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Culture and arts Resistance in cities

Resistance against spoliation

With the outbreak of war and the occupation of many parts of Europe, the German forces systematically organized the looting of museums and also of private property, particularly that of Jewish families, who were subjected to spoliation. This involved works of art, musical instruments, entire libraries, bookshops – among them the French bookshop in Berlin run by Françoise Frenkel  – books and even everyday objects such as sewing machines, the tools used by tailors. Often, in families, museums and large collections, objects were hidden to protect them from this organized theft.


In France, the government of Marshal Pétain, which signed the armistice on 22 June 1940, set up the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) at the Jeu de Paume museum, in Paris, in October of the same year. The task of this organization was to confiscate Jewish and Freemasonic collections, as well as those of any opponent of the “Third Reich”. The works were listed, spoliated ( = expropriated / robbed) and stored at the Jeu de Paume, before being sent to Germany.


Resistance against spoliation was organized in France and also in other countries like Yugoslavia, where after the occupation of Sarajevo in 1941, the Nazis looted the city’s valuables. They tried to attack the Haggadah, the illuminated Jewish Sephardic manuscript from the 14th century, traditionally read during Passover. But Derviš Korkut, the curator of the National Museum – involved with his family in rescuing Jews – was able to transport the priceless book out of the city. He hid it in a Muslim house around fifty kilometers from Sarajevo. After the end of the war, the Haggadah was returned to the museum, where it is now one of its most precious pieces.


In Paris, Rose Valland, who was in charge of the collections and exhibitions at the Jeu de Paume Museum, transcribed the lists of stolen works, which she handed over to Jacques Jaujard, Director of the National Museums and the École du Louvre, and an official member of a Resistance network. In August 1944, on Göring’s orders, 5 train carriages were chartered to transport to Germany 148 crates containing works of modern art still stored in the museum. Thanks to Rose’s warnings and the efforts of Resistance railway workers, this museum on wheels, containing the greatest masterpieces of French art, never left Paris.


After the war, Rose Valland set out to find works of art in the territories which had been part of Nazi Germany. Between 1945 and 1953, thanks to meticulous investigations, over 50,000 items of cultural property were repatriated to France. Today, commissions continue to search for looted property and organize restitutions. It has to be said that, in this process, the focus is mainly on valuable, identifiable objects – thus introducing a sociological bias among the victims.


Marie-Édith Agostini, Corine Defrance, Dino Dupanović

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