France vows to find art, other items taken from Jews
January 31, 1997
Web posted at: 8:00 p.m. EST (0100 GMT)
From Paris Bureau Chief Peter Humi
PARIS (CNN) -- The Louvre, one of the largest museums in the world, is known for its collection of priceless art classics.
But the venerable Paris institution may have some works with unsavory origins: art looted from Jews by Nazis and their collaborators during World War II.
According to an official 1995 report by an independent government agency, nearly 2,000 works of art, possibly seized from Jews during the Nazi invasion of France, are still "provisionally" in the care of French museums.
The report, which doesn't identify specific artworks, was only made public a few days ago.
French Prime Minister Alain Juppe promised Jewish leaders Saturday that he would set up a high-level commission of inquiry to find out what happened to Jewish possessions never returned to their rightful owners, generally because they were killed in Nazi gas chambers.
"What we want is the truth," Jewish leader Emmanuel Weintraub said. "If it is unpalatable or not doesn't really matter. We want the truth."
French Jews deported
Unpalatable it may prove to be. Thousands of French Jews were deported by the Germans during the war, usually coerced into selling their property and possessions. Often these were simply stolen or looted.
A recent book said French authorities took over from the retreating Germans in 1944 and still administer possibly hundreds of apartments left vacant by Jews killed in death camps.
During the German occupation, many Frenchmen openly collaborated with the Nazis and benefitted from the spoils, including, some claim, the country's museums.
Result of malign neglect?
"There was some benign neglect on the part of the museums, who didn't want to know all the details about some of their possessions. Maybe there was some malign neglect," Weintraub said.
Not so, say officials from the national museums of France. They claim their records proved that after the war and ever since, the institutions have aided efforts to trace Jewish owners.
The Germans and the puppet regime they installed in France also kept meticulous files, detailing Jewish deportations and possessions.
Many of the files, according to the 1995 report, survive in basements in police headquarters or in local government offices across France.
What these papers eventually reveal to the committee set up by Juppe may not just produce the names of the rightful owners of stolen property and art, but will likely reopen the wound of French wartime collaboration.
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