Prologue Magazine

Spoils of War Returned, Part 3

U.S. Restitution of Nazi-Looted Cultural Treasures to the USSR, 1945–1959

Fall 2002, Vol. 34, No. 3

By Patricia Kennedy Grimsted

© 2002 Patricia Kennedy Grimsted

cover of CD-ROM on restitution of treasures to USSR A CD-ROM publication from the National Archives and Records Administration (2001) is an essential documentary resource for researching cultural property displaced during World War II.

Private Émigré Claims

A number of plundered materials were turned over to other émigrés from Soviet lands who remained in exile in the West. According to a 1948 Washington directive, U.S. authorities were "to avoid restitution to the USSR of property claimed independently by a non-national or a refugee national of the claimant government."39 Some of these transfers are now coming under closer scrutiny, as American authorities in some cases may well have erred in favor of those who were able to arrange their sanctuary abroad.

Russian attention recently has focused on the still inadequately explained fate of the revered icon of the Tikhvin Madonna. Removed by the Nazis from a monastery in Tikhvin and then taken from Pskov to Riga and used during the war for religious (and Nazi propagandistic) purposes, it was reportedly taken to Bavaria under the escort of Russian Orthodox Bishop John (Ion) of Riga. The Tikhvin Madonna was one of the specific complaints mentioned in Marshal Zorin's letter to General Clay. American restitution authorities first permitted Bishop John to use the icon for services in his church in Bavaria, where it was spotted by Soviet agents. Finally they to permitted him to take it with him to the United States in 1949, under the pretext that the icon he possessed was "not the same icon as claimed by the Soviet authorities but an imitation copied by a monastery monk near the town of Riga"— a reproduction of little value. As it has turned out, this was one matter about which the Soviets had good reason for complaint, because what is undoubtedly the original Tikhvin Madonna has recently been identified in an Orthodox church in Chicago in the custody of Bishop John's adopted son.40

Another highly disputed U.S. postwar cultural transfer was the collection of Dürer drawings from the former Lubomirski Museum in Lviv, nationalized following the Soviet annexation of western Ukraine in 1939-1940; they were seized by a personal emissary of Hitler in 1941.41 Following long-secret negotiations after the war, American restitution authorities in the State Department transferred the collection to Prince Georg Lubomirski, who claimed the drawings with supporting documentation that the terms of his family's donation had been abrogated when Soviet authorities abolished the Lubomirski Museum and nationalized the Polish collections in 1939 - 1940. During negotiations with U.S. authorities, Lubomirski promised the drawings to the National Gallery of Art, but he later quite legally sold the Dürer drawings at auction, resulting in their dispersal to various museums in Great Britain and the United States. At the time of the Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets (December 1998), a formal claim was filed by the Stefanyk Library of the Academy of Sciences of Ukraine in Lviv for Dürer's "Male Nude" now in the National Gallery. Several recent journalistic accounts have tapped many sources and raised conflicting issues. Recently, the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa was considering (on moral grounds) turning their Dürer drawing over to Poland, but the U.S. Department of State presented a convincing opinion that the postwar "restitution" of the collection to Prince Lubomirski was justified, that the museums now holding the drawings acquired them in good faith, and that restitution to Ukraine or Poland should not be required.42 A well-documented case study is still needed, especially if and when any legal claims are filed in court.

"Redistribution" of Jewish Collections

Another controversial issue involves significant quantities of allegedly heirless Judaica and Hebraica from Soviet collections that were also not returned to the USSR and other countries in Eastern Europe as a major exception to the generally successful American policy of "restitution to the country of provenance." Because of the Nazi annihilation of Jewish communities in Eastern Europe, the lack of openly acknowledged successor Jewish institutions, and the wartime flight of many European Jews across the Atlantic and to Palestine, Western Jewish organizations very actively lobbied for the "redistribution" of Jewish cultural treasures. Of particular importance in this regard were the large collections of Judaica and Hebraica from Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, and Latvia, including many priceless manuscripts, that had been shipped to Frankfurt by the ERR and other Nazi agencies for the Institute for the Study of the Jewish Question and its branch in nearby Hungen. Most of these ended up after the war in Offenbach. Offenbach and also Wiesbaden took in a large amount of ritual silver, numerous Torah scrolls, and other important Jewish treasures, many of which were also turned over to Jewish relief organizations for distribution to surviving Jewish communities and refugees from liberated concentration camps in the West.

Jewish Cultural Reconstruction (JCR) by 1948 became the official agency "for distribution in perpetuation of the Jewish cultural heritage."43 By 1952, over half a million Jewish books went to JCR, with at least 150,000 books sent to the United States for distribution to many different libraries, including the Library of Congress. Some went to other countries, and many more went to Jerusalem, where they have ended up in the Yad Vashem and the National and University Library in Jerusalem. Reportedly in the redistribution process, identification of provenance and appropriate restitution left much to be desired.44

As a prime example of errors in the process (not related to JCR), OMGUS files preserve a list of five crates of Hebrew manuscripts with identified provenance in different European collections, including some from Belarus, Ukraine, and the Baltic countries, that were removed illegally from Offenbach, sent to Jerusalem, and never returned or distributed to the countries of provenance, despite protests from U.S. authorities. A 1947 U.S. Army memorandum notes, "The material referred to is known to contain identifiable restitutable matter of great value, including a number of items belonging to Russian museums and libraries."45 Despite American knowledge of the irregularities, all of the manuscripts remained in Jerusalem.

Jewish collections from Lithuania could have also fallen under the prohibition of restitution to the Baltic countries that had been annexed to the Soviet Union, but Jewish cultural property was in any case handled separately. One of the largest, best known, but still complicated cases is that of the well-known Jewish [Yiddisher] Research Institute (YIVO) from Vilnius (prewar Polish Wilno, earlier Russian Vilna). At the beginning of the war, YIVO leaders who had escaped to the United States reincorporated the institute as a legal entity in New York City, thus setting legal grounds for transfer of its prewar holdings to the U.S. An estimated seventy-seven thousand books from YIVO were shipped to New York. Many of the YIVO materials were identified in Offenbach by an American YIVO devotée, Lucy Dawidowicz, who had studied in Vilnius before the war and was caught up in the postwar drama of locating and salvaging what remained in the West from the Vilnius Jewish community.46

With the recent high-level attention to "Holocaust-era assets," a more thorough study of the "restitution" and "redistribution" of Jewish property after the war is still needed. The subject was investigated by the U.S. Presidential Commission on Holocaust-Era Assets, but unfortunately their report gives few details and little documentation about their findings and does not deal with the specific East European issues.47

Today, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, many Jewish communities of Eastern Europe are reestablishing themselves and trying to identify their cultural heritage. Jewish cultural organizations are being revived and want to reclaim their legacy. Major state libraries are trying to protect the multiethnic cultural heritage of their nations, and Hebraica collections are at last coming out of hiding and being identified. There is rising resentment against Western Jewish leaders for preventing restitution of cultural treasures to the countries of origin and dispersing European Jewish treasures to different parts of the world with many sent across the seas to America or Israel.48 Such resentment may be tempered by the realization of the bitter repression of Jewish studies in the USSR and Eastern Europe during the postwar Soviet period. Besides, today many Jewish cultural treasures, books, and archives from other countries that were transferred to the USSR after the war still remain hidden or not subject to restitution from Soviet successor states. In most cases they were initially seized by the Nazis from Holocaust victims, but they have not yet been publicly described or identified in terms of provenance. As of December 2001 a new project to describe trophy Jewish cultural property is getting started in Russia, in cooperation with an American Jewish foundation.49

U.S. Intelligence Seizures and the "Smolensk Archive"

A final category of materials that was not returned to the USSR included documents of interest to American intelligence agencies. As one agent explained in the field, "We were directed by Washington to avoid restitution to the USSR of certain products considered as being of strategic importance."50 In the context of the burgeoning Cold War and the de facto political division between Eastern and Western Europe, Russian archival materials and technical publications that might have potential military or security significance were accordingly exempted from the American commitment to restitution. In addition, American intelligence was also looking for "information the Germans had on the Communist set-up in Russia" and "information on the organization, personnel, activities, and tactics of the Soviet system [and] the NKVD."51 This explains why at least 5,957 items of Russian archival and other printed materials from the OAD were turned over to the U.S. Army Intelligence units (G-2).52

Among the still contested archival hostages are the files from the Smolensk Communist Party Archive that were removed from Offenbach and are currently held in the U.S. National Archives. They have already served their purpose as a training ground for American Sovietology, after the Nazis had confiscated them for the ERR anti-Bolshevik research center in Silesia.53 Many Russians still claim that the entire archive was taken to the United States, but now we know that Soviet authorities found five freight car loads from that same Smolensk Party Archive in Silesia in 1945 and returned them to Smolensk. Knowledge about that retrieval, however, was repressed in the Soviet Union until the archives were opened in 1991.54 But now on both sides of the Atlantic the "Smolensk Archive" has become a symbol for the international politics of restitution. Recently in the Russian Duma, America's retention of the "Smolensk Archive" was used by Russian legislators to justify their nonrestitution of their own captured archives. Despite such examples, there is good reason to believe that the cultural treasures not returned to the USSR by the United States are the exceptions, not the general rule.

Soviet Distribution of Cultural Treasures Returned

Another major concern that has arisen since the collapse of the USSR is that many of the cultural treasures returned by the United States did not reach their intended destinations in the USSR. The intensification of the Cold War and the extent of Soviet cultural plunder from Germany and Eastern Europe obviously did not leave Soviet authorities disposed to advertise the American restitution program. Another problem was the chaotic Soviet handling of restitution and trophy shipments. While some book shipments came to the suburban Leningrad distribution center in Pushkin (Tsarskoe Selo), other library receipts were being handled by the Moscow-based Gosfond. Both of these centers were simultaneously distributing trophy books and other cultural treasures plundered from Germany, cultural treasures from other European countries earlier plundered by the Nazis, and cultural treasures of Soviet provenance that Soviet authorities themselves had retrieved in the West. Often those three categories of materials were intermingled with the U.S.-restituted cultural property.

One prominent example concerns Nazi-looted twelfth-century mosaics and frescoes from the Cathedral of Saint Michael of the Golden Domes in Kyiv in Ukraine. The frescoes had been removed before the cathedral was dynamited in 1936 as part of Stalin's "urban-renewal" campaign. They were looted by the Nazis in 1943, taken first to Cracow and then to the Castle of Höchstädt. The artworks were among the materials returned from the Munich Collecting Point after the war, but only half of them were returned to Kyiv. Others have been recently located in the Hermitage and in Novgorod. Since Ukrainian independence, the church has been rebuilt, and Ukrainians have been pleading for the return of the art. The case was even raised in a UNESCO committee dealing with displaced cultural treasures. Finally in February 2001, as a political "gesture of goodwill," four fragments of the frescoes were returned to Kyiv from the Hermitage. But an "exchange" gift from Ukraine to Russia was expected, and the returned frescoes still needed extensive restoration.55

The difficulty of documenting postwar transfers and their appropriate distribution to the repository of origin in Russia or other former Soviet republics remains a problem for many museums and libraries. Although the postwar records are incomplete, a few recently opened secret files in Moscow contain some important documents about incoming Soviet shipments (including trophy shipments) from Germany and the subsequent distribution of U.S.-restituted cultural property. While remaining documentation is fragmentary, transfer documents bearing signatures from officials at museums in different parts of the USSR, including Ukraine, have been located for at least some of the cultural property received from U.S. restitution authorities.56

Of particular note, at the beginning of November 1947, eighteen freight-train wagons of cultural treasures restituted from the U.S. Occupation Zone of Germany were dispatched to the USSR from the Soviet cultural transfer center (Derutra) near Berlin. Presumably these would have comprised the materials received from the U.S. 1946 and 1947 Munich transfers (nos 7 - 11 [Munich nos. 2 - 5], and possibly also the October 1947 transfer from Wiesbaden). Of these, eight wagons were sent directly to Kyiv and two wagons to Minsk, in addition to four to Novgorod and four wagons plus an additional flatcar for bronze statues (undoubtedly from the Neptune Fountain) that were directed to suburban Leningrad. Official representatives from the Russian, Belarusian, and Ukrainian republics had been brought to Berlin to verify the shipments. Because a full inventory at that point would have involved opening and inspecting the contents of each of the several thousand crates, they bonded each crate and wagon, after making a list of the crates to be included, before dispatching them to their destinations in the USSR. They noted that at least one thousand crates had been opened and some were damaged. Lists attached to their signed acts of attestation indicated the items with U.S. property-card registration numbers that were shipped to each destination.57

Presumably the Soviet officers accepting delivery in Munich received a copy of the official acts of transfer with inventories and property-card numbers. They were supposed to have inspected the outgoing contents of individual crates in Munich, but according to American reports, the Soviet officers present were not well-qualified museum specialists, and even if they may not have wanted readily to accept the often-vague American provenance attributions (frequently based on Nazi lists), they did not have the means to check. Given all the transfers and distribution problems, it would be quite understandable if some items were not identified correctly and distributed to their repositories of origin.

So far, the Soviet copies of the American transfer documents and the accompanying U.S. inventories of the cultural restitution transfers have not been located in Russian archives, except for the ones from Washington found by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Presumably they would be held within the records of the Soviet Military Administration in Germany (SVAG), most of the nonmilitary portions of which are housed in the State Archive of the Russian Federation (GA RF). Although the SVAG property-related records are still classified, the GA RF director, Sergei V. Mironenko, ordered a thorough search for the Soviet copies of these documents in connection with the new U.S. National Archives CD-ROM publication.58 As of the end of 2001, neither archivists in GA RF nor specialists in the Ministry of Culture have been able to locate them. The search continues.

During the Soviet era, U.S. restitution may have been officially denied in the USSR to the extent that related documentation may have been taken out of circulation. But today we live in a new century, so we can only hope that the official Soviet copies of the U.S. transfer documents and inventories will turn up and that the American restitution efforts can be better understood. Unfortunately, even ten years after the collapse of the USSR and over fifty years since the end of the war, many related files of the Soviet receiving side in the restitution process have either not been located in their entirety or remain closed to the public. The new CD-ROM publication of the copies from the U.S. National Archives may at least provide further incentive for research and will at least make available more of the hitherto-missing documentation.

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Too many cultural treasures still remain displaced as a result of World War II, and many still remain unidentified. More research lies ahead, especially on specific problematic cases. We can only hope that further collaborative investigation with specialists from Russia, Ukraine, and other former Soviet republics, and more open access to documentation remaining in Russia, could help overcome the persisting Cold War attitudes surrounding displaced cultural treasures and restitution issues.

Spoils of War Returned, Part 1
Spoils of War Returned, Part 2
Spoils of War Returned, Part 4


Patricia Kennedy Grimsted is research associate at the Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard University and is a leading authority on archives of the former Soviet Union and Soviet successor states. She has written widely on World War II displaced cultural treasures, including Trophies of War and Empire: The Archival Legacy of Ukraine, World War II, and the International Politics of Restitution (Harvard University Press, 2001).




Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.