When Hilde Schramm inherited several paintings collected by her father, Hitler’s chief architect and Armaments Minister Albert Speer, she was only sure of one thing: she didn’t want them.
Despite determining they probably hadn’t been looted from Jews during World War II, she wanted their legacy to somehow benefit others.
‘I didn’t want to have the paintings… It was a powerful feeling,’ she told the Sunday Telegraph.
In 1994, that became the Zurueckgeben foundation, a project for which Schramm, now 82, received an Obermayer German Jewish History Award two weeks ago.
Hilde Schramm (above) inherited several paintings collected by her father, Hitler’s chief architect and Armaments Minister Albert Speer – and she had no intention of keeping them, as she assumed they had been looted from Jews during the war
Schramm was only nine years old when the war ended. Even though she was there at times with her father as he rubbed elbows with Hitler and other top Nazis, she said the persecution of the Jews was not something she was aware of. Above, Schramm as a child, with the Fuhrer’s hand on her shoulder
The honour was established by an American Jewish philanthropist to recognise the efforts of non-Jewish Germans to keep alive their nation’s Jewish cultural past.
The foundation’s name translates as ‘return’ or ‘give back’ but also can mean ‘restitution,’ and Schramm said it was intentionally chosen to emphasise its goal of raising awareness at a time when looted Jewish property and art was a little talked-about issue.
‘It was very much our point with this word ‘Zurueckgeben’, which in a way is a provocation, because in a way nobody really can give back, to raise consciousness about the injury that had been done very broadly in Germany,’ she said.
Today, there’s a wider understanding that the Nazis plundered precious artworks and other property from Europe’s Jews, partially because of recent stepped-up German government efforts to identify heirs and organise restitution, and the popular 2014 Hollywood film ‘The Monuments Men.’
But most of the focus has been on the big-ticket items like precious paintings and sculptures. Schramm’s foundation encourages Germans to take stock of the more mundane items in their households and question where they came from.
In part it’s to fight the cliche perpetrated by the Nazis that all Jews were rich and powerful, and also to dispel the notion that only the Nazi elite profited at the expense of the Jews.
‘Let it come close to your families and look at what other ways the German population did profit. When Jews were expelled from their jobs, of course non-Jewish Germans could take their job,’ Schramm said. ‘It’s not only the question of real objects being robbed but their whole existence … this is to raise awareness that it did reach almost every family, a kind of involvement or profiting.’
Unlike many other top Nazis, who committed suicide or were executed after the war, Albert Speer served 20 years in a Berlin prison for war crimes after being convicted in the Nuremberg trials. Speer is pictured above (right) with Hitler and Lord Mayor Willy Liebel in Nuremberg in 1937
Because it’s almost impossible to determine the original owners of smaller items like cutlery and furniture, donors to the foundation often give a symbolic amount to Zurueckgeben, or sell the items and give the proceeds.
Since it began, hundreds of Germans have donated and the foundation has been able to pay out some 500,000 euros ($570,000) in grants to support more than 130 Jewish women’s projects. Those include a children’s theatre, exhibitions, dance shows, books and films.
The 82-year-old Schramm, a former Greens party state lawmaker as well as an educator and author, has been involved in several other projects related to Nazi-era commemoration and atonement.
She was previously honoured by Berlin with the Moses Mendelssohn Prize, named after the Jewish philosopher and given to honour people for fostering tolerance.
She has also helped organise a nonprofit association to support projects in Greece after the Greek financial crisis, and has hosted seven refugees from Afghanistan and Syria in her own home. That followed German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to open the country’s borders to more than 1 million migrants in 2015-16.
‘Wherever I went, whatever I did, I saw something which was a blind spot and I took it up,’ she said.
Schramm was only nine years old when the war ended. Even though she was there at times with her father as he rubbed elbows with Hitler and other top Nazis, she said the persecution of the Jews was not something she was aware of.
‘I had no idea,’ she said, pausing contemplatively before adding: ‘But perhaps I didn’t want to have an idea. I don’t know.’
Unlike many other top Nazis, who committed suicide or were executed after the war, Albert Speer served 20 years in a Berlin prison for war crimes after being convicted in the Nuremberg trials.
At his trial, Speer, who died in 1981 in London, accepted moral responsibility but insisted he had not known of the Holocaust – a contention that many have questioned.
Schramm was able to talk with him and confront him with her questions, which was an opportunity she said a lot of the donors to her foundation never had with their families.
‘In a way, I always felt in a good situation, as I knew what my father had been and what he had done very soon,’ she said. ‘Many men and women of my generation, they had no answer what their family had done.’
Schramm’s award was one of six presented by the organisation philanthropist Arthur Obermayer established in 2000. Obermayer was inspired by the help Germans gave him in researching his German roots. He died in 2016.
The Washington Principles and the return of art looted by Nazis
On November 26 last year, German officials, Jewish leaders researchers and others marked the 20th anniversary of the international agreement on returning art looted by the Nazis with new pledges and proposals aimed at breathing new life into the process.
Culture Minister Monika Gruetters said it is Germany’s responsibility to improve upon the so-called Washington Principles to restore cultural objects to their original Jewish owners or heirs, noting that their meaning goes beyond the purely financial.
‘Behind every stolen object is the fate of an individual,’ she said.
The Washington Principles were drafted in 1998 to assist in resolving issues related to returning Nazi-confiscated art and were signed by more than three dozen countries – acknowledging that many items did not remain in Germany after the war.
Monika Gruetters, Germany’s culture minister, right, and Stuart Eizenstat, special advisor to the U.S. state department, attend a conference on looted art on occasion of the 20th anniversary of the Washington Principles in Berlin
There are also the issues of art sold by Jews fleeing Nazi Germany at rock-bottom prices to finance their escape or to support themselves in their new homelands, and also trying to determine who the rightful heirs are today now that most original owners are deceased.
Ronald Lauder, head of the World Jewish Congress, said many countries are effectively ignoring the Washington Principles, noting specific problems in Hungary, Poland, Spain, Switzerland the Netherlands and France.
For example, France had 60,000 artworks returned to it after the war, of which 15,000 were unclaimed. Some 2,000 of the best were given to French museums, and the rest were sold.
‘For 20 years France has not been able to figure out who owns those 2,000 works in their museums,’ Lauder said. ‘Somehow the auction house Christie’s can review 100,000 pieces every year, but France cannot figure out 2,000 pieces in 20 years.’
In Germany, Lauder said the country’s ‘commitment to Holocaust awareness is exemplary’ but that there have been problems in the return of Nazi-looted art, which he said are ‘more institutional than personal.’
Among other things, he said that the commission set up to mediate claims has only looked at 15 cases in 15 years, and that navigating the country’s ‘byzantine bureaucracy’ is a challenge for anyone looking to research or file a claim.
In response to such criticism, Gruetters said Germany is establishing a ‘help desk’ that will aid anyone interested in filing a claim. In addition, in the past where both a museum and the heir to an artwork had to decide to take a case to arbitration, that is now being changed so that a resolution can be sought by an heir without the museum’s agreement.
The single-party consent applies only to museums under federal jurisdiction but officials hope the thousands of state-run museums will follow suit.