Mitarbeiter des Collecting Points im Rothschild-Palais Frankfurt

Who Do Things Belong To?

The Restitution of Art and Cultural Assets after 1945

Before and during World War II, the National Socialists stole property from Jews across Europe, including books, manuscripts, and ritual objects. After the war’s end, the (potential) restitution of cultural assets to their former Jewish owners became a task that the Allied forces in the main quickly took on.

The greater Frankfurt region played a key role in the return of looted cultural assets: from 1895 on, the "Freiherrlich Carl von Rothschild’sche Bibliothek" was located in the minimally damaged Rothschild Palais, now the site of the Jewish Museum. Since the building had escaped ruin and, as a library, offered good conditions for the storage of books, the Allies set up a first Collecting Point there in 1945. Over a million books, archival material, and ritual objects were stored here, cultural assets the National Socialists had stolen from all over Europe and hoarded in Frankfurt in the "Institut zur Erforschung der Judenfrage" (Institute for Study of the Jewish Question) at Bockenheimer Landstrasse 68 and in depots near Frankfurt.

Over 60 employees of the armed forces identified and sorted the objects at the Collecting Point. The aim was to identify previous owners and return their property to them. Where this was not possible, the objects were given over to Jewish institutions worldwide, particularly in the USA and Israel, on behalf of the Jewish community.

Offenbach Archival Depot

Employees of the Collecting Point in the Rothschild Palais Frankfurt
Employees of the Collecting Point in the Rothschild Palais Frankfurt, from: Koppel S. Pinson, "Scrapbook No. 2," Coll. LIB 91.14 of the Magnes, Berkeley, CA. Creditline: The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, UC Berkeley

Since the number of objects grew rapidly as further depots were discovered, the available space in the Rothschild Palais was quickly filled to capacity. Consequently, the American military administration relocated the Collecting Point to a warehouse near Offenbach that had previously belonged to I.G. Farben. Between 1946 and 1948, over three million books, archival materials, and ritual objects were collected in this depot and up to 140 people were involved in compiling, identifying, and classifying them. A large number of the books and objects were successfully restituted. When the Offenbach Archival Depot closed in June 1949, several million books and more than a million objects had been returned to their owners. More than a million books and several thousand ritual objects were given over to other Collecting Points, particularly in Wiesbaden. From then on, Jewish organizations such as the Jewish Cultural Reconstruction (JCR) took care of the distribution of abandoned items.

Nowadays, museum are faced with the challenge of how to handle objects that have illegally entered their collections. The statutes of the Washington Declaration (Washington Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art) are key in this context. The aim of provenance research is to find a fair and equitable solution in the event that an object’s rightful owners or their heirs are indeed found in the course of research. The cultural assets are not, however, always returned. Museum purchases and donations or loans on the part of the owners are also common. The main issue is to officially recognize the injustice inflicted and to research and publish the history of the object and its original owner(s).e durch die Besitzer*innen kommen auch vor. Wichtig ist vor allem die Anerkennung des zugefügten Unrechtes und die Erforschung und Veröffentlichung der Objekt- und Besitzergeschichte.

Claims Conference

The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, or Claims Conference for short, campaigns for the restitution and compensation of stolen property. Founded in 1951, it entered an agreement with the Federal Republic of Germany regarding compensation payments for the material losses of Jewish individuals as well as of the Jewish people as a whole. The Claims Conference supports survivors of the Shoah through social institutions for those in need and negotiates compensation payments. Restitutions that cannot be made to those directly affected go to the Claims Conference, which represents them.

Handbook on Judaica Provenance Research

Provenance research on Judaica is still a young discipline, hence systematic knowledge about objects, collectors, and dealer networks is not yet sufficiently available. At the same time, however, the general assumption is that ritual objects for the most part previously belonged to Jewish owners and that forced dispossession between 1933 and 1945 is probable. In order to address the lack of expertise in museums and collections, Judaica experts Julie-Marthe Cohen, Felicitas Heimann-Jelinek, and Ruth Jolanda Weiberger wrote the Handbook on Judaica Provenance Research: Ceremonial Objects, which was published by the Claims Conference in 2018. The book is available online in German and English.