From the archives: Lucy S. Dawidowicz and the Restitution of Jewish Cultural Property.

Author:Sinkoff, Nancy

In September of 1946, Lucy Schildkret, who later in life would earn renown under her married name, Lucy S. Dawidowicz, (2) as an "intentionalist" historian of the Holocaust, (3) sailed to Europe to work for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (the JDC, the Joint, or the AJDC) in its overseas educational department among Jewish refugees in displaced persons (DP) camps. (4) She later recalled that the journey had filled her with foreboding. (5) Schildkret was returning to a Europe then murderously emptied of what had been its largest prewar Jewish community, the Jews of Poland. She had lived among this community for a year before the outbreak of the war as a fellow of the Aspirantur, a graduate program at the Yiddish Scientific Institute (now the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research) in Vilna, fleeing only days before the Nazi invasion. (6) Schildkret's postwar position stationed her in Munich, the JDC's headquarters for the American Zone of Occupation. While her official responsibilities for the JDC consisted of procuring supplies, such as textbooks, dictionaries, paper, theater props, writing utensils, and curriculum materials, for the DP camps' educational institutions, which included more than sixty schools, (7) she soon found herself on the front lines of the haunting work of postwar Jewish cultural restoration. (8) By a mixture of chance, intention, and fate, Schildkret's most enduring role as an educational worker for the JDC would be restituting the remnants of YIVO's library and archives from the Offenbach Archival Depot (OAD) and ensuring their safe shipment to New York in June of 1947. (9) Schildkret's efforts helped to establish YIVO as a distinguished American Jewish research institution, and the New York City YIVO as a critical institutional link to the East European Jewish past. (10) An unsung "Monuments Woman," Schildkret became known for her role in salvaging YIVO's books only in 1989, when she published From That Place and Time: A Memoir, 1938-1947, which recounted her European experiences. (11)

This article will establish the context for Schildkret's work in the OAD and reprint in full one of the many memos she wrote about the issues she--and others--faced in restituting Jewish cultural property after the war, a deeply contested activity whose resonances can still be felt. (12) Much more was at stake than merely ascertaining ownership of valuable books, religious objects, and art. Underlying the salvaging of YIVO's library--as well as the restitution of all the other plundered property of European Jewry--was the fundamental question of who should be the authoritative voice of "the Jewish people" in the aftermath of the catastrophe. (13) Schildkret's work at the OAD placed her among the major figures of the transnational, postwar Jewish intelligentsia, including Hannah Arendt, Salo W. Baron, Hugo Bergmann, Philip Friedman, Judah Magnes, Koppel S. Pinson, Cecil Roth, Gershom G. Scholem, Marie Syrkin, Max Weinreich, and Zosa Szajkowski who were grappling with--and often competing with one another over--the fate of postwar European Jewry and its stolen cultural property. (14) All of them were engaged as well with the pressing issues of postwar Jewish survival and communal reconstruction, issues that directly touched upon the most essential question of modern Jewish existence that the Nazi assault had laid bare: Could Jews be secure in the European diaspora? Depending upon how that question was answered, a second, equally urgent question emerged: If Jews could not be secure in the European diaspora, who should speak for the Jewish future and where should it be located--America or Palestine? There had been no consensus among European, Palestinian, and American Jews before and during the war of where, how, and with what means Jewish security could be ensured. (15) In the war's aftermath, intellectuals among these groups, some of whom were Holocaust survivors, now debated these questions again, but with renewed urgency.

The memo--now part of Dawidowicz's papers at the American Jewish Historical Society--was written on May 24, 1947 to Joseph A. Horne, director of the OAD, toward the end of her work at the depot. (16) The memo's subject line read, "Report on screening of Yiddish and Hebrew books at OAD to date." On its first page, Schildkret wrote, "Never sent." As we shall see below, although she did not send her memo to Horne, Schildkret sent a copy of it to Max Weinreich, the director of YIVO, which was then based in New York City. Like so many of the other documents that are held in Dawidowicz's papers, this memo was produced in duplicate, while some of her memos exist in triplicate. These copies are held in other archives, often in YIVO materials, such as in the papers of Max Weinreich and in two boxes of unarranged YIVO administrative files related to the restitution of its library from Vilna in the immediate postwar period. (17) Because of official procedure, some of these documents were duplicated contemporaneously as onion-skin copies of materials. Others were duplicated because--as in the case of the May 24, 1947 memo--the writer wanted to communicate something unofficially. Schildkret herself commented on the duplicative nature of her work in a letter to Max Weinreich: "I want to type this letter [in English rather than write it in Yiddish] so I can have some copies. I have reached the point where it is impossible to write anything in less than three copies." (18) Dawidowicz also xeroxed many of the documents from her postwar sojourn in Germany for research when writing From That Place and Time: A Memoir, 1938-1947. The endnotes of this article reflect the joint and sometimes multiple archival provenances of many of the sources.

Schildkret drafted the memo to recommend an end to the effort to ascertain personal ownership of books for restitution. From her perspective, the work of restoring books to their original owners or heirs had been accomplished. She believed that no more books should be restituted to either Poland or the Soviet Union, and that the remaining stocks of Yiddish and Hebrew belles-lettres, textbooks, and religious books--many in multiple copies--should be restituted based on genre, not on ownership, and only to those Jewish institutions that could use them. When she sent the draft memo to Weinreich on May 25, 1947, she reasserted her opinion about closing the depot and encouraged him to communicate her views in a more diplomatic fashion to Richard F. Howard, chief for cultural restitution of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFA&A), Reparations and Restitution Branch of the Office of the Military Government in Germany, which oversaw the administration of the OAD. (19) She explained to Weinreich that she had never intended to send the memo to Horne lest it jeopardize the transport of YIVO's books, but that she had written it in order to clarify her views on restituting the remaining collections at the depot. (20)

Although her advice went unheeded, (21) the memo sheds light on the importance of Schildkret's work in the restitution of YIVO's property at the Offenbach Archival Depot, efforts that have been only recently recognized by scholars. (21) At the time, her accomplishments all but disappeared from the public record, in great part because she was an unknown woman who worked behind the scenes under the authority of prominent men, such as Max Weinreich, various directors of the OAD, and the primarily male administration of the JDC. Despite Schildkret's subordinate role, she was well aware of the magnitude of the negotiations over the fate of the recovered Jewish cultural treasures, and of the unresolved and profound issues facing world Jewry in the immediate postwar period.

Schildkret's memo addresses several of these important questions. It also illustrates her proprietary feelings about YIVO's diasporic history and legacy, her pessimism about the reconstruction of Jewish life in Central and Eastern Europe, and her profound distrust of Soviet Communism. Her identity as an American and a member of the victorious Allied occupying forces only served to bolster these feelings. On a deeply personal and perhaps even subconscious, level, Schildkret's writings from the OAD also reveal how her role as one of YIVO's main representatives in scorched postwar Europe had empowered her. From being Weinreich's assistant in New York during the war--a role anticipated during her year as an aspirant, when he regularly relied on her English-language skills for transcriptions and letter writing (23)--Schildkret grew in confidence to express her own views on the fate of YIVO's cultural property. Her May 24, 1947 memo--with her other writings from the period--gives us entree into her views and behavior regarding these issues, as well as information about some of the problematic behavior that took place at the OAD, long before she began to play a signal role in the construction of postwar American Jewish identity and its connection to the destruction of European Jewry.

The Nazis' plan to exterminate the Jewish community in Europe included a carefully orchestrated campaign to destroy Jewish culture. Alfred Rosenberg (1893-1946), a virulent antisemite, had been authorized by Hitler to study the so-called "enemies" of Nazism. As early as 1940, he established the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (Reich Leader Rosenberg Taskforce, or ERR) in order to pillage European Judaica collections. By 1942, he had set up offices throughout Europe and proceeded to loot its cultural treasures, spreading his net to include 375 archives, 957 libraries, 531 research and educational institutes, and 402 museums in Eastern Europe alone. (24) At Rosenberg's side in the plunder of Judaica was Dr. Johannes Pohl, an expert in Hebrew literature whose thievery benefitted from his studies at the Hebrew University from 1934 to 1936. Pohl, who was dedicated to the concept of Judenforschung...

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