A recent opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal rightfully calls for the return of Nazi-looted art that now hangs in museums throughout the world.
After initiating their comprehensive campaign to eradicate the Jews in Europe, the Nazis launched a corresponding initiative to destroy all Jewish cultural and economic activities. This started with the confiscation of millions of valuables such as art, jewelry, books, and religious treasures. Over the course of World War II, a special team of Nazi musicologists seized hundreds of thousands of music books, as well as tens of thousands of music instruments, manuscripts, and music scores from Jewish musicians and music businesses. Other possessions—like the priceless Amati violin that Feivel Wininger played in Transnistria—were stolen by neighbors and local authorities.
Only a small fraction of these stolen items have ever been returned to their rightful owners. Many of them were destroyed during the war. The majority of the objects that did survive remained in German hands. Some looted artifacts were given to German soldiers as rewards for their service. Other war booty was reallocated to German families as compensation for belongings that were destroyed during bombings. The items that were ultimately uncovered by the Red Army were deported to the east. They would never be seen again.
Despite the heroic efforts that were recounted in The Monuments Men, the Western Allies largely failed in their attempts to return the cultural artifacts to their legal owners. It was difficult to track down survivors and witnesses. Records of the stolen instruments were often inaccessible, incomplete, or missing altogether. Those who had just survived the Holocaust were not likely to still have bills of sale, certificates of authenticity, or any other documents that could identify and prove ownership of a rare instrument. Even when there are photographs of owners holding distinctive violins, such records are useless if the instruments themselves remain missing. It is impossible to know whether those violins no longer exist, or whether they remain concealed in secret collections.
In Violins of Hope, I write about Dov Brayer, who in 2008 brought Amnon Weinstein a picture of his brother Shevah. The faded black-and-white photograph was taken at the Brayer home in Lvov, Poland, before Shevah was taken to the Janowska concentration camp, where he played at the camp entrance before being killed. In the picture, Shevah holds a violin that Dov hopes to reclaim someday. It is a distinctive instrument with a decorative dog’s head carved into its scroll. “The chances of finding it are one in ten million,” Amnon warned Dov. “But thanks to this unique scroll, at least it’s not impossible.”
“And if I do find this violin,” Amnon continued, “it will be played in a huge concert.”