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Database Allows Search For Artifacts Stolen During WWII


Searching for works of art looted by the Nazis during World War II just got a whole lot easier. A new online database gives users access to information on more than 20,000 objects for free.

It's a joint project of the Conference of Jewish Material Claims Against Germany and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Here's Jon Kalish.

JON KALISH: The objects in the new database range from paintings by the old masters to furniture to medieval crucifixes and African masks. They were looted between 1940 and 1944 in France and Belgium by a unit of the German government called the ERR.

At one point, it had a staff of 12,000 people spread across Europe dedicated to seizing, cataloguing and re-distributing artwork owned by Jews.

The objects have since been literally scattered around the world, so tracking them down was a daunting task for someone like researcher Willi Korte who spent decades working for the heirs of Holocaust survivors.

Mr. WILLI KORTE: What I did for most of the part of my earlier career was travel places, find out where is what, find out how access can be accomplished and then figure out how to cover the travel budget.

Some of these earlier projects never got off the ground simply because the heirs didn't have the funds to fund the travel budget. So it is an enormous relief to be able to access this basic, reliable, primary information online.

KALISH: Korte says one of the things that sets this database apart from others is that it draws from the actual documents compiled by the ERR itself and includes high-quality photographs.

Greg Schneider is executive vice president of the Conference of Jewish Material Claims Against Germany.

Mr. GREG SCHNEIDER (Executive Vice President, Conference of Jewish Material Claims Against Germany): We have heard overwhelmingly from people involved in the art world that this will be a huge aid for people who are interested in pursuing claims.

It also brings the whole issue to the fore and makes clear to museums, to collectors, to policymakers that it's an unresolved issue, that more time needs to be spent on ways for people to be able to claim their property.

KALISH: The database also collates the ERR documents for the first time with more recent information from the French government about what's happened to some of the objects since the war.

Mr. MARK MASUROVSKY (Manager, Special Research Projects, U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum): This is a tool, but at the same time, it's a living tool.

KALISH: Mark Masurovsky is manager of special research projects for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. He says that in compiling the information from different sources, he and his colleagues discovered that even more objects were looted than the ERR documents indicated and some were even returned.

Mr. MASUROVSKY: This is a work in progress. Information will be rectified and amended. And for people out there who are listening, I urge you to understand this because the information is really good up until the last date of the documents. And in our case, it really goes up to the early to mid-'60's. So if there are any objects that were returned past that, we don't know about it. But if you do, then we need to hear from you.

KALISH: Masurovsky also says it's important to remember that there's a human side to this cultural plunder.

Mr. MASUROVSKY: This is a database about art maybe, but it is a database about people. And behind every picture there is a person, and behind every person is a tragedy, and there is either a death or a survival.

It is another way of understanding genocide. We are able voyeuristically to examine them and to appreciate them. But when you do that, appreciate the people behind them because it's their tastes, it's their aesthetics that were directly challenged and coveted by the occupiers.

KALISH: In the years ahead, Masurovsky and other Holocaust researchers hope information about objects seized in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union can also be added to the database.

For NPR News, I'm Jon Kalish in New York Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jon Kalish