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An Impertinent Request

Cultural Reconstruction and Historical Amnesia

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In late October 1947, the Jewish émigré and art historian Guido Schönberger received an odd letter from West Germany in his new home, New York City, where he had built up a new career and life for himself after fleeing from Nazi Germany. Furthermore, along with other Jewish emigrants, he was an advocate of the Jewish collective being recognized as the heir of »orphaned« Jewish cultural assets after the Shoah, charged with distributing these to Jewish institutions worldwide. In this context, Schönberger served as an advisor and Judaica expert in the collective Jewish restitution process and cultural reconstruction efforts being conducted by the Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, Inc. (JCR). The three-page letter he received was sent by fellow art historian and dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt. Friendly in tone and addressing Schönberger with the intimate pronoun »Du«, Gurlitt began with a lament about the difficult living conditions in Germany and a request for material goods urgently needed by his family, such as »thick woolen underpants«. Yet his second request is what makes this letter remarkable: Gurlitt asked Schönberger to provide him with a recently published issue of The New Yorker containing an essay on »Hitler’s art purchases«. Gurlitt was obviously referring to the three-part report The Beautiful Spoils [2, 3] by American journalist and Paris correspondent Janet Flanner. This pioneering report described the scope and structure of the Nazi theft of art and cultural property, in which Gurlitt himself had been involved as one of »Hitler’s art dealers«. Today, the number of Nazi-looted works of art Gurlitt possessed is still a matter of debate, but there is no doubt that he had profited from the Nazi art trade. Thus, his initially innocuous-seeming request to Schönberger was highly unusual and actually pretty impertinent. Certainly, Gurlitt hoped to find out whether his own name appeared in the article, but why did he turn to Schönberger, of all people, with this request? And how could he have been sure that Schönberger would not expose him as a Nazi accomplice?

Letter by Hildebrand Gurlitt to Guido Schönberger, 26 October 1947, USHMM, Guido Schönberger Collection (GSC), Acc. No. 2011.175.1.
Letter by Hildebrand Gurlitt to Guido Schönberger, 26 October 1947, USHMM, Guido Schönberger Collection (GSC), Acc. No. 2011.175.1.
Letter by Hildebrand Gurlitt to Guido Schönberger, 26 October 1947, USHMM, Guido Schönberger Collection (GSC), Acc. No. 2011.175.1.
Letter by Hildebrand Gurlitt to Guido Schönberger, 26 October 1947, USHMM, Guido Schönberger Collection (GSC), Acc. No. 2011.175.1.
Portrait von Guido Schönberger, USHMM, Guido Schönberger Collection (GSC).
Portrait von Guido Schönberger, USHMM, Guido Schönberger Collection (GSC).

The answer seems pretty simple: Gurlitt felt safe because on 23 October 1947, a few days before writing the letter, he was notified that his denazification proceeding had been successfully completed. Moreover, based on a statement made in this proceeding, for which Gurlitt thanked Schönberger in the above-mentioned letter (»With your letter, I was able to prove who I am in Bavaria«) it was clear that Gurlitt knew quite well that Schönberger did not pose any danger to him. Schönberger and Gurlitt had known each other for many years. Both kept in touch until 1939 – that is, prior to Gurlitt’s involvement in Nazi art theft, but at a time when he was increasingly coming under pressure from the Nazi regime because of his support for modern art. Gurlitt first reached out to Schönberger after the war, as early as 1946, asking for a positive statement for his denazification proceedings. Having been red-flagged on Allied lists of art-looting war criminals at the time, Gurlitt used lies and deception to prove his alleged innocence to the American military government. His request to Schönberger was one of several to old companions in this matter. Since the correspondence has not been completely preserved, we do not know the entire back story, but Schönberger, like some of the other people Gurlitt wrote to, apparently felt entitled to declare in 1946 that Gurlitt »did not, like so many others, make his position easier by compromising« after 1933. Furthermore, he claimed that Gurlitt would »certainly support to the best of his ability and will« the reconstruction of a denazified Germany.Aussage Guido Schönberger, Spruchkammerakten, Staatsarchiv Bamberg, StArchiv-CO-5051.9-6/50/2.

Gurlitt’s motives for his requests were clear and ordinary. What is more interesting is Schönberger’s reaction and agency. Although his reply to Gurlitt’s 1947 request concerning the New Yorker report cannot be found in the archives, later letters prove that the correspondence with Gurlitt continued and was friendly – at least for some time. Unfortunately, Schönberger’s motives largely remain obscure due to the lack of documentation. Perhaps Gurlitt deceived him with false statements, or perhaps Schönberger was naïve or ignorant. Be that as it may, Schönberger clearly also had personal and official skin in the game. He was motivated by a desire for personal reconciliation and the postwar reconstruction of Jewish culture, as well as the preservation of the memory of the Shoah through the reclamation of Jewish cultural assets. Keeping in touch with important figures of the West German art world and, at times, even exonerating them may have helped Schönberger to reestablish professional networks, sometimes also providing him with intimate knowledge that he was then able to apply to his tasks. For example, these practices helped Schönberger to fulfill a mission on behalf of the JCR in 1951, when he traveled to West Germany to identify and prepare heirless Jewish cultural assets for restitution to Jewish museums and synagogues worldwide. The fate of Nazi-looted Jewish ritual objects in particular occupied Schönberger. The JCR managed to distribute quite a few of these »surviving remnants« of Jewish material culture to the USA, where Schönberger presented them in numerous exhibitions in museums and Jewish community centers, thus carrying out important and early Shoah remembrance work in the late 1940s and 1950s. Executive secretary Hannah Arendt, too, appreciated Schönberger’s ability to utilize his German art and museum networks in the service of the JCR. In a letter to Gershom Scholem in 1950, she emphasized: »[W]ith very few exceptions his friends are indeed the few ‘good’ people whom one can meet here [in Germany].«Hannah Arendt, Field report No. 15, February 10, 1950, in: Marie Luise Knott (ed.), Hannah Arendt – Gershom Scholem – Der Briefwechsel, Berlin 2000, 495–506, 501. Whether Arendt would have unmasked Gurlitt as an exception cannot be ascertained, but in any case, these and similar rarely discussed gray areas of contact within the art world represent a part of Jewish history that has yet to be fully explored. Gurlitt’s impertinent request to Schönberger draws attention to the simultaneity and, at times, entanglement of entirely opposing approaches within the framework of postwar Jewish and West German cultural reconstruction: The ubiquitous tendency in West German society to repress and taboo the Nazi past and to find a new orientation coexisted and interacted with opposing efforts to confront and remember this past by reclaiming cultural assets and by promoting the reconstruction of Jewish life and culture.

Anna-Carolin Augustin is a research fellow at the German Historical Institute, Washington DC. Her main field of interest is modern Jewish history with an emphasis on material culture. Her current post-doc research project examines the entangled object biographies and migration paths of Judaica as well as changing attributions of their meaning and functions after 1945 in a transnational, cultural-historical context | augustin(at)ghi-dc.org

Titelfoto: Heirless Jewish Ceremonial Objects distributed by JCR to the USA and temporarily stored at the JMNY, USHMM, Guido Schönberger Collection (GSC), Acc. No. 2011.175.1.).

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