctor Feliciano (panelist) is an independent scholar (who taught an honors seminar at NYU on the destruction and looting of art between 2002 and 2010) and journalist (El Pais). He teaches the annual workshop on cultural reporting and investigation at the Fundación Nuevo Periodismo (FNPI), founded by writer Gabriel García Márquez. His book The Lost Museum: The Nazi Conspiracy to Steal the World's Greatest Works of Art(2007) is a path-breaking study of Nazi art pillage. Drawing on declassified documents, interrogation reports, Nazi inventories, family archives, and other sources, it brought to light a concealed international art trade in looted works involving German officials, art dealers, museums, private collections, art galleries, and auction houses. The book initiated a vast international debate among governments, museums, art dealers, auction houses and collectors not only on Nazi art loot, but also on cultural looting and destruction as a whole. At our roundtable, Feliciano will explain how it can be that masterpieces sill reappear more than sixty years later and how some of these paintings remained in French museums for years.

Sarah Gensburger
 (panelist and co-organizer) is a tenured researcher in social sciences at the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) and a graduate of the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales. Her dissertation, on the process of remembrance through the title of Righteous among the Nations, won the French Political Science Association prize of the best dissertation on public policy and a special award from the Auschwitz Foundation. Her scholarship lies at the intersection of ethnographic methodology and contemporary historiographic issues. Her books include Resisting Genocides. The Multiple Forms of Rescue (2011) and Nazi Labor Camps in Paris (2011). Gensburger has also curated several exhibitions, including one on Jewish Children in Paris during the Holocaust(C’étaient des enfants. Déportation et sauvetage des enfants juifs à Paris), at the Hôtel-de-Ville de Paris. Her talk at the roundtable will build upon her publication Images d’un pillage. Album de la spoliation des Juifs à Paris. The book analyses an album of eighty-five photographs kept at the German federal archives in Koblenz. The images show the banality of robbing the Jews, from artistic looting to the homes of poor Jews between 1943 and 1944 in Paris. 

Beth Karlsgodt
 (panelist) is an associate professor of history at the University of Denver and a graduate of NYU, where she obtained a Ph.D. in history and French Studies in 2002. Her research focuses on cultural and political trends during times of crisis, and how narratives of those crises—crafted by government officials, scholars, and/or intellectuals—develop in the aftermath. Her book Defending National Treasures: French Art and Heritage Under Vichy (2011) examines preservation policies created during the Nazi occupation, as well as the effort by French curators to acquire works of art from Jewish collections for the Louvre and other museums. Her current research focuses on the French museum administration during the postwar reconstruction period, and its management of art looted by the Nazis from Jewish collectors. This research makes comparisons between France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Around two thousand pieces recovered from Germany were not claimed by victims or their heirs, and the French museum agency began a complicated guardianship that continues today. Her presentation will focus around James Rorimer, a US officer who played a crucial role in the recovery of works looted from France, and Rose Valland, a French art historian and member of the Resistance who secretly recorded details of the Nazi plundering of Jewish artworks.  

Stéphane Gerson
 (moderator and co-organizer) is a cultural historian of modern France and a Professor of French and French Studies at NYU. His research has revolved around questions of memory, territorial identity, patrimony, and political culture in post-revolutionary France. His first book The Pride of Place: Local Memories and Political Culture in Nineteenth-Century France (2003) won both the Jacques Barzun Prize in Cultural History and the Andrew Wylie Prize in French Cultural Studies. In 2012, he publishedNostradamus: How an Obscure Renaissance Astrologer Became the Modern Prophet of Doom. He is also the co-editor of Why France? American Historians Reflect on an Enduring Fascination (2007).

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