PARIS — Stolen by the Nazis during the 1930s, the paintings exhibited at the French Ministry of Culture on Tuesday were once destined for a private museum Hitler wanted to build in Austria.
Instead, after decades in French custody, the paintings are being returned to the Jewish families that previously owned them.
“Having the opportunity to do such a big handover to the descendants of Nazi barbarism’s victims is a truly moving moment,” said Culture Minister Aurélie Filippetti. “These two families can finally recover a part of their shattered memory.”
The ceremony marked the beginning of a renewed French effort to locate the rightful owners of thousands of artifacts stolen during and before World War II.
“Even if these paintings never erase the horror these families experienced during the war, today we’re trying, in a very symbolic moment, to heal the wounds of history,” Filippetti said.
The initiative involves the creation of a group of historians, archivists, curators and librarians who will search for the works’ owners. The “pro-active search,” as Filipetti termed it, replaces the previous policy of waiting for claimants to step forward.
Scheduled to last one year, the project will prioritize finding the owners of 163 Nazi-looted pieces, part of a collection of 2, 000 works France now wants to return to victims.
The campaign builds on the French government’s relatively late acknowledgement of the country’s role in the Holocaust, a process begun with former President Jacques Chirac’s 1995 speech taking national responsibility for the July 1942 Vel D’Hiv Roundup of Jews.
‘Today we’re trying, in a very symbolic moment, to heal the wounds of history’
“This is a lengthy process where nothing is left to chance,” said Filippetti. “But this is a moral duty for France.”
Of the seven paintings handed over Tuesday, six belonged to Richard Neumann, an Austrian Jew who worked in the textile industry and fled the country after the Nazis invaded in 1938.
Among them are works by 18th century Italian painters Alessandro Longhi, Sebastiano Ricci and Gaspare Diziani, which were returned to Neumann’s grandson, 82-year-old Tom Selldorff, who lives in the US.
Selldorff was 6 when he last saw the art collection in his grandfather’s house.
“My grandfather had a passion for art and a positive philosophy about the future that I’d like to pass on to my children through these paintings,” said Selldorff. “In a way, it’s what makes us human.”
The other painting, “The Halt” by Dutch painter Pieter Jansz van Asch, belonged to Josef Wiener, a Jewish banker who lived in Prague. Arrested in July 1942, he was later deported, and died in the Theresienstadt concentration camp.
Of the 60,000 pieces of art that were sent to France after the war, about 45,000 were returned to their owners by 1950. Some 13,500 were auctioned, and the remaining 2,000 remain French museums.