06 September 2008

Holocaust Suitcase: Personal artifacts

Much is being written about Holocaust artifacts these days, whether famous works of art whose provenance is questionable, or simpler personal objects.

Here is an interesting post by Bruce M. Hood:

Jennifer Anglim Kreder, an associate professor of law at Northern Kentucky University, has recently written an interesting piece on the legal and ethical implications when museums retain personal artifacts, focusing on the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum.

In it, she identifies the conflicting interests of museums to display personal items and the wishes of relatives who want to have such items returned because of their sentimental value. In particular she reports the same story about Michel Levi-Leleu and his father’s suitcase that I discuss in my book, “SuperSense.”

This is the bizarre story of Michel, a 66-year old retired engineer who took his daughter to see a temporary exhibition in Paris on the Holocaust on loan from the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. This exhibition contained some of the many suitcases that the Holocaust victims were encouraged to pack and label in a cynical ploy used by the Nazis to trick the Jews into thinking that they were being relocated rather than being sent to death camps.

Pierre Levi, Michel’s father, was one such individual who disappeared during the war. The last time Michel saw his father was in 1943 when he left the safety of a refuge in Avignon in France with a cardboard suitcase looking for a new home with his Jewish family. In 2005, Michel’s daughter spotted a battered cardboard suitcase in the Paris exhibition bearing the name of her grandfather.

Michel response was immediate. He wanted the suitcase back and was soon locked in a legal battle to get the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum to return the item to the family.

Kreder reported on the Museum's response - "no such items had ever been returned and that if such claims were ever allowed then this would compromise the whole future of the Museum ever allowing access."

The Museum also attempted to deny the suitcase ever belonged to Levi, even though the case also bore his prisoner number, claiming there were many Pierre Levi’s, although the case also bore his father's address. The Museum characterized Michel’s claims as “highly dubious.”

Kreder’s article is thought-provoking. In a time when many museums are compelled by law to return sacred objects, there is a question of whether museums would survive if they could not display authentic items. This is because we value authentic items more than copies because of our psychological essentialism.

However, in this case, or suitcase to be more precise, it seems unjust to withhold the item from the Levi-Leleu family. For a start, it is very unlikely that all the suitcases in the Holocaust museum could be identified and returned to relatives and there must be thousands. More importantly, Michel does not want the suitcase simply to stick it in the attic. He stated,

“I’m not asking that they give it back to me and I’ll put it in a cupboard. I want it to be seen by the people who visit the memorial.”

Michel wants to keep the suitcase in France so it doesn't repeat the journey already made to Auschwitz.

Kreder, says Hood, makes the analysis of legal precedent of individuals making claims and ends by concluding that museums are morally obligated to return symbolic objects.

I found this piece very interesting. The Kreder article - "The Holocaust, Museum Ethics, and Legalism" - is in the Southern California Review of Law and Social Justice, Vol. 18, 2008, and the abstract is available.

Hood asks in his blog posting: "Do you think that the museum is right by acting on behalf of the majority rather than the individual? I am not so sure."

What do Tracing the Tribe's readers believe?

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