Dame Helen Mirren recently testified in front of two United States Senate subcommittees. The Oscar-winning actress asked Senators to pass a proposed bill that would give victims of Holocaust-era persecution and their heirs a fair chance to recover Nazi-robbed art. Whereas the Nazis stole an estimated 650,000 works, only a minuscule percentage of the victims or heirs have received any sort of justice, among them, Maria Altmann, whom Mirren portrayed in Simon Curtis’s 2015 film Woman in Gold.
Throughout the 1990s into the new century, I — a New York City-born daughter of refugees from Hitler’s Germany — pursued restitution for the Nazi-robbed 16 Wallstrasse, a substantial commercial property in center-city Berlin. Many preposterous legal barriers against justice were placed in my way. For example, my grandfather was forced to pay confiscatory levies that the Nazis placed only on Jews, yet the burden of proof was on me to demonstrate that he lost his property through persecution and not as a result of “poor business acumen.”
It is imperative that the proposed legislation be passed into law. Hitler and other top Nazi officials were among those who gained possession of valuable artworks stolen from Jews. Testifying to the Senate subcommittees, Ronald S. Lauder said that the massive Nazi theft of art “was continued by governments, museums and many knowing collectors in the decades following the war. This was the dirty secret of the post-war art world, and people who should have known better, were part of it.”
In 1998 and then again in 2009, Lauder led initiatives — The Washington Principles and The Terezin Declaration – prodding the U.S. and other countries towards legal remedies for the victims of Nazi theft of art. In the U.S., plaintiffs have hit a roadblock in a case captioned van Saher v. Norton Simon. Marei von Saher is the last living heir to Jacques Goudstikker, a Dutch-Jewish art dealer, from whom the Nazis stole Lucas Cranach’s 1530 paintings of “Adam” and “Eve.” The paintings, in fact, wound up in the possession of Gestapo-founder Hermann Göring.
The defendant in the case is the Pasadena-based Norton Simon Museum of Art. Van Saher first filed a claim in 2007 in the United States District Court for the Central District of California. Norton Simon alleged that the statute of limitations had run out. Without getting too thick into the legal weeds, the Supreme Court turned down an appeal of the case, leaving a patchwork of different statutes of limitations for claims in U.S. courts involving Nazi-robbed art.
The proposed legislation would give claimants six years, through 2026, to file a civil case or cause of action. Claimants previously precluded, by statutes of limitation, from recovering their family’s Nazi-robbed art would be able to seek justice in U.S. courts. Formerly, the proposed legislation is known as the “Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery Act of 2016,” – HEAR.
We should listen carefully to hear what is being proposed, as behind every story of Nazi-robbed art are stories of human beings whose lives the Nazis shattered. An exhibit on view through October at the Leo Baeck Institute in New York City – “Stolen Heart” — features the Holocaust-era fates of five Jewish families who resided in Berlin’s center-most district, Mitte. My family is among them. So is the painter Eugenie Fuchs, who escaped Berlin for Paris, only to be interned in Drancy and then murdered in the Majdanek death camp in Poland.
In pursuing restitution for 16 Wallstrasse, I uncovered documentation of family members exterminated by the Nazis. To me, that is a towering personal victory, as the Nazis ultimately intended not only to eliminate all Jews, but also to eliminate all evidence of what they had inflicted on Jews. Given our polarized political landscape, it is uplifting to note that HEAR is a bi-partisan effort sponsored by two Republicans, Senators Ted Cruz and John Cornyn of Texas, and two Democrats, Senators Charles Schumer of New York and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut. The United States can enhance the good it did in liberating Europe from the Nazis by now making it possible for victims of Nazi theft of art to pursue justice in courts throughout the land.