THE CONFERENCE ON JEWISH MATERIAL CLAIMS AGAINST GERMANY (CLAIMS CONFERENCE) AND THE WORLD JEWISH RESTITUTION ORGANIZATION (WJRO) ANNOUNCE THE PUBLICATION OF A REPORT ON THE LOOTING OF THE JULIUS GENSS COLLECTION, THE PRINCIPAL ESTONIAN JEWISH ART COLLECTOR, DURING THE HOLOCAUST
The report, “The ERR Looting of the Julius Genss Collection in Estonia” presents a historical analysis of ERR (Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg) archival records and partial information on the post-war fate of the collection
NEW YORK, NY, April 12, 2023: The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (Claims Conference) and the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO) announce the publication of a report that presents a historical analysis of the looting of the Julius Genss collection. Julius Genss (1887−1957) was an accomplished Estonian Jewish art collector and art historian. He amassed as many as 20,000 books and 5,000 artworks. The whereabouts of his vast collection remains largely unknown but is presumed to be primarily in Belarus.
“The history of the looting of cultural property is not well known or not known at all in the many smaller countries that were occupied during World War II and experienced the Holocaust. This examination of the theft of the most important collection in Estonia to have been plundered is an important step towards correcting this problem,” said Wesley Fisher, Director of Research, Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany and World Jewish Restitution Organization, Head of Claims Conference-WJRO Looted Art and Cultural Property Initiative.
The report was completed in 2023 and is based on the largest collection of ERR (Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg) records, which is held by the Central State Archive of the Highest Organs of Government and Administration of Ukraine (TsDAVO) in Kyiv. The collection was scanned a decade ago under the sponsorship of the Claims Conference/WJRO. It is now back online after having to shift from Russian software and servers and despite the current war, with improved finding-aids under development (http://err.tsdavo.gov.ua/). The available fonds (fonds 3674, 3676 and 3206) not only document the ERR’s plunder in Ukraine itself but hold valuable information on other countries, including the looting of the Julius Genss collection from Estonia. The website is being mirrored in the West, and the Claims Conference holds hard disks of the information.
In 1941, the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) confiscated Julius Genss’s collection, despite his earlier attempts to safeguard parts of it by placing works in the Estonian Art Museum. The extensive amount of ERR documents pertaining to the Genss collection, now held in Kyiv by the Ukrainian Central State Archive (TsDAVO), attests to the collection’s unique character and the Nazis’ acute interest in it. In 1944, the ERR attempted to preserve the collection from falling into the hands of the Red Army. Yet, despite these efforts, the collection was ultimately found by the Red Army in the Pless railway station and subsequently sent to Belarus, where a large part of the collection is located until today.
“The tragic fate of the library and the entire art collection of my grandfather, Julius Genss, has accompanied the life of our family for four generations. Julius’s struggle for his library, and the fiasco of fighting to regain his rightful possessions, led in fact to his untimely death. He wrote: ‘I was robbed twice, first by Nazi Germany and then by the Soviets!,’“ said Julia Gens, granddaughter of Julius Genss who lives in Munich, Germany.
“Despite the fact that Estonia, which had passed the Restitution and Return of Jewish Property Act in 1991, was in no hurry to return the illegally held art and books to their owners, the egregious behavior of museum and library directors in Belarus and Estonia is no different. The family archive has a letter from a former employee of the Minsk library, in which she asks for help and reports that for a fortnight the library staff have been tearing the ex-libris of Julius Genss from his books at the order of the director, wishing to conceal the traces of the books’ ownership. And in Estonia, well aware of the origin of artifacts and books in special collections, they are not catalogued and thus do not make their whereabouts public,” continued Gens.
The report was researched by Dr. Ruth Jolanda Weinberger, staff historian of the Claims Conference. The report can be found online at https://art.claimscon.org/work-provenance-research-archives/julius-genss-collection/.
Information on the Claims Conference/WJRO’s work with the Archives of the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg can be found online at https://art.claimscon.org/work-provenance-research-archives/archives-nazi-records-einsatzstab-reichsleiter-rosenberg-err/.
More information on the Claims Conference/WJRO’s Looted Art and Cultural Property Initiative is available at: https://art.claimscon.org/.
More information about the Claims Conference can be found here.
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