In a remarkable effort to do what’s right, New York Governor Kathy Hochul has just signed a new bill into law that will officially require all local museums to identify which artworks on display were stolen from Jews by the Nazis during World War II.
What’s particularly honorable about the new guidelines is that they also apply to forced sales of artwork.
According to an official press release, during the war, the Nazi looted around 600,000 paintings from Jews, "enriching the Third Reich and eliminating all vestiges of Jewish identity and culture."
Until now, museums all across New York have been displaying the pieces without being transparent about their origins. The current law actually requires that works created before 1945 that have changed ownership in Europe during the Nazi era be included in the Art Loss Register so victims could look for what was stolen from them. That measure has clearly never been enough.
As reported by Gothamist, back in 2018, "the Guggenheim family returned a painting called 'Artillerymen' to the surviving family members of the German Jewish art dealer Alfred Flechtheim," who fled Berlin following Adolf Hitler's coming to power.
Given that New York is home to one of the largest populations of Holocaust survivors in the world, the recently announced changes have been a long time coming.
"As New Yorkers, we are united in our solemn commitment to Holocaust survivors: we will never forget," governor Hochul said in an official statement. "These are individuals who have endured unspeakable tragedy but nonetheless have persevered to build lives of meaning and purpose right here in New York. We owe it to them, their families and the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust to honor their memories and ensure future generations understand the horrors of this era."
According to the new bill, the artwork will have to be accompanied by a prominent placard or some other form of sign indicating its provenance. It’s important to note, though, that the new legislation does not apply to art stolen from non-European countries.
The new law is part of a legislative package that also requires the New York State Department of Financial Services to publish a list of financial institutions that voluntarily waive fees for Holocaust reparation payments. According to Gothamist, the legislation also aims to "ensure New York schools are educating students on the Holocaust."
“Sadly, studies have shown that far too many youths and young adults in our state—and across our nation—are unaware of the Holocaust, have never visited a Holocaust museum or spoken with a Holocaust survivor,” said Bruce Ratner, the chairman of the Board of Trustees at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, in an official statement. “We must do all in our power to ensure that the Holocaust never fades from our memory. Teaching and learning about the Holocaust not only commemorates the victims but helps to create a forum for examining the history and evolution of antisemitism at a time where we continue to witness xenophobia, unfolding genocides, the ongoing refugee crisis and threats to democratic values.”
It's been nearly 80 years since the Holocaust, yet recent events make it clear that the problem of antisemitism is still part and parcel of society at large. Although Governor Hochul's new measure is obviously a step in the right direction, here's to hoping even more positive changes are on the way.