Law and Memory: The Role of Jewish Cultural Property after the Holocaust

Thursday – July 21

Prof. Dr. Natan Sznaider
In this lecture we will explore the connections between law and memory from a Jewish perspective. The mass murder of the Jews put an end to cosmopolitan Europe as a cultural reference point for diasporic Jews.
When World War II was over, the future of the Jewish cultural past needed to be negotiated anew. The task at hand was not only the rebuilding of Jewish lives but also the rescue of Jewish cultural materials confiscated by the Nazis. Clearly, the Jews (but not only Jews) faced a conceptual dilemma after the Holocaust. The Nazis categorized Jews as a separate nation, regardless of their citizenship. In contradistinction, classical international law did not recognize nations without territory. There were no legal categories that could provide the Jews, as Jews, with a lawful right to make collective claims for their looted property. How could stateless and exiled people come forward and file legally recognizable claims? This is, of course, not a Jewish problem alone, but one of general significance in the study of the aftermath of genocide: is the entirety of a people, as a collective to whom a destroyed minority belongs, entitled to the property left to its kin? This was the major question confronting the Jews as a people without a state of their own after World War II (the foundation of the state of Israel changed some of the parameters in 1948).
We pay special attention to Jewish political activists (like Hannah Arendt and Salo Baron for example) who pressed their case and demanded the Jews to be legally treated as though they belonged to a state. This new de-territorialized politics changed Jewish legal frames after 1945. Thus this lecture also deals with the pre-history of restitution, a crucial juncture in the German-Israeli relationship. Before claims for restitution could be made, a legal framework had to be formulated. International law, according to which only states could claim restitution, had to be modified. Formerly private property needed to be transformed into collective property as a consequence of historical catastrophe.
The implementation of the project is possible due to the support of Nissenbaum Family Foundation.


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