How his novel led an author into the intriguing world of WWII art restitution

Richard Aronowitz fell into his role at Sotheby’s auction house after following his own journey of discovery into his Jewish-born mother’s turbulent past

LONDON — Decades after an Impressionist masterpiece by Camille Pissarro was looted from the troves of a Jewish art collector by the Vichy government, a Paris court ruled that an American couple must return the painting to the man’s descendants.

Sotheby’s, who initially sold the painting “La Cueillette des Pois,” or “Picking Peas,” said that “At the time the painting was sold through Sotheby’s in London in 1966, the art world was not as sensitized to the issues of art displaced in World War II as it is today and there were few, if any, resources available to researchers in the field.

LONDON — Decades after an Impressionist masterpiece by Camille Pissarro was looted from the troves of a Jewish art collector by the Vichy government, a Paris court ruled that an American couple must return the painting to the man’s descendants.

Sotheby’s, who initially sold the painting “La Cueillette des Pois,” or “Picking Peas,” said that “At the time the painting was sold through Sotheby’s in London in 1966, the art world was not as sensitized to the issues of art displaced in World War II as it is today and there were few, if any, resources available to researchers in the field.”

It took another 30 years until the world was “sensitized” to effectively reuniting Jewish collections with its owners.

A year before the 1998 Washington Principles — which called upon governments and museums to ensure a just and fair solution to looted art — Sotheby’s became the first international auction house to establish a restitution department dedicated to researching the provenance of works that may have been confiscated or had gone missing between 1933 and 1945.

Despite the many decades that have elapsed since the Holocaust, thanks to the advent of the internet and huge search engines and databases, returning art to its rightful owners has become more achievable now than ever before.

Today the European division of restitution at Sotheby’s is run by Richard Aronowitz, from its London office.

Calling himself a “vetter,” the provenance and identity of every work of art created before 1945 is checked by him and his small team before it is offered for sale at the auction house. This “fine-toothed comb approach” is intended to weed out any work among the many thousands consigned each year that might have an unresolved Nazi-era looting or forced sale history.

“The stakes are very high and the buck stops with me and the team. If we let an unrecovered item of Nazi loot into one of our sales, it can do unbound reputational damage to the auction house and raise questions of good title and moral and legal ownership with the owner and potential buyer,” Aronowitz told The Times of Israel.

When he does spot a work that was looted or lost and not recovered after WWII, he initiates a dialogue between the current owner and the heirs of the pre-war owner to try to bring about a settlement between the claimant and current owners. It is usually then sold in auction and proceeds are split. It’s often 50:50, or slightly less, for the claimant.

“The whole idea,” says Aronowitz, “is trying to find a just and fair solution to both parties.”

One painting that Aronowitz remembers particularly fondly is a fine Abraham van Beijeren still life that was offered to Sotheby’s London for sale in 2008. Aronowitz very quickly realized, however, that the painting had been looted in 1941 by the Nazis in occupied Holland from the collection of the Berlin Jewish couple Alfons and Hedwig Jaffé while it was on deposit for safekeeping at a museum in Leiden.

Aronowitz put the consignor in touch with the two elderly Jaffé heirs, living in England, who sent him a black-and-white photograph of the work from their family’s prewar photograph album that had been saved from their home in Berlin.

The Abraham van Beijeren still life that Richard Aronowitz discovered was looted from German Jewish couple Alfons and Hedwig Jaffé. (Courtesy)

A dialogue was begun between the Jaffé heirs and the young owner, who had inherited the painting from his late parents with no knowledge at all of its prewar history, and against a finder’s fee the work was returned to the heirs in the spirit of the just and fair solution proposed by the “Washington Principles.”

Unlike the headline-making prices raked in for restitution of museum paintings sold at auction (like Gustav Klimt’s portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer which sold at auction in November 2006 for $135 million), the works that Aronowitz handles, not coming from museums, are often sold for relatively modest amounts.

Aronowitz, an expert in modern German art and Expressionism, and fluent in German, fell into his role at Sotheby’s by coincidence following his own journey into discovering his mother’s turbulent past.

Raised in a non-Jewish home, he describes his very English childhood as the youngest of four brothers in the 1970s as one of “Cotswold-stone cottages, hills, woods and streams.”

He knew little of his mother Doris’s history until he was 10 years old and discovered she had come to England on her own from Wuppertal, Germany as an 8 year old on the Kindertransport before the war. Strange, he thought, how she kept a broken necklace of deep-red amber beads hidden away in her jewellery box. Later, he found out that the beads were among the few mementos of her mother, Miriam, that his mother had been able to bring with her to England.

And then there was the arrival of his German-sounding great-uncle Isy from Melbourne in 1979, with the numbers tattooed in blue ink on his left wrist. Aronowitz remembers Isy grabbing the porridge bowl from him, scraping it down to the glaze so that not a drop would be wasted.

“What on earth was his story and why was he here in my apparently idyllic English childhood?” Aronowitz wondered at the time.

Richard Aronowitz, born Mercer, took his mother’s maiden name Aronowitz as his nom de plume when his mother died in 1992, a day before her 62nd birthday. And then the self-appointed family archivist and researcher started trying to piece the history together.

“I asked endless questions about it all and have never really stopped asking them since,” he says.

The Kindertransport card authorizing Richard Aronowitz’s mother Doris to escape from Germany. (Courtesy)

After relentless pushing, Aronowitz found out that thanks to Isy’s contacts, his mother Doris had been able to come over on one of the Kindertransport trains in July 1939, from Wuppertal, and then by boat from Holland to Harwich. She lost her mother and aunt Hedwig in the Holocaust, while her uncle Isy survived the Lodz Ghetto, Auschwitz, Buchenwald and the Death March.

Now a father himself, the 47 year old’s fascination with his family’s past prompted him to write his debut novel, “Five Amber Beads,” in 2006. Although it is a fictional story of provenance researcher Charley Bernstein looking into the ownership history of works of art between 1933 -1945, woven very heavily into it are strong autobiographical elements.

Most noticeable is that of the character Isy, incorporating much of his great-uncle’s history — in particular the wartime entries translated from German into English from his tan-colored diary.

As a complete coincidence — or perhaps because of the book — he was invited to become head of the restitution department at Sotheby’s in London, looking into exactly these matters of cultural loss and plunder during Nazism, that same year.

Aronowitz, who was formerly the senior curator at the London Jewish Museum of Art, is also an accomplished poet. And earlier this year, he published his second book, “An American Decade,” about mid-20th century history, inspired by his mother’s story of arriving on the Kindertransport and of not knowing who her father was.

The main character, a Broadway singer named Christoph, is based on Aronowitz’s maternal grandfather who is believed to have moved from Wuppertal, via Hamburg, to New York in October 1930 — four months before Doris was born.

As the decade unfolds, Christoph witnesses the rapid rise of American organizations sympathetic to Hitler. As the human horrors of Nazism close in he is forced to act and sets sail across the Atlantic in search of a hidden piece of his history.

It is the hidden history of plunderers, fences, traders and owners, that consumes the life of a restitution specialist. But it’s now a race against time as the window of opportunity is getting smaller.

Says Aronowitz: “Every restitution case becomes more pressing to resolve as each month and year passes, both because verbal testimony is slowly lost and because the claimants themselves are dying out.”

As family members die out the challenge will be gaining access to first and secondhand information. He says that eventually, at some unknown point in the future, restitution of art and cultural objects lost between 1933 and 1945 will likely come to an end because of this evanescence of information and the passing of claimants.

For now, he is still busy at work ensuring he is up to date with developments in the restitution field around the world. He has just returned from Amsterdam where he met with a provenance researcher from the Rijksmuseum and a Dutch lawyer specializing in art restitution cases.

It is history — be it in a painting or in a person — that consumes Aronowitz. In his work and in his personal life, the two have become inextricably intertwined over the years, and his thoughts are often reflected in his works of fiction.

As narrator Charley Bernstein sets off from New York to Tel Aviv in “Five Amber Beads,” he philosophically considers how people mistake the sea for a watery wasteland, “a desert devoid of life.”

Aronowitz writes, “Surfaces beguile us — we see a sheer granite wall and cannot get beyond it. We look at a painting’s surface and cannot see behind it. There are lives that go on beneath all of these things.”


‘Bookkeeper of Auschwitz’, 96, loses appeal against jail

Court rejects claim imprisonment would violate ‘right to life’ for ex-Nazi SS guard Oskar Groening, an accessory to 300,000 murders


This photo taken on July 1, 2015 shows defendant and German former SS officer Oskar Groening, dubbed the “bookkeeper of Auschwitz”, at court in Lueneburg, northern Germany, ahead of his trial. (2017. / AFP PHOTO / RONNY HARTMANN)

BERLIN, Germany (AFP) — A former Nazi SS guard known as the Bookkeeper of Auschwitz, 96, lost his final legal challenge against being jailed when Germany’s highest court Friday rejected his appeal.

In one of the last cases against a surviving Nazi, Oskar Groening was found guilty in July 2015 of being an accessory to the murders of 300,000 people at the death camp.

Groening has been living at home despite the conviction as his defense team mounted an appeal against his four-year jail sentence, arguing that imprisonment at such a high age would violate his “right to life.”

But Germany’s Constitutional Court on Friday said Groening’s “complaint against the refusal to postpone the execution of the prison sentence was unsuccessful.”

Former SS guard Oskar Groening sits behind a fence during a break in the trial against him in Lueneburg, northern Germany, Tuesday, April 21, 2015. (Photo credit: Markus Schreiber/AP)

It found that appropriate health care could be provided in prison and that “if there are any adverse changes in health during imprisonment, the jail term can be interrupted.”

“The high age of the applicant is in itself not sufficient to refrain from enforcing the criminal penalty,” said the court.

The court also stressed that Groening has been found guilty of “complicity in murder in 300,000 cases, something that lends particular weight to the enforcement of the punishment.”

Killing machine

More than one million European Jews were killed at Auschwitz before it was liberated by Soviet forces.

Yet of the camp’s 6,500 SS personnel who survived the war, fewer than 50 were ever convicted.

Groening worked as an accountant at Auschwitz, sorting and counting the money taken from those killed or used as slave labour, and shipping it back to his Nazi superiors in Berlin.

He was also on several occasions assigned to “ramp duty,” processing deportees as they arrived by rail in cattle cars.

During his trial, Groening acknowledged “moral guilt” but said it was up to the court to rule on his legal culpability.

He had previously been cleared by German authorities after lengthy criminal probes dating back to the 1970s. But a case was reopened against him after the legal basis for prosecuting former Nazis changed in 2011 with Germany’s landmark conviction of John Demjanjuk.

Demjanjuk, a former death camp guard, was sentenced not for atrocities he was known to have personally committed, but on the basis that he worked at the Sobibor camp in occupied Poland and had thus been a cog in the Nazis’ killing machine.

Demjanjuk died in 2012 before his appeal could be heard, but that verdict spurred new investigations against several elderly former Nazis.

Among a handful of convictions since has been that of Reinhold Hanning, found guilty of complicity in the mass murders at Auschwitz. He died aged 95 this year, before he could serve his jail term.

A case against former SS medic Hubert Zafke collapsed in September after the court found that the 96-year-old was unfit to stand trial.


Foul note in Chanel No. 5 let out of the bottle in new film

Documentary shows how fashion designer Coco Chanel attempted to use Nazi laws to undercut Jewish business partners during WWII

Illustrated screenshot of Coco Chanel collaborating with the Nazis from Stéphane Benhamou’s film ‘The No. 5 War.’ (Courtesy)

Designer Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel was stunning, impeccably dressed, full of class and good graces. But beyond those coiffed eyebrows, she was also a Nazi collaborator and spy who shamelessly attempted to use anti-Jewish laws to appropriate a perfume company she never owned.

This story was told on screen for the first time at the premiere of “The No. 5 War,” a revealing new documentary by French filmmaker Stéphane Benhamou. The documentary screened at the Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival on Monday and Tuesday evenings for a heavily French-expat Jerusalem crowd. It will also be shown on Israel’s Channel 8 next month.

In a post-screening interview with The Times of Israel, Benhamou discussed his inspiration for the film.

“We knew Chanel had a German lover, we knew she lived in the Ritz, which was reserved for the Nazis, but there was never a bridge between these two things and what she did during the war. I wanted to tell the story of Chanel’s war activities through Chanel No. 5,” he said, “…to contrast her elegance as a woman and her behavior in the war.”

The 57-year-old Jewish filmmaker has been making documentaries for 20 years and lives with his family in Normandy. They travel to Israel at least twice a year.

The film follows Chanel’s morally tasteless wartime activities. In 1924 Chanel went into business with Jewish brothers Pierre and Paul Wertheimer, directors of the prominent perfume house, Bourjois, who agreed to fully back the Chanel No. 5 perfume, giving Chanel 10 percent ownership of the line — a stake she was not satisfied with. In 1927 the perfume became the world’s bestseller, increasing her resentment.

The year 1941 finds Coco Chanel living the good life as a permanent resident of the Ritz Hotel in German-occupied Paris. She has fallen in love with senior Nazi intelligence officer Baron Hans Günther von Dincklage, who, at an appealing 13 years younger than the 57-year-old fashion mogul, is conveniently staying at the same hotel along with other high-ranking German officers.

When new German laws stripping Jews of their property rights are announced, Chanel hatches a plan to use them to take the company away from the brothers and instill herself as the proper “Aryan heir.” Unbeknownst to her, the Wertheimers had escaped to America in 1940, transferring their ownership of the company to Christian friend Felix Amiot, who also provided the Germans with military aircraft throughout the war.

Ultimately, France is liberated and the good guys emerge triumphant — but the viewer walks away not fully satisfied knowing that justice was never brought against Chanel.

On the contrary, after more than a dabble in Nazi intrigue and subterfuge, she walked away with her reputation intact and millions in revenue sent to her from the same former partners she once attempted to destroy.

But Benhamou is more optimistic. “There is morality to the story. She had everything going for her, and in the end she lost thanks to the bad guys,” he said, referring to the Nazi decision to have Amiot remain the legitimate Aryan head of the company.

Before you go and throw out all of your Chanel, it’s worth noting that the brand remains in full ownership of the Wertheimer family. This movie doesn’t take a position against the brand, Benhamou stressed.

Benhamou said he met resistance while filming from those interested in upholding the company name. “The economic power of the brand tries to keep this story silent,” he said.

A perfume expert refused an interview after reading the film’s synopsis and the filmmaker was denied access to Chanel’s jasmine supplier in Grasse due to the presumed harm the documentary could do to the brand.

The director noted it will be interesting to see how news outlets with advertising ties to Chanel react to the film, particularly since the release of the film coincides with the release of Chanel’s new perfume, “Gabrielle,” called after the founder’s first name.

Benhamou said he is often asked whether Chanel was really an anti-Semite or just business-minded.

“It’s not for me to say whether or not she was an anti-Semite,” he said, but pointed to her history of anti-Semitic lovers, close friends, causes and actions.

Coco Chanel once said, “Dress shabbily and they remember the dress; dress impeccably and they remember the woman.”

While we continue to know Chanel for her style contributions, her Nazi activity is starting to be remembered as more than just an accessory to her legacy.


When history clashes with politics in Poland

My good friend Dr. Sławomir “Sławek” Debski is an honorable and intelligent man who has made significant contributions to the cause of Polish diplomacy and to deepening ties between Poland and Israel. At the end of November, the Polish Institute for International Affairs (PISM), over which he so ably presides, hosted a delegation of the Israel Council on Foreign Relations (ICFR) for our third bilateral conference. We were especially honored to have had Deputy Prime Minister/Minister of Culture Piotr Gliński with us to deliver the keynote speech at the opening session. His strong expression of support for Israel and condemnation of anti-Semitism were well received. The event in Warsaw was held just a month after the Polish Air Force took part in an international exercise in the skies over the Negev, itself telling evidence of the state of relations between our two countries. We are looking forward to the pleasure of welcoming our Polish colleagues and friends next year in Jerusalem.

That Sławek felt compelled to wade into the debate on Polish–Israeli/Jewish relations does not surprise me. He is doing his job as he understands it. The thrust of his article however, concerns not the historical facts themselves (to which we will shall return in a moment), but rather the place of memory and history in the burgeoning ties between Warsaw and Jerusalem. Poland is one of Israel’s staunchest friends in Europe. That relationship is manifested in myriad fields, and can fairly be called “unique.” It exists in the shadow of a 1000-year story of cohabitation, when Jews and Poles lived on the same soil, “together but apart.” Polish-Jewish history is punctuated by moments of uplifting triumph, and inspiring acts of heroism and brotherhood, but also of agonizing tragedy and acts of appalling violence and depravity. For many centuries, Poland, the “Polin” of lore, was the mighty citadel of the Jewish Diaspora and the epicenter Jewish creativity and spirituality. Though Poland was home to many of the Jewish people’s most outstanding luminaries, and the birthplace of a disproportionate share of the heroes of the Zionist pantheon, there is no denying that in Jewish minds, the totality of that history is all too often reduced to its most calamitous chapter — World War II and the Shoah — as well as to the pathology of local anti-Semitism.

Sławek suggests that those who speak and write of Polish society’s wartime acts of commission or omission are diminishing the “myth” (his word) of Polish rescuers. “In doing so,” he opines, “critics are not playing fair. They go back for example to a stale argument and declare that the Holocaust was seen by a Polish society as a ‘great benefit’. There is not enough proof to support this thesis. The alleged ‘joy’ at the deaths of Jews is not really recorded by letters from that era, nor by literature, nor by the illegal underground press.”

Permit me to politely, yet forcefully, disagree, and to ask Sławek to kindly identify the “critics” to whom he is referring. It is a fact that during the German occupation, Poland’s spirited underground press was heavily infected by anti-Semitism and displayed little sympathy for Jews. Numerous Polish testimonies paint a picture of widespread indifference to the elimination of local Jews, and often great satisfaction.

On January 29, 1943 Wincenty Sobolewski, a physician from Sandomierz, wrote in his diary: “The Germans finish off the last remaining Jews in Poland. I have no pity for them, because they deserve it, because they were so ungrateful to us, Poles. Most of us are shocked, however, how a whole nation is murdered in such a way. So, finally justice has been done. Jesus gave the Jews two thousand years to mend their ways but seeing their obstinate refusal, he decided to punish them.”

I could furnish many other eyewitness accounts that point to the same thing. Sławek references Jan Karski — today, posthumously, an exalted figure in Poland. However, he fails to acknowledge, as I pointed out in the article to which he is responding, that the intrepid courier reported to the Polish Government-in-Exile that “anti-Semitism is something akin to a narrow bridge upon which the Germans and a… large part of Polish society is finding agreement.” Is Karski’s contemporaneous description to be dismissed as “stale” and lacking credibility? Now we may choose to highlight or to downplay his testimony, and that of many other eyewitnesses, but we certainly cannot deny its existence or wish it away.

One can make the case that history belongs to the past and should not be allowed to disturb a flourishing, mutually beneficial relationship. But as William Faulkner wrote of his native Mississippi — and he might just as well have been writing about Poles and Jews — “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

The memory of Poland’s Righteous among the Nations can and should be a source of pride for Polish society. Those individuals, drawn from many walks of life, wrote an inspiring page in the gloomiest chapter of our common history. They were, as Nechama Tec called them, “lights that pierced the darkness,” and can serve as a rallying point uniting Poles and Israelis who together commemorate their nobility of spirit. But politics and history are a combustible brew, and if we reduce the story of the Righteous to a “kumbaya” branding exercise, we should not be surprised when bona fide scholars protest — and protest loudly — especially when some priests, PR men, politicians and diplomats play fast and loose with the facts. In other words, you cannot have your cake and eat it too. That is why what Sławek has written, particularly as it relates to the Jewish experience in wartime Poland, is so disquieting, yet also so symptomatic of the prevailing ambiance in Warsaw. It is readily evident that in certain circles, the memory of the Righteous is being used as a battering ram to suppress research on the Holocaust and as it contradicts the notion that the actions of the Righteous were somehow representative of the attitude of Polish society at large.

Over the past 25 years, a voluminous body of literature has emerged on the destruction of the Jews of Poland, most of it in Polish, the work of outstanding scholars affiliated with the Polish Center for Holocaust Research. The Center, located in a threadbare room in the Staszic Palace (home of the Polish Academy of Sciences, under whose auspices it operates), is but a 300-meter — 4-minute — walk from the institute on Warceka Street, headed by Sławek. I would be very glad to introduce him to some of my distinguished colleagues and friends there, such as Prof. Jacek Leociak, Prof Barbara Engelking, Prof. Jan Grabowski, and my own co-author, Prof. Dariusz Libionka. However, before that meeting, it might behoove Sławek to acquaint himself with some of their books, or at least a few of the articles published in their scholarly journal Zagłada. To be sure, these meticulously documented texts are not for the faint of heart, revealing as they do, in great detail, a chilling picture of widespread indifference to Jewish suffering and death, and on occasion, the enthusiastic participation of locals in the destruction, whether as enablers or executioners. Those scholars have also made clear that most Poles sheltering Jews were more afraid of blackmail and denunciation by their own neighbors than the random inspection of Germans.

Perhaps the most puzzling (and to me personally hurtful) assertion is Sławek’s suggestion that I am party to some kind of jealously guarded “monopoly” that seeks to stifle debate on Polish–Jewish relations, and which “claim[s] the exclusive right to conduct dialogue.” I would like to assure him that there is no such sinister cabal, at least not to my knowledge. If anyone seems to be claiming exclusivity in dealing with these issues, it is those who have pushed for the adoption of legislation that would criminalize the publication of historical findings not to the liking of certain members of Polish officialdom and others who worry that it might besmirch Poland’s good name.

It is especially striking that in this newly concocted narrative there is no place for the late, great Władysław Bartoszewski, the “grand old man of Polish diplomacy,” one of the first Poles to be recognized by Yad Vashem for saving Jews. Bartoszewski, whose commitment to democracy and decency in Poland was second to none, was relentlessly excoriated by Radio Maryja and others who share its views. Once, when discussing some nonsense that had crept into the political discourse, he declared that he had gone to jail to protect the right of others to express such stupidity. Perhaps it is for that reason that a move to name a traffic circle in his honor in Opole was rejected as being “too controversial.” Meantime, in Łódź, once home to some 200,000 Jews (1/3 of the total population), it was just reported that plans are afoot to name a street for Kazimierz Kowalski. In 1938, Kowalski’s friend Bogdan Gajewicz called the nationalist activist “the symbol of Polish anti-Semitism — Enemy No 1 of the Jews.”

Sławek claims that the notorious Father Rydzyk has put down his arms. Has he? Or has the Radio Maryja czar simply found a more devious way of advancing his agenda and of gaining respectability? Jews deeply believe in the idea of Tshuva [repentance]. But absolution is contingent upon the confession of one’s of sins to God and to those who have been wronged.

While we cannot know whether Father Rydzyk has expressed contrition to our common Maker, we mortals are still awaiting a public mea culpa for his having poisoned the minds of an entire generation with his vile anti-Jewish invective. How many acts of thuggish behavior were inspired by Father Rydzyk and his minions? How many Jewish cemeteries were desecrated? How many hateful words were uttered and penned? How many Poles were seduced by the broadcasts of Holocaust deniers such as Prof. Ryszard Bender and Dr. Dariusz Ratajczyk, who were invited to spread their bile on the airwaves of Radio Maryja? We shall never know.

Another question entirely is whether the precious memory of Righteous Poles should be entrusted to the likes of someone who repeatedly preached a shrill message of hate. I do not think so, and I cannot imagine that Prof. Bartoszewski would have either, but evidently others disagree.

Sławek has suggested that I am embroiled in a “private dispute” with Jonny Daniels. For the record, I have never met Mr. Daniels, and have no desire to do so. I know enough about him from the opprobrious interviews he gives to the Polish media, which he proudly posts on Facebook. Rather than combat anti-Semitism, he unabashedly propagates some of its worst tropes. In one recent interview, Mr. Daniels dismissed those who take issue with the feel-good narrative he peddles as being “leftists” who make money from defaming Poland. In another, he took pains to stress that in Poland anti-Semitism and xenophobia are entirely marginal phenomena. Recently, for the sake of appearances, he has acknowledged the latest egregious acts of anti-Semitism, presumably while winking at those upon whose support he is dependent.

It takes a whopping measure of hubris for Mr. Daniels, who first set foot in Poland just a few years ago, has no academic credentials whatsoever, and by his own admission speaks no Polish at all, to suddenly present himself as an expert on Polish affairs. His most outstanding characteristics, aside of course from his obsequious fawning, seem to be an oversized ego and a truly dazzling ability to promote himself. Have his efforts benefited the struggle against anti-Semitism or the cause of Polish–Jewish relations? The answer to that question very much depends on the beholder. Lamentably, influential people in Poland and Israel claim that it has, presumably each for their own reasons.

Lest there be no doubt, my own passion for Poland is undiminished. I feel inexorably tied to the land of my forebears and have spent a considerable chunk of my adult life working to overcome the gap that divides Pole and Jews and to help jettison our respective stereotypes. As part of that process, over the years, I have organized dozens of lectures by Righteous Poles for Israeli high school students visiting Poland and for other Jewish and non-Jewish visitors of all ages. I have never papered over the bitter aspects of our common history or distorted them, even if that has ruffled both Jewish and Polish feathers. I can hope that the Poles and Jews of goodwill who know me well, Sławek among them, do not question my sincerity or respect me any less for it.

I shudder to think of what Prof. Karski — for whom my younger son Adam Jan is named — would say about all this. I doubt that he would have been pleased to see his legacy — and that of others like him — so shamelessly exploited to advance an agenda he would have found utterly contemptible.


Citing his ‘right to life,’ ex-Auschwitz accountant fights jail sentence

Oskar Groening, 96, was found guilty in 2015 of being an accessory to the murders of 300,000 people at the death camp


Convicted former SS officer Oskar Groening listens to the verdict of his trial on July 15, 2015 at court in Lueneburg, northern Germany. Oskar Groening, 94, sat impassively as judge Franz Kompisch said “the defendant is found guilty of accessory to murder in 300,000 legally connected cases” of deported Jews who were sent to the gas chambers in 1944. (AFP PHOTO/TOBIAS SCHWARZ)

BERLIN, Germany — A former Nazi SS guard known as the Bookkeeper of Auschwitz, now 96, has filed a challenge against his jail sentence, his lawyer said Tuesday, arguing that imprisonment would violate his “right to life.”

In one of the last cases against a surviving Nazi, Oskar Groening was found guilty in July 2015 of being an accessory to the murders of 300,000 people at the death camp.

He has been living at home despite the conviction as he mounted an appeal against his imprisonment.

After a court ruled last month that he was fit to serve his four-year prison sentence, his defense team has now turned to Germany’s Constitutional Court, claiming that jailing Groening at such an advanced age flouted his basic rights.

“In terms of constitutional law, it should be examined if the health condition of Mr Groening allows for his basic right to life and physical integrity to be guaranteed” if he went to jail, his lawyer Hans Holtermann told the DPA news agency.

But the case before the Constitutional Court does not trigger a suspension of the sentence, meaning that Groening could be served with the notice to go to jail at any time.

Groening worked as an accountant at Auschwitz, sorting and counting the money taken from those killed or used as slave labor, and shipping it back to his Nazi superiors in Berlin.

He also on several occasions assigned to “ramp duty,” processing deportees as they arrived by rail in cattle cars.

During his trial, Groening acknowledged “moral guilt” but said it was up to the court to rule on his legal culpability.

He had previously been cleared by German authorities after lengthy criminal probes dating back to the 1970s.

But a case was reopened against him after the legal basis for prosecuting former Nazis changed in 2011 with Germany’s landmark conviction of John Demjanjuk.

Demjanjuk, a former death camp guard, was sentenced not for atrocities he was known to have committed, but on the basis that he worked at the Sobibor camp in occupied Poland and had thus been a cog in the Nazis’ killing machine.

Demjanjuk died in 2012 before his appeal could be heard, but that verdict spurred new investigations against several elderly former Nazis.

Among a handful of convictions since is that of Reinhold Hanning, found guilty of complicity in the mass murders at Auschwitz.

He died aged 95 this year, before he could serve his jail term.

A case against former SS medic Hubert Zafke collapsed in September after the court found that the 96-year-old was unfit to stand trial.

More than one million European Jews were killed at Auschwitz before it was liberated by Soviet forces. Yet of the camp’s 6,500 SS personnel who survived the war, fewer than 50 were ever convicted.


Is Auschwitz ready for a peace center? A Vermont woman thinks so

By Jon Kalish

The main gate of the former Auschwitz extermination camp in Oswiecim, Poland, with the famous sign reading “Works sets you free.” (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

A Vermont educator whose grandparents perished in Auschwitz is working to create a humanitarian institute next to the infamous concentration camp, and some Jewish observers aren’t happy.

Nina Meyerhof, 75, sees what she is calling the “City of Hope” as a counterbalance to the grim experience of visiting the Nazi concentration camp, which includes one of the most visited museums in Europe.

“You can imagine that walking through that horror show, where you’re going through gas chambers, etc., and then coming to a place that’s really calm and beautiful and a little cafe and being able to sit and think about your experience,” Meyerhof said. “After you’ve had that experience, you don’t know what to do with it. Well, what we’re saying is you can transform that experience and carry it forward and make a difference in life.”

Meyerhof hopes to establish the City of Hope in 11 former Nazi barracks that were used by the Polish military after World War II. A newly formed nonprofit, the One Humanity Institute, would provide space there for education, research, conferences, NGO offices, a museum, a villa, a garden and a restaurant.

According to the institute’s website, the Auschwitz center will “aim to translate, in formal and non-formal environments, the values of understanding, freedom, equal dignity, justice, equity, harmony, compassion and forgiveness into knowledge, skills, actions, and projects for communities across the world.”

Asked if she thought Holocaust scholars and Jewish organizations might object to her plans, Meyerhof replied, “In no way do we want to take away from the experience of what people learn and viscerally experience when they go there.”

But Efraim Zuroff, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Israel office and the organization’s point man on Eastern Europe affairs, called the proposed City of Hope “a terrible idea, absolutely terrible.”

“I can appreciate her intentions, but this is really misconceived,” Zuroff told JTA. “You don’t want to soften the blow [of the experience of visiting the concentration camp]. People should leave Auschwitz very disturbed. Auschwitz stands alone, and that’s exactly as it should be.”

Also questioning the project is Michael Berenbaum, who served as the project director during the creation of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and played a key role in the establishment of Steven Spielberg’s oral history project on the Shoah. Now a consultant on the creation of museums and memorials around the world, Berenbaum said the City of Hope is not the best use of the former SS barracks.

“Auschwitz is a paradox. Auschwitz is the single most sacred anti-sacred site in the world. It is so anti-sacred that it has become sacred,” Berenbaum said.  I have a problem using it for anything other than telling the story of the crime [committed at the concentration camp].

“One always has to ask in such a situation, ‘Is this the most worthy use of so an important a site?’ The staff who were part of this scheme of massive murder — where they were housed probably should be used as part of the site to tell the story of the men and the women who lived in these barracks.’”

Jewish scholars and activists have fought in the past against what they saw as misuses of Auschwitz and its environs, especially attempts to universalize or “de-Judaize” a site where, according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, 960,000 Jews were killed, along with approximately 125,000 non-Jewish Poles, Roma and members of other nationalities.

In 1984, a Carmelite convent was established on the grounds of Auschwitz; it was closed by Pope John Paul in 1993 after years of protests. Activists have also asked for the removal of a Catholic church built in the 1980s at the Auschwitz II Birkenau extermination camp.

Zuroff said locating the One Humanity Institute within the Nazi barracks amounted to “replacing reality with fantasy” and dismissed Meyerhof’s plans to establish a research center dedicated to world peace.

“That research is already being done all over the world,” he said.

The 11 buildings planned for the humanitarian institute are two- and three-story structures adjacent to the entrance of the concentration camp. Meyerhof said the Polish military still has a claim to the buildings.

Meyerhof said she’s been to war zones around the globe, but did not visit Auschwitz until 2014. Her grandparents and nearly 20 other relatives were killed there.

“I had no intention of getting involved there. None whatsoever,” said Meyerhof, who ran school programs and a summer camp in Vermont, and founded Children of the Earth, an organization that encourages spirituality and activism.

Since then she said she’s made 10 trips to Oswiecim, the town in Poland on whose outskirts the Nazi death camp is located.

Meyerhof, a descendant of German Jews, said members of her family were deported from Berlin to Auschwitz. Her mother, who told Meyerhof that her grandmother was gassed on the day Nina was born, once remarked that “every person who ever gave her a piece of candy was taken away.”

Meyerhof lived in Israel for a year and said she identifies with Jewish ethnicity more than the Jewish religion.

“I don’t have a deep identification as a suffering Jew,” she added.

Meyerhof and her partner, the Slovenian theologist Domen Kocevar, have met with both the mayor of Oswiecim and the governor of its province. According to Meyerhof and Kocevar, the governor has discussed the City of Hope project with Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo, an Oswiecim native.

In an email sent Sunday, Meyerhof wrote that she was hoping to meet directly with Poland’s president or prime minister this week before returning to Vermont.

“We’re doing a lot of relationship building,” Meyerhof said of the several trips she and Kocevar have made to Oswiecim. “Part of our design is that financially the town would benefit from our work, that there would be a percentage [of proceeds] that would go to them, there’d be jobs, there’d be taxes.”

The project’s website, which does not contain a single reference to Jews, features videos of diplomats and celebrities expressing their support for the City of Hope, including the violinist Scarlet Rivera and the primatologist Jane Goodall.

“There is no more fitting place for creating a center … where people can be inspired with a vision of a world where we live together with respect for each other,” Goodall said in a video urging support for the One Humanity Institute.

Meyerhof is partnering with Robert Smith, a former Wall Street trader who now runs a network of wealthy families and institutional investors committed to social change. Smith and Meyerhof met in February at the World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates in Bogota, Colombia.

“She is one of the most tenacious individuals I’ve ever met,” Smith said. “I could see that there was a chance that she could pull this off.”

Smith said he intends to raise $3 million as seed money for the City of Hope from philanthropists affiliated with Investment Community Visibility, his company. The total cost of building the City of Hope is pegged at $250 million.

“My goal with this is that there be light that comes into this place of darkness, and then that light is carried out to other people,” said Smith, who raises funds for the Permanent Secretariat of the World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates, a nongovernmental organization based in Rome.

Meyerhof said the proposal to build her City of Hope at Auschwitz could be approved next year and that programs could begin in 2019.

After visiting the One Humanity Institute’s newly launched website, Zuroff said the money needed to build the proposed City of Hope would be better spent on the physical preservation of the existing portion of the former concentration camp, now maintained as a historic site, so that it doesn’t physically disintegrate.


Was Nazi Germany Made in America?

A new history argues convincingly that Hitler’s policies were inspired by institutionalized racism and common-law pragmatism in the United States

On July 26, 1935, about a thousand anti-Nazi demonstrators attacked the SS Bremen, a sleek, state-of-the-art German ocean liner that had docked in New York. The protesters succeeded in tearing the swastika flag off the ship and throwing it into the Hudson River. It was the climax to a long, hot New York summer of street fighting between pro-Nazis and anti-Nazis.

Five of the rioters in the Bremen incident were arrested, but when they appeared before Judge Louis Brodsky in September of 1935 something remarkable happened: Brodsky dismissed all charges, arguing that the swastika was “a black flag of piracy” that deserved to be destroyed, the emblem of “a revolt against civilization … an atavistic throwback to pre-medieval, if not barbaric, social and political conditions.”

The law behind Brodsky’s brave proclamation was questionable, and it wasn’t long before FDR’s Justice Department apologized to Germany for the judge’s decision. Hitler praised the Roosevelt administration for disavowing Brodsky’s ruling. But the Jewish Brodsky’s acquittal of the anti-Nazi vandals still became a cause celèbre for Hitler’s party. The Nuremberg Laws of September 1935, which imposed harsh restrictions on German Jews, were, so the Nazis claimed, a “reply” to Brodsky’s “insult.”

James Q. Whitman dedicates his new book Hitler’s American Model “to the ghost of Louis B. Brodsky.” But Whitman disagrees with Brodsky’s claim that the Nazism of the mid-1930s was a throwback to the Middle Ages. Whitman shows that the Nuremberg Laws, instead of being a barbarous anomaly, were in part modeled on then-current American race law. The Nazi regime saw itself at the cutting edge of racial legislation, and America was their inspiration. “Nazi lawyers regarded America, not without reason, as the innovative world leader in the creation of racist law,” Whitman remarks. In the 1930s, the American South and Nazi Germany were the world’s most straightforwardly racist regimes, proud of the way they had deprived blacks and Jews, respectively, of their civil rights.

Scholars have long known that the American eugenics movement inspired the Nazis; now Whitman adds the influence of America’s immigration policy and its laws about race. Today, Whitman’s idea that Nazism looked to America for inspiration is liable to throw us into a moral panic. But there’s another side to the story, and in the Trump era, especially, we can benefit from taking a hard look at it. Our president was elected in part because he capitalized on an America-first nationalism that hunts ruthlessly for external and internal enemies. In this view, rootless cosmopolitans, immigrants, and the lawless inner cities constantly threaten the real America.

Historians have downplayed the connection between Nazi race law and America because America was mainly interested in denying full citizenship rights to blacks rather than Jews. But Whitman’s adroit scholarly detective work has proved that in the mid-’30s Nazi jurists and politicians turned again and again to the way the United States had deprived African-Americans of the right to vote and to marry whites. They were fascinated by the way the United States had turned millions of people into second-class citizens.

Strange as it may seem to us, the Nazis saw America as a beacon for the white race, a Nordic racial empire that had conquered a vast amount of Lebensraum. One German scholar, Wahrhold Drascher, in his book The Supremacy of the White Race (1936), saw the founding of America as a “fateful turning point” in the rise of the Aryans. Without America, Drascher wrote, “a conscious unity of the white race would never have emerged.” Rasse and Raum—race and living space—were for Nazis the keywords behind America’s triumph in the world, according to historian Detlef Junker. Hitler admired the American commitment to racial purity, praising the anti-Indian campaigns that had “gunned down the millions of Redskins to a few hundred thousand.”

In the 1930s the American South and Nazi Germany were the world’s most straightforwardly racist regimes, proud of the way they had deprived blacks and Jews, respectively, of their civil rights.

Hitler was not wrong to look to America for innovations in racism. “Early 20th-century America was the global leader in race law,” Whitman writes, more so even than South Africa. Spain’s New World Empire had pioneered laws tying citizenship to blood, but the United States developed racial legislation far more advanced than that of the Spaniards. For nearly a century African-American slavery was a monumental stain on Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence and its claim that “all men are created equal.” The Naturalization Act of 1790 stated that “any alien, being a free white person” could become an American—the Nazis noted with approval that this was an unusual case of racial restriction on citizenship. California barred Chinese immigration in the 1870s; the whole country followed suit in 1882.

World War I gave an added impetus to the focus of racialist doctrines on immigration and immigrants. The Asiatic Barred Zone Act of 1917 banned Asian immigrants along with homosexuals, anarchists, and “idiots.” And the Quota Law of 1921 favored Northern European immigrants over Italians and Jews, who were mostly barred from immigrating. Hitler praised American immigration restrictions in Mein Kampf: The future German dictator lamented the fact that being born in a country made one a citizen, so that “a Negro who previously lived in the German protectorates and now resides in Germany can thus beget a ‘German citizen.’ ” Hitler added that “there is currently one state in which one can observe at least weak beginnings of a better conception … the American Union,” which “simply excludes the immigration of certain races.” America, Hitler concluded, because of its race-based laws, had a more truly völkisch idea of the state than Germany did.

In the area of racial restrictions on marriage, America stood alone as a pioneer. The American idea that racially mixed marriage is a crime had a strong impact on the Nuremberg Laws. In the 1930s nearly 30 American states had anti-miscegenation laws on the books, in some cases barring Asians as well as African-Americans from marrying whites. The Nazis eagerly copied American laws against miscegenation. The Nuremberg Laws, following the American model, outlawed marriages between Jews and non-Jews.

In one respect American race law proved too harsh for the Nazis. In America, the “one drop” rule reigned: Often, you were counted as black if you had as little as one-sixteenth Negro blood. But the Nazi hardliners’ proposal to define Germans with one Jewish grandparent as Jews did not get approved at Nuremberg. Instead, quarter- and even half-Jews were treated with relative leniency. Mischlinge, half Jews, could be counted as Aryans, unless they were religiously observant or married to a Jew.

The American treatment of voting rights was also crucial to the Nazi platform. Hitler aimed to turn German Jews into resident noncitizens who would lack the vote as well as other rights. In Mein Kampf he proposed a tripartite division between Staatsbürger (citizens), Staatsangehörige (nationals) and Ausländer (foreigners). The United States already had such a division when it came to certain ethnic groups, notably African-Americans, most of whom could not vote in the South. White Southerners saw blacks the way Nazis saw Jews, as, in Whitman’s words, an “ ‘alien race’ of invaders that threatened to get ‘the upper hand.’ ” The Nazi jurist Heinrich Krieger in a 1934 article was particularly excited that the U.S. deprived not just blacks but also Chinese of voting rights. Detlef Sahm, another legal scholar, applauded the denial of the vote to American Indians, and noted that under U.S. law Filipinos, like the Chinese, were noncitizen nationals.

‘How Race Questions Arise.’ A map of the 48 states showing ‘Statutory Restrictions on Negro Rights,’ which appeared in the Nazi propaganda magazine Neues Volk in 1936. (Courtesy of University of Michigan Library, appearing in James Q. Whitman’s Hitler’s American Model

The Nazis were not just enthusiastic about the content of American race law, they also embraced its common-law basis. Erich Kaufmann, a right-wing German Jewish professor of law who survived the war years in hiding, praised in 1908 the way that American legal decisions, with their “wealth of life and immediacy,” as opposed to the rigid civil-law code that guided German jurisprudence, responded to “the living legal intuitions of the American people.” Thirty years later Kaufmann’s hint would be picked up by Nazis who saw common law, which embodies the powerful intuitions of the people, as a way to legislate racial prejudices. True, they conceded, there was no firm biological definition of Jewishness, but the people’s anti-Semitic instincts were nevertheless correct. Roland Freisler, one of the most radical and pitiless of Nazi jurists, wrote:

I believe that every judge would reckon the Jews among the coloreds, even though they look outwardly white. … Therefore I am of the opinion that we can proceed with the same primitivity that is used by these American states. A state even simply says: ‘colored people.’ Such a procedure would be crude, but it would suffice.

Freisler liked American common-law racism, with (in Whitman’s words) “its easygoing, open-ended, know-it-when-I-see-it way with the law.” Scientific definitions of race were not needed; popular bias was more than enough to go on. The American experience spoke volumes: Jim Crow racism was legal realism, rooted in the feelings of the people.

Other Nazi jurists, like Bernhard Lösener, made the case against a common-law approach. They complained that individual judges could not be allowed to make judgments based on racial hunches when they had no scientific way of determining what was Jewish. “Vague sentiments of Jew hatred” were not sufficient, Lösener insisted, making the case that anti-Semitism needed a sound basis in racial “science.” Lösener stood for one side of Nazi ideology, the emphasis on the hard, scientific facts of race and peoplehood; the other side was the improvising of new rules to further German power. Improvisation won out: lack of clarity about who counted as Jewish allowed the Nazis during the war both to employ Mischlinge and to murder them if necessary.

The Nazis were aware that America was run on egalitarian, liberal principles. But, they pointed out, we made race-based exceptions to our ideal. America showed, in the words of law professor Herbert Kier, that “the elemental force of the necessity of segregating humans according to their racial descent makes itself felt even where a political ideology stands in the way.” Hitler celebrated America in Mein Kampf for its gospel of social mobility, on the grounds that Nazism was an equal opportunity project for Aryans. Until the very late ’30s, FDR’s New Deal was popular among Nazis: The president, they said, had assumed dictatorial powers in order to further the prospects of all white Americans, while leaving segregation in place in the South.

In his concluding pages, Whitman suggests that the Nazis’ approval of American legal culture is worth pondering. The American taste for common law, usually seen as a sign of our pragmatic, flexible approach to legal decision-making, can also enshrine popular prejudices. Popular moods like the urge to get tough on crime, or on illegal immigrants, can carry the seeds of authoritarian fanaticism.