Wednesday 6 May 2009

A Torah from Warsaw, Would it be Too Much Just to Ask before “Adopting” it?

This is an old story from the New York Times (Joseph Berger, 'A Torah in Warsaw Just Asking to Be Adopted', New York Times Mar 4, 2007), but I found it when looking for something else, and it raised a few points, not to mention my blood pressure, so thought I'd write a few words in response.

THERE it was in a shop window, upside down and looking naked without its velvet mantle — the sacred emblem of the Jewish people treated like another heirloom, […] The students who spotted the forlorn Torah were quickly abuzz. They had just spent 10 days touring the infamies of the Holocaust in Poland — places like Auschwitz-Birkenau, Sobibor, Maidanek, the Cracow ghetto and several synagogues preserved in amber with no Jews left to worship in them. In a day, they would be leaving for Israel,[…] The students, 38 seniors at the Solomon Schechter School of Westchester [New York], noticed that by some force, which they took as divine playfulness, the scroll had been open to that week’s reading, the portion of Jethro about the giving of the Ten Commandments. “It was like the Torah was supposed to be found by us,” Rebecca Weintraub, 17, said from Israel by cellphone. The students informed their headmaster, Elliot Spiegel, and their Talmud teacher, Rabbi Harry Pell, and the next morning the two men visited the shop in Warsaw’s Old Town Square, American Express card in hand. […] Sure, Dr Spiegel had some qualms about the provenance, but it was certainly an old Torah. The price came to $14,500. The school has many affluent and generous families who will pay not only for the Torah but also for a restoration that could cost more than the purchase price. After all, the lessons to be learned, from the school’s point of view, are priceless.

Not however about the principles of hospitality. Leaving aside the reference to "the infamies of the Holocaust in Poland"...  When you are a guest in somebody’s house surely you ask your hosts before carrying off any of their antiques. If what we read in the New York Times is true, this was not a lesson the 38 students of the Solomon Schechter School of Westchester took home with them it seems.

Leaving the antiques shop, Dr. Spiegel nestled the Torah in his winter coat and carried it on the plane to Israel, where the seniors are spending two more months. On their first Sabbath in a youth hostel, he took it out for an afternoon service…..

And the export licence? When was that obtained? The Polish legislation states quite clearly the procedure for issuing this document after ascertaining that the objects’s loss will not be to the “detriment of the national heritage”. This scroll certainly falls into the categories of items that are specifically noted as needing a licence [For Polish readers: USTAWA z dnia 23 lipca 2003 r. o ochronie zabytków i opiece nad zabytkami, (Dz. U. z dnia 17 września 2003 r.) Chapter 5, articles 51-61, there is an English version somewhere]. The New York Times article makes no mention of the export licence being granted in double-quick time by a helpful ministry (actually just 800 metres along the same road on the other side of the Old Town from the shop where they bought the scroll) so that they could take it away on the plane the next day.

I know this antiques shop well, and I also know the visitors with their American Express card intent on taking away an antique as a souvenir from Poland were severely ripped off (in addition, not everything sold in this shop is indeed what it is stated to be...). I know also that the shop also has a notice prominently by the door telling foreign visitors in English and German that they cannot export old items even within the EU without an export licence and where they need to go to get one. If these US tourists decided not to bother, they would have walked right past it with their new purchase hidden beneath a coat without a thought that their own personal needs and rights are not the only thing which matters.

Do Americans with their American Express cards think they can waltz in, buy up what they want and just cart it off, totally ignoring local laws? Why? Because these ones are Jewish? How long will it be before every single object of Jewish origin not nailed down is going to find its way by legal and illegal export out of the country that for seven centuries was homeland to generations of hundreds of thousands of Jews? Should there be no reminders left of the integral (even crucial) part this people played in the cultural mosaic of these lands? Are they to be wiped off the cultural map by the acquisitive needs of other communities seeking some ersatz roots of its own in imported relics of a foreign past? This is all the more important in that it is in the surviving small items associated with their everyday life that the memory is kept alive since the Nazi occupants of Poland destroyed so much of the built heritage of Jewishness.

Photo: Janet Durrans for The New York Times

I have nothing whatsoever against Jews in general (on the contrary in fact), I have nothing whatsoever against these old Torahs being used in modern worship, what I do however object to is the way that in this case and others like it, we seem to be seeing another manifestation of the “I want it and I’m going to have it, whatever your stupid laws say” attitudes we see among collectors. The people taking these things without even a by-your-leave from the state they are removing it from are inventing their own justifications for this. I bet this one goes like "You are not Jews, we are Jews, these things were made by Jews, so they are our heritage not yours". I think this raises some interesting questions about how complex a question cultural heritage is, and how easy it is for special interest groups to twist it and reduces the notion to some simplistic genetic formula ignoring the wider context. The Jewish heritage of Poland is part of the heritage of Poland which cannot be ignored just because there are so few practicing Jews here. Furthermore, it is the duty (and privilege) of Poland to take care of it by whatever means it can and is able to. It is also the right of the people who live in (and visit) Poland to be able to explore the Jewish heritage of Poland and its lands alongside that of every other group that has lived here (Germans, Tatars, Mennonites, the Bronze Age Lusatian Culture, Late Palaeolithic hunter groups and all the rest). They cannot do that if some other people guided only by self-interest have previously bought up all the spectacular and otherwise collectable bits and carted them all off to a variety of scattered places where it is inacessible from Poland.

Cultural heritage protection laws are established for a purpose, in fact for several. It is only the collectors' fantasy that their purpose is primarily "nationalist" (as James Cuno prompts them to say). The mere fact that Jewish manuscripts as well as German ones and much else besides totally unconnected with "Polishness" come under the Polish one is sufficient demonstration that these simplistic labels are totally misplaced. Their ONLY function is to serve the collectors as a means by which to convince themselves that these are "bad laws" which is their justification for ignoring them. Thus we have statements such as the following which has just now appeared on a collecting forum.

The laws in most of these source countries are irrational and deleterious across the board, hurting source countries themselves, the archeology community, and the collecting community, and throughout history irrational laws have routinely been broken.

There actually is nothing at all "irrational" in a state which values its heritage vetting what others want to take away from it, to selectively remove from the pool of items that can be available for public collections (and not forgetting private collectors) in that state. If the US tourists in Warsaw really did see the notice in the shop and nevertheless carry off their purchase without applying for a licence, they too presumably explained it away as being an "irrational law". Maybe they tried to convince themselves it was some nasty old reminder of Poland's "communist past" (which would be ahistorical, because the current law is from 2003). We notice also that in this case the exporters were trying to convince themselves that God Himself was ("playfully") telling them He wanted them to do this (how many times have we heard this "voices in ma' head made me do it" one?).

One function of these laws here is to prevent the removal from the country of almost every single example of the more commercially desirable types of item. The commission which meets to decide whether or not a licence is granted have in mind the need to retain in the country items which give a balanced picture of its overall heritage and not just the bits that nobody is interested in buying and carting off because they are damaged, excessively ugly and badly-made or whatever. Or fake; there is a lot of silver 'judaica' on sale in Polish antique markets and shops, despite some of it looking convincingly old, almost all of it is of very recent manufacture, the pre-War items have all been snapped up by foreign collectors. What actually is at all "irrational" in that?

From what I know of the workings of the process in Poland, an export licence would probably have been granted in this case and the students and staff of the Solomon Schechter School of Westchester would have had a legally exported Torah scroll to do whatever they want with. They only had to ask before "adopting" (their name for what they seem to have done) this item. As it is - to judge from the New York Times report - it seems they merely have one of the many thousands of illegally exported items of cultural property that is flowing out of some countries to those with greater purchasing power to the detriment of the material cultural resources for study, enrichment and education in the denuded "source countries". If so, I wonder how those “many affluent and generous families” feel about their kids’ school being involved in the illegal movement of cultural property. Is that what they sent them to Europe and Israel with the headmaster and Rabbi Pell to learn?

I'd be interested to hear from anyone involved in this and any of the parents of kids in that group or who paid for this scroll.


Phil Davis said...

Paul, perhaps you want to rethink this post. The notion that the Poles have some right to dispose of "their" Jewish heritage as they see fit literally made me shudder with disgust. Perhaps you could ask the Jews of Kielce, should any remain, their opinions of the matter.

Paul Barford said...

No, this post does not need "rethinking". Yes, I think in general the Jewish communities in Poland do want (and work hard for) the preservation of what is left of the Jewish heritage in Poland. In Poland, not as an ornament to some New York school. Actually I have indeed spoken to a number of members of the Jewish community in Poland on these issues and seen some of the work they are doing. There also is great commitment here among the non-Jewish population, especially among the younger generation, not to let this part of the heritage of the region disappear. I think it very offensive to suggest that the converse is the case dragging up the sorry past. Two wrongs do NOT make a right however. All that was needed here was to go through the proper channels and not treat my country as some kind of banana republic or subservient US colony which your countrymen can walk into and carry off just what they want without asking. That goes for ancient coins, eighteenth century silverware, icons, Gothic panel paintings and Torah scrolls. There are proper channels to go through, its only good manners and good practice to use them. Isn't it?

Phil Davis said...

Thanks for your response. Clearly, I don't share your local knowledge of Poland, but I'm not entirely uninformed about the current realities of the Jewish remnant there. In particular, I'm aware of the Krakow Festival, adorable action figures and all. No doubt I should be more charitable, but I find this sort of "philo-Semitism without Jews" as disquieting as the "anti-Semitism without Jews" of the Gomulka years. It smacks of a guilty conscience to me, well earned. I'm sure you'll correct me if I'm wrong, but my understanding is that, while some communal property, synagogues, schools, etc., has in recent years been returned to the Polish Jewish community, virtually no private houses or shops have been restored to their former Jewish owners or their descendants. Let the Polish government do that, and I'll listen with more respect to Poles' protestations of respect for "their" Jewish past. Back to the case at hand, if there are in fact Jewish communities in contemporary Poland lacking Torah scrolls, I completely agree that those communities have a prior, and overwhelming, claim. I'm confident the Westchester kids would wholeheartedly agree as well. Sadly though, I imagine there are plenty of Torahs to go around these days, and defending the interests of Polish Jews wasn't the point of your post anyway. The few Jews remaining in Poland have all sorts of rights to their own history, but sorry, the Polish state and the Polish people have no rights at all, zero, to the tiniest scrap of "their" Jewish past. They forfeited those rights a long time ago, and in particular, they actively destroyed a golden opportunity to redeem themselves after the war.

Paul Barford said...

Good grief, let me point out (once again) that my post was about the behaviour of American tourists in my country, where it seems from the New York Times report a law was broken. Instead of a discussion of that and its consequences, what we are seeing now is the whole construction of justification typical of the no-questions-asked collector why this school trip had not only some “right” to break that law but even – I get the feeling – some kind of obligation. All because of what this collector perceives "the Poles" had "done to the Jews". This insistence on two wrongs making a right seems characteristic of the whole mindset.

My blog is not here to discuss the Nazis, the coin collectors do enough of that, nor the doings of the World Jewish Congress. Although this is getting completely off the point, I think Mr Davis should be answered.

and defending the interests of Polish Jews wasn't the point of your post anyway.No it was about people from abroad interested in acquiring for themselves “pieces of the past” obeying the law in the country they are currently in. That's one of the underlying themes of this blog.

As for the Krakow Festival, I have no idea to what adorable action figures and all you are referring. Here is the programme of the 2008 one (background )
Seems quite a normal cultural festival to me.

I find this sort of "philo-Semitism without Jews" [...]
Well, probably no more than Thanksgiving without the Indians. In any case a totally misplaced comment since many of the events in this festival involve Jews from all over the world who willingly come to Cracow specifically to participate. Among the organizers are the Jewish Council of Cracow, i.e., Jews living in Cracow (yes, they have their own houses there !) and working to keep memory of this culture, and this culture itself, alive.

Now as for this nonsense about a “guilty conscience […], well earned”. Well, firstly see above. Secondly I think you are repeating the “Polish concentration camps” slander of ignorant journalism which I mentioned here earlier. You are obviously quite unaware of the numbers of Poles that risked their lives (yes, unlike any other country in occupied Europe here one was summarily shot for aiding a Jew) in the Nazi occupation to help, hide, supply medical care and otherwise be a support to Jews in the ghettos. Do take a bit of time to find out about the 6000 Poles on the list of the “Righteous Among Nations” (the United States has just three names on that list).

virtually no private houses or shops have been restored to their former Jewish owners or their descendants. Let the Polish government do that, and I'll listen with more respect to Poles' protestations of respect for "their" Jewish past.. Ah, the antiquity collectors' “Tibet condition” (“When they give freedom to Tibet, we’ll respect Chinese export laws for coins”).

Well, have a good look at the first picture I posted on my blog. The map. This is the state where between 1939 and 1945 most of the Jews you are talking about lost their property (and much else). As you can see Poland is not on that map. There was no “Poland” then apart from a few dozen guys in London who were supposed to be the Government in Exile, who were then betrayed by the Allies (your President too) at Yalta in 1944.

Now look at the second picture. These are the Jewish houses and shops of the Warsaw ghetto in August 1944 after the German administration had cleared the area, looted the properties and then demolished them almost to their foundations. This is what you want to see "given back".

I really do not know why a coin collector should be insisting that the Polish government should today be recompensing relatives for this instead of the German government. This once again sounds a bit like that “Polish Concentration Camp” slander to me. Why do you hold the government of the III Republic of Poland responsible for what was done by the Germans in the full majesty of the law that then existed in that country?

FYI, a number of Jewish families who returned from the camps in 1945-6 returned to their property if the buildings were still standing (though some decided to leave subsequently). In many cases though there was nobody to return to them. What the American Jews are asking for is for money for often distant relatives for properties once owned by past members of the family in a foreign country. This involves all sort of legal problems (not least loss of most of the documentation in the war itself which is a major problem in the legal process). Certainly such payments have been made, and property returned, such as under the 'Ustawa z 1997 r. O zwrocie majątków gminom żydowskim' – but what happened to those properties and the money that several Jewish organizations received from their immediate sale, is another long story which I am not going to go into. Matters are by no means as simple as you seem to think. I do not know where you think the money is going to come from for the descendants of the millions murdered by the Nazis. Of course you are totally forgetting that it was not just Jews that lost their houses and businesses to German settlers in 1939-45 and then communist appropriations afterwards. It is not just Jews that are frustrated that this process is chugging along so slowly.

the Polish state and the Polish people […] actively destroyed a golden opportunity to redeem themselves after the war. Redeem themselves” from what? The Kielce pogrom to which you attach such significance we now know was instigated by two separate squads of the security services of the Soviet-sponsored totalitarian regime that was then taking power (and what did the USA do to stop them?). As you may know (or perhaps you do not), there was a lot of anti-Jewish sentiment which erupted into violence throughout the Soviet Bloc in the (later part of) the Stalinist period, similar actions took place in Hungary about the same time too. Within a few months however, nine people were tried and executed for the Kielce pogrom.

As for whether an American antiquities collector can get on the moral high horse and wag his finger at Poles in order to justify removal of cultural property from Poland ignoring export licence procedure, it would seem that despite his “interest in the past” my critic has a short memory for the history of his own country. He should have the grace to admit that the years 1945-6 by no means was a period when US citizens with different coloured skin were safe from mob violence from fellow citizens - even those who had returned from fighting for their country just a while earlier. Roger and Dorothy Malcom and George and Mae Murray Dorsey for example were lynched July 25, 1946 on the Walton County bridge, about 60 miles east of Atlanta, by a number of unmasked men. This was about the same time as the Kielce pogrom. How many people have been convicted in the US for the killing of Mr and Mrs Malcolm and Mr and Mrs Dorsey, even now - 54 years later?

“It was just 50 years ago that many black Americans could not vote. Many older black Americans alive now were born into an age where their lives were at risk for the colour of their skin and a judicial system in the South often felt free to ignore their murder”.

My post was about export licences, readers can note how many justifications a coin collector in the US can come up with to say that the law is a “bad law” which the Polish state has “no right” to try and impose on him or his fellow countrymen. Let us note however the effect of people ignoring these laws, a wholesale drain of collectable elements of the cultural heritage from a country like Poland so that one day there is virtually nothing left. The school party only had to ask.

This discussion is now closed as it is getting off topic and making me angry - unless somebody from the school mentioned has something to add, and I am sure we'd all be very interested to hear what they have to say for themselves.

Phil Davis said...

Oh good grief is right! I do understand what "This post is now closed" means, so no doubt you'll retain the final word. Yes, the whole discussion is off-topic, but you initiated it with your rather critical and unfair post, utterly devoid of the "context" you cherish. So, a few very quick points, do with them what you will, and then I'm done too.

1. Adorable action figures: I've seen pictures of the figurines of Jews in shtetl garb, engaged in "typical" activities, sold at the Krakow festival.

2. Thanksgiving without Indians: I couldn't agree with you more. I despise Thanksgiving. My futile attempts to withdraw from celebrating it have been an annual event for many years, the cause of the worst fights my wife and I ever have.

3. Compensation: I never claimed that Poles owe Jews compensation of any sort. My comments refer to actual real estate, once occupied by Jews, now occupied by Poles, without payment or transfer of title.

4. Kielce: Your account of the horrific events of 1946 is not universally accepted. Certainly, the execution of a few scapegoats is not the final word, any more than the prosecution of Lynndie England and Charles Graner closes the moral books on Abu Ghraib.

5. American culpability: I've devoted much of my adult life to combating the sorts of injustices to which you refer. Obviously then I accept their reality. Similarly, a large majority of younger Germans today bitterly denounce the crimes of their parents and grandparents. If someone cares to demonstrate a like attitude among younger Poles, I'll listen. No, I don't hold Poles responsible for genocide. Their crimes are different.

6. The Shoah: I'm well aware of the number of Polish heroes inscribed at Vad Yashem. It's a large number in absolute terms, but an infinitesimal one relative to the three million Jews in pre-war Poland. I know far too much about these things, and I won't discuss them further.

Despite the "closed discussion," it seems fair to allow me this chance to respond. In any case, absent a direct question, this is my last post on the subject.

Paul Barford said...

This topic has got way off the topic of export licences and portable antiquity issues. There is certainly nothing “unfair” about my original remarks.

Thank you for explaining what you meant about “action figures”. It’s not just in Cracow you can buy them, but I guess you’d have to know something about the function the “image of a Jew” has in Polish folk culture to understand them, but you’d only scoff at that too.

What I said about the Kielce pogrom is based on a report published a few years back based on evidence that came to light recently when the archives of the old regime’s security services became available.

You write: I never claimed that Poles owe Jews compensation of any sort. My comments refer to actual real estate, once occupied by Jews, now occupied by Poles, without payment or transfer of title. Yes, well firstly you did, and I tried to explain the other matter to you, but you are stubbornly unwilling to accept that it looks anything different to your preconceptions about “the Poles” and “their crimes”. The problem is that ownership of all this real estate was transferred, twice, both times in accordance with the prevailing law of the time. Overturning that is a difficult process.

But none of this gives a US school party coming to this country with their headmaster the right to break the law here and you are doing portable antiquity collectors a disservice labouring the point that it does here.

Paul Barford said...

An American coin collector claims he knows “far too much about these things" about Polish “crimes against the jews”. He does not say whence he derives such detailed information, but I wonder if the source of his views is not the controversial 2006 book by Princeton historian Jan Tomasz Gross, „Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland after Auschwitz”. This apparently was well-received in America, though it should be noted those on the ground her were far more sceptically inclined towards the author’s interpretations and especially research methods:

Piotr Gontarczyk Far From Truth Rzeczpospolita, 12-01-2008.

Piotr Zychowicz Chodakiewicz: People’s past has to be reviewed critically on individual basis, 11-01-2008,


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