For a Jewish visitor to Poland, is it moral to steal souvenirs that may have themselves been looted from Jewish homes during the Holocaust?
Not according to yesterday’s Ethicist column in the New York Times Magazine. “Traveling in Poland, I visited antique stores offering Jewish items — menorahs, mezuzas — that seemed more than 65 years old,” wrote Randy Malamud of Atlanta. “[I] found myself unable to pay for what was probably stolen property. Part of me wishes I had stolen (liberated?) some of them. Would that have been justified?” In his response, Ethicist scribe Randy Cohen quoted Marilyn Henry, a Jerusalem Post columnist who “has written much about such sad relics.” Cohen advised that “while the items may have been looted during the Nazi era, they may have been treated as legally ‘abandoned’ when the family was deported; they may have been sold at fire-sale prices by the original owner/family to raise funds to flee; they may have been held with the best of intentions by neighbors in anticipation that a Jewish family would return, and the family did not return.”
Cohen also reminded his reader that the Polish shopkeepers may not have been “culpable” in acquiring the objects they were selling. “The enormities that befell the owners of these objects occurred before all but the most elderly of these shopkeepers could have been involved,” he wrote. “But even if a shopkeeper was knowingly trading in contraband, that would not justify your theft. Instead, you should report such matters to the authorities.”
There could even be “unintended consequences if we all forswear buying Judaica so steeped in suffering and death,” Cohen wrote. Agnes Peresztegi, director of the Commission for Art Recovery, Europe, told him in an e-mail that “it would not serve our purposes to eliminate the market, because if silver Judaica cannot be sold due to the issues of questionable ownership, they may get melted for the silver.” Peresztegi told Cohen that putting these items “to their intended use can be an honorable commemoration.”