25 March 2015

Murambi: a death camp by any other name

by Marc Masurovsky

The Murambi memorial site is, literally, in the middle of nowhere.
view of the entrance to Murambi
After reaching Butare, the second largest city in Rwanda, you take a side road that extends for 27 km, along a dirt road, winding round villages where the unfamiliar Muzungu (roughly translated as “lost and confused” to designate white foreigners) stand out like sore thumbs. No matter. Stares accompany us with the occasional motley crew of boys on bicycles trying to steer us in the right direction in exchange for coins.

We finally reach Murambi, at a dead end. The road goes nowhere else. That ought to tell you something already. A finality in and of itself. The memorial site is surrounded by villages comprised of a dozen huts and houses each, made out of the proverbial mud brick and found materials stitched together to produce a semblance of shelter.

Nothing prepares you for Murambi in the same manner as nothing can prepare you for Birkenau. The only difference is that the horror of Murambi is hiding in plain sight, whereas the horror of Birkenau is a horror left to the imagination to toggle and to sift through once the landscape of dying and suffering has been explored.

Murambi is a place flanked by bucolic landscapes of rolling hills, verdant sceneries, much like the rest of Southern Rwanda. At this place, tens of thousands of Tutsi civilians from surrounding areas were corralled to await their fate.

There are building structures at Murambi, red brick shells that look more like barracks than classrooms for a future state technical training center that was never completed, so goes the official story. One can only imagine young men and women studying to be the future engineers and technicians of a modern Rwanda at the end of a dead-end road far from everything and flanked by dead poor villages with no commercial infrastructure to support such a technical center. The story makes no sense. By default, we are left to speculate and to leave open the possibility that our worst thoughts are closer to the truth than the official “spin” of an unfinished school. Let’s say, for a moment, that there was such a plan to build a school in the middle of nowhere, difficult to reach, and that the project was nixed for one reason or another. If that were the case, the abandoned red brick shells constituted the proper edifice in which to park men, women, and children, who had reached—in more ways than one—the end of their road.

Murambi became a killing ground where every square inch was used to hack, shoot, dismember, rape, and murder men, women and children. No one is sure about the numbers, but 20,000 is the minimal safe number. Some speak of as many as 55,000 bodies buried at Murambi.

The memorial building itself houses an exhibit that resembles the one housed in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital. Nothing new to offer. The only interesting presence is the absence of bodies from casings inset in the floor covered by clear panels in which were supposed to be displayed the remains (or whatever is left of the remains in their accelerated state of deterioration) of men, women, and children, frozen in the position that they yielded to as they exhaled their last breath.

Several barracks house the remains of approximately 1500 people who were disinterred from mass graves and put on display. The corpses of the victims are lying on wooden racks atop improvised platforms in successive rooms. Children with one arm extending over the corpse of an adult man or woman, adults with a finger pointing nowhere as if they had tried in vain to dissuade their attackers from hacking them into death, children with smashed skulls, women with small patches of hair still clinging to the thin skin layer peeling off their skulls, children curled up as if trying to get some sleep. It is all so poignant and yet so desensitizing to be faced with the final moments of Tutsi victims’ lives, frozen as their bodies desiccate and gradually vanish at the relentless mercy of the elements.

We climb up some steps and enter another part of this desolate site where ghosts abound.


As we walk through the grass and in between neatly laid out rows of red brick barracks, a flash memory crosses our minds as we recognize some of the timeless architectural elements of a Nazi concentration camp. We enter one of the barracks. Some walls show evidence of bullet impacts. But the most striking feature of these rooms is their redness, red from the dust of the rich loam that covers Rwandan fields blending with the fading dark red stains left by victims’ blood, spilled on the floors and splattered on the walls. Those who maintain the site tried in vain to eliminate all traces of the blood and one can see the crude brush strokes of off-white paint splashed on the walls as added evidence of the grisly nature of these rooms. Death rooms, hacking rooms, rooms of torture and unremitting, cruel death. These rooms succeed themselves one after another and one should not even try to imagine what took place there as thousands of human beings were crammed into them, awaiting their fate, hungry and thirsty and panicked.

Victims' belongings, in the background, the  killing rooms

In some of the rooms, teenagers and adults living in the villages surrounding the memorial site have scrawled haphazard designs of cars and planes, words and sentences in Kinyarwanda. One can only wonder if they were even mildly aware of the function of these rooms. A form of unwitting desecration has taken place at Murambi. The sheer state of neglect that prevails at this death camp is simply unacceptable.

One can only hope that the Rwandan government will take urgent measures to rectify the situation, secure these killing rooms, stabilize the remains of the victims, perhaps rebury them in a dignified way so as to memorialize them the way that most people honor their dead and, just as important, recount the story of Murambi so that the visitor is not left to her own imagination to understand what happened in that hellish space.

Murambi is a death camp where breathing is labored, the mind goes numb, and death hangs in the suffocating air amid fields, rolling hills and the banality of human survival and existence in a forgotten corner of Rwanda.

The neighborhood of Murambi

18 March 2015

An opinion piece: An epitaph for provenance research training?

by Marc Masurovsky

According to the most recent TEFAF Art Market survey, the global art market has exceeded 51 billion euros in value for 2014. Half of that value, about 25 billion euros’ worth, pertains to art objects that were produced before 1945, the end of the Second World War and the Holocaust. What percentage of the 25 billion carry an incomplete provenance? What are they? Where are they? Non lo so.  We don't know and neither do you.

Incomplete provenance simply means that the buyer cannot retrace most of the history of the object that he/she is purchasing. In other words, there is always a chance that the object changed hands illegally at some point during its peregrinations through space and time. The buyer will never know whether he/she is the rightful owner of the object until someone discovers it and places a claim.

The purpose of provenance research is to shed light on those dark corners of history. Those who acquire, display, or otherwise draw some benefit from the object’s presence in their collections need to be sure that there is no taint on their title to the object and that they will not be exposed to some third-party claim after coming into possession of the object.

Does this make sense so far?

The legacy of the Holocaust has shed light on the fact that many holes have not been filled, many gaps have not been closed regarding the fate of property owned by persons of Jewish descent who had lost their objects to unlawful acts of persecution and extermination. The Washington Conference of December 1, 1998, had been a meek attempt to reexamine how Jewish-owned property had been allowed to circulate freely in open markets throughout the world, most of which should have been returned to their rightful owners. And yet…The Washington Principles, non-binding recommendations, were designed to guide the current possessors of such objects to "do the right thing" and follow an ad minima ethical and moral course of action.

The concept of provenance was given a new sheen as of the late 1990s as well as a darker meaning. Once the exclusive province of art historians, provenance has been expanded to include History, writ large. Its demand on the researcher has been to shed all possible light on how an object has traveled and to give equal weight to the fate of past owners and to some of the most heinous moments of modern history.

A tall order for most members of the art world who prefer to operate in a state of self-imposed oblivious indifference to such tedium as History. The only history that seems to matter is the association of an object with some glamorous figure, so as to enhance its marketability. Provenance can be monetized. It has always been monetized.

The initial clamor for provenance research did not come from museums but from advocates for Holocaust survivors, cultural heritage circles, lawyers working on difficult art cases, Jewish groups familiar with property claims, and a roomful of government officials.

Fast forward…

Nowadays, there is a general recognition that a certain amount of “training” should be required to sensitize provenance research practitioners to the complexities of that “added dimension” of research that goes far beyond the strictures of conventional art history. From 2012 to 2014, five training workshops, aided by the New York-based Claims Conference, were offered under the aegis of the European Shoah Legacy Institute (ESLI), an international NGO established in Prague in June 2009 as the sad stepchild of a failed international conference on the fate and disposition of Jewish assets.

ESLI has stopped offering these workshops. No one has picked up the ball except for the Holocaust Art Restitution Project (HARP). A proposed workshop on provenance research to be held in New York City in the second half of April has not garnered much support and this, in the heart of the global art market.

How can one interpret such obvious disinterest in provenance training?

Several possibilities:

1/ people complain about the lack of training but, when the opportunity arises to benefit from such training, they balk and stay home.

2/ art world specialists (museums, museum studies programs, auction houses) should offer provenance research training not NGOs like HARP. To date, that has not happened.

3/ the art world has survived thus far without provenance research training and will continue to do so until the ends of time. Hence, who cares?

4/ restitution and repatriation claims are considered to be part of “the cost of doing business” which is why the art world does not promote training in provenance research. Museums, art dealers, galleries, collectors, fold in the possibility of litigation as a reasonable yet annoying aspect of their trade. So, ignorance has a price, but one that they are willing to pay, for not asking questions about art objects in their possession. Hence, one could argue that the global art world plays fast and loose with the law and hopes to get away with it, one way or another. On occasion, the gambit does not work out as some antiquities dealers and art galleries have discovered in past years.

Should all of the aforementioned possibilities be close to the mark and bear some semblance of accuracy, provenance research, unless supported by governments (like in Germany), is doomed as an independent profession. To date, the art world has done nothing to promote and foster a healthy environment for such training.  The same applies to universities and colleges, except for a handful (literally!).

One can only deduce that training in how to conduct research in the history of ownership of art objects is merely an option, perhaps even a hobby, well-remunerated for a very few, which makes us wonder who can rightfully call themselves a provenance researcher unless, by trial and error, that individual has proven his/her worth. Proving one's worth is in the eye of the beholder since there exist no objective standards by which to assess the quality of one's research.  For those of you who might be offended by this remark, you should understand its deeper meaning since one cannot declare a skill a profession until there is established a universal code of behavior and "professional" standards to be followed by its practitioners.

So, for now, provenance research training is a dead letter until someone administers CPR and revives it from its medically-induced coma.

15 March 2015

Letter from Nyamata genocide memorial, outside Kigali, Rwanda.

by Marc Masurovsky
Entrance to Nyamata Genocide Memorial
The skulls and bones of more than 10,000 Tutsi murdered at Nyamata (45,000 remains are buried there from other killing sites) lie in this Catholic compound-men, women, children, infants and newborns. Their tattered clothes, covered with dried up blood, are piled in heaps atop wooden benches inside the church where people once prayed and where frightened Tutsi sought sanctuary in the bosom of the Church that they had embraced as good Catholics.

The clothes bear witness to their failure to be heard and to the failure of the Church to protect them.

Inside the church at Nyamata
The Catholic Church in Rwanda ate up its flock. Churches became killing grounds favored by Hutu militiamen and Rwandan soldiers. Hutu priests and nuns went after their Tutsi colleagues, without mercy, and handed over their Tutsi flock to their butchers.

There are bullet holes everywhere inside the Nyamata church, including through the roof. The light comes through like narrow beams.

To Hutu militiamen, the Virgin Mary was a Tutsi because of her looks-tall and elongated face, slender bones. The Hutu militia shot her and busted her left plaster shoulder. Guilty as charged.

Jesus Christ? Get Him out of the church so that He cannot side with the victims.
The tabernacle inside Nyamata Church
The Hutu shot bullets into a tabernacle, thinking that it would be sufficient to drive Jesus out.

God? The militia invoked (their) God to justify the eradication of the Tutsi saying that (their) God wanted revenge against the Tutsi.

Deaths by the thousands inside a packed church.
Skulls of Tutsi victims inside burial crypt
Once upon a time, a young Tutsi woman rejected the advances of young Hutu men. Then came the genocide. On April 13, 1994, Hutu militia reached Nyamata, on the outskirts of Kigali and the spurned Hutu men sought revenge against the young Tutsi woman who had rejected their advances. Were they her friends or just neighborhood acquaintances?

I don’t know how many of these boys there were but it must have been a pack of them who violated her. According to one source, there were 20 of them. Her name was Annonciata Mukandoli. She was 28 years old.

Based on the story told at the memorial, the young Tutsi woman was wounded, she was repeatedly raped, she was killed, her corpse was tortured (does torture still exist after death?). Then came the final act. The Hutu men drove a stake through her vagina as far as they could. Was their quest for revenge finally sated?
Instruments of death used against Tutsi at Nyamata

What is left of her rests inside a coffin in a specially-built crypt beneath the church floor. It is draped in a white cloth, a large wooden cross lain across it.
Annunciata's final resting place in the crypt of Nyamata
Physical violence, sexual violations, death, postmortem defilements and impalement. Is there a name for such behavior?

Why is there room for it amongst us, despite us?

The guide explained that the young men’s behavior could be attributed to brainwashing. Here I disagree. That would mean that one is not responsible for one’s actions. Perhaps, brainwashing is a diagnosis that makes it possible to conduct a form of spiritual exorcism, getting the devil out of you, the same one who made you impale a young woman just because she would not accept your sexual advances.

I frankly don’t believe in brainwashing. I don’t believe that the dog made them do it. If mass murder accompanied by violations and defilements of the human body is an expression of dissociative disorder or some other serious psychological condition, we need to seriously wonder who we are and what makes us tick. Failing any psycho-medical assessment of the genocidal personality, you end up believing in your own idols and you act accordingly. Willing the death of another human being is exactly that: an act of will, which means that, as a sentient creature, you decide to kill. You decide to defile. You decide to maim. You decide to violate and to rape. The devil did not make you do it. You made that decision. After thousands of years, the mystery remains whole: how to prevent such acts from ever taking place.

And yet, in an unprecedented feat of national post-genocide healing in Rwanda known as the Gacaca* (named after the short, thick grass on which villagers sat to attend these "trials", which lasted close to 12 years), tens of thousands of Hutu killers and rapists have reconciled with their surviving Tutsi victims after undergoing a very complex process, often painful and difficult, for all parties, but especially for the victims.  A number of the reconciled have even become close friends. Contrition, forgiveness and reconciliation on a national scale is unprecedented in the annals of modern history, let alone in the era of genocides. Such an outcome was inconceivable in post-Holocaust Europe, in post-Khmer Rouge Cambodia, in Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia after 1993. We need to understand why.

What does that say about us, as human beings? Is Rwanda an anomaly or can there truly be forgiveness and reconciliation after a crime of genocide, regardless of where it occurs?

Still, the story of human beings’ presence on Earth is soaked in blood. Grim as it is, we coexist with those who thirst to see blood spill on the ground for reasons all their own. It is the phantasmagoria called life.

For more on the reconciliation process, go to http://www.reach-rwanda.org, and the work of the REACH organization in Rwanda.

For more on the Gacaca, go to

The Gacaca Archives are presently closed to the public. They are under the supervision of the CNLG (National Commission for the Fight against Genocide) and are being physically stored in the facilities of the Rwandan National Police.  There is currently underway an effort to organize these extraordinary archives. They hold an estimated 60 million pages of testimonials and rulings administered throughout post-genocide Rwanda.  These archives contain the memory of Rwanda past and future.

07 March 2015

So What Was on Hitler's Mind as an Art-Plunderer?

by Ori Z Soltes

For many readers of this blog, these observations may not be new, but for others they may provide food for thought. Those with historical awareness recognize that the Nazis more often than not didn't invent new ideas; they adopted old ones and innovated as they adapted them to their needs. 

Thus, for instance, at least as far back as the Fourth Lateran Council, in 1215, in which the 67th through the 70th canons dealt with the Jews, the idea was promoted in Christendom, and well-followed in parts of the realm, that Jews be rendered readily distinguishable from their good Christian neighbors by special clothing, or special marks--a yellow circle, for instance--on t heir clothing. Thus the eventual ubiquity that Jews across Nazi-controlled Europe wear yellow six-pointed stars was innovative in its details but not in its fundamental conception.

And the French created the first camps into which those guilty of no crime but who somehow should not be allowed to run around freely might be concentrated in the context of the Spanish Civil War. Too many Spaniards coming over the Pyrenees in 1938-9 (the infamous Retirada) made the prevailing French government uncomfortable and a mechanism that was, as it were, extra-legal had to be created to assuage that discomfort. The Nazis not only created a much wider system of concentration camps, but further enhanced the idea by designating some of them as slave-labor camps--and others as extermination camps.

And so with the issue of Nazi plunder, of cultural and other property--but particularly of cultural property--the historical precedents were many and some of the underlying reasons very familiar, but the shape of the plundering process was, again, innovative.
Lucius Mummius
One might begin by asking about those underlying reasons. Plundering the art of one's defeated enemies is one way of showing one's military and political success over them. But when Lucius Mummius, the Roman general--the first art plunderer whom we can identify by name--returned from his military success in subduing the Greeks at Corinth in 146 BCE, he carted piles of Greek statues back to Rome. The fourth-century CE Roman historian, Eutropius, informs us, with an amused tone, that Lucius took out an insurance policy on his plunder, and that the contract stipulated that, should any of the sculptures be damaged in transit, the company would supply the general with compensatory pieces equal in weight to those that were damaged.  
If Eutropius' amusement derives from his recognition that Lucius was an ignorant boor who had no concept of the intrinsic value of art, we might recognize that the purpose of acquiring his horde was precisely to show his friends and neighbors back home that he was not a boor, or a destructive savage, but a cultured man, who, while successful at his business of fighting and killing, appreciated the fine things wrought by human mind and hand.

We may see this intention emulated down through the centuries, arriving at an exalted destination in the far-reaching plunder of Napoleon, who brought back art from Egypt, and from Rome that had been taken by the Romans from Egypt, as he also did from other parts of Italy and from Spain and Germany and the Hapsburg domains. The Nazis followed this lead, eager to show how civilized they were. Even before they began to expand their plundering activities beyond their borders, they were determined to underscore this point by organizing a large exhibition of "true" art that ran virtually side-by-side with an exhibit of "degenerate" art. If the Nazis were consummately civilized, those who made and patronized the likes of Picasso and Matisse or anything abstract or connected to Jews, were surely barbaric. (Even an admired painter like Rembrandt, when he painted a work like "the Jewish Bride" slipped from his pedestal.)

Part of the Nazi innovation, of course, was to begin the plunder before there was a war outside their borders from their own citizens: barely was Hitler in position as Chancellor and his henchmen were forcing Jews to give up their collections--forced sales, mind you, nothing that could be legally called plundered--as gradually, over the next few years, Jews (and others) would be deprived of a range of citizenship rights before they began to be concentrated, for their own "protection" into designated camps, and before they would be deprived of their lives.

A second innovation, once the plundering process began to gain momentum, both within Germany and outside it--once the war itself officially began and countries beyond Germany either embraced (Austria, for example) or succumbed (Western Europe, for instance) to German arms--was the elaborate and systematic, multi-leveled program devoted simply to plunder. Thus on the one hand, with the Anschluss into Austria (March 1938), a program was implemented that required Jews--or anyone with even a vaguely Jewish relative--to fill out property-census forms. These listed everything they owned, from jewelry, silverware and furniture to drawings, paintings, and statues.

(One of the interesting proofs, both of how Austrian the Austrian Jews thought they were and thus of how taken by surprise they must have been by the onslaught on them not only of the Germans but of their Austrian neighbors, comes from a study of those property-census forms. When Marc Masurovsky and I had the chance a few years back to look over a few thousand of them, two things in particular, for which we were not searching, stood out. One was how Jews already living elsewhere, beyond Nazi reach, filled out forms, as required, and often added offhanded comments--for example, that a given bunch of drawings is not worth really mentioning--in a tone that indicated their sense of being virtual colleagues of the presumed readers of these forms. The second was how not only did so many Jews own works by second- and third-rate Austrian artists--Austrian artists, whose work good Austrians would own and display--but so many owned real estate, from merely part of an apartment to several apartment buildings or factories: one does not invest in real estate if one has even an inkling that one may need to leave quickly; it is too difficult to liquidate.)
Alfred Rosenberg

I digress. For a different aspect of systemic innovation was practiced in France, one of the places where Alfred Rosenberg--Hitler's expert in matters of racial distinctions (Aryans vs Slavs vs Roma vs Jews, from nose-type to hair-color to mental and moral acuity)--in charge of the organization that bore his name, the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg, (ERR), elaborated an extraordinary web of informants, from gallerists and museum directors to bankers and housemaids, regarding who had what and where, if it had been hidden, it could be found. It was this network that helped facilitate the plunder of cultural property on an unprecedented scale.

Part of the purpose of this massive undertaking, run by an army of plunderers who ran on a track parallel to that of the German army, was, to repeat, to underscore the cultured and civilized nature of the regime. The illusion that Nazis were civilized operated on different levels and for different sub-purposes. Oddly or not, the exhibition of proper art had been a failure: for every visitor to it more than a hundred flocked to see the "degenerate" art (Entartete Kunst) exhibit. Apparently far more Germans disagreed than agreed with Propaganda Minister Goebbels' notion of "real" art. 
Joseph Goebbels

On the other hand, the permission for several years to Jewish musicians to offer their own performances for their own, Jewish audiences--both Jewish musicians and Jewish audiences having been excluded early on from association with their non-Jewish counterparts--which permission was formally organized as der Judische Kulturbund (the KuBu, as it was popularly known); and the encouragement of music and, to an extent, visual art, at the Terezin Concentration Camp (its inhabitants often there temporarily, before being moved on to Auschwitz)--these kinds of activities were to enhance the illusion both that the Nazis fostered culture, even among the Jews, and in fact that the Fuhrer really loved his Jews. Perhaps no Nazi action with regard to art and culture was more cynical than the band of Jewish players that was organized to serenade victims at Auschwitz as they marched toward the gas chambers.
 What did the Nazis want with all the art that they plundered, besides using it as some proof of their high level of civilization and for other propagandistic purposes? Or rather, how did that intended validation play out? There was, to be sure, the art that was hoarded--but in different ways. The Fuhrer himself loved 18th- and 19th-century landscapes and images of happy, strong, beautiful--preferably blondish and blue-eyed--younger rather than older people, painted or sculpted by Northern European artists (as inherently superior than those in the south). Goering had more catholic tastes--even collecting art that Hitler would have disapproved. There was a line of German and Austrian museum directors who were looking to beef up their collections and there were Nazi upper and lower echelon operatives who wanted works for themselves, all available at bargain-basement prices through the auctions that followed both forced-sales and, later, outright confiscations.
Design for the so-called Fuhrermuseum in Linz, Austria

Hitler had in mind, in fact, to build the largest art museum that the world had ever seen in his hometown of Linz, Austria. This was effectively the other side of a project to take place in Prague: the shaping of a huge museum of Jewish ceremonial objects, using the synagogues in the city's 850-year-old Jewish quarter to house the collections. Hitler's intention was to show the world how vast and powerful had been the Jewish civilization that he had destroyed--a statement of what he had accomplished as a kind of gift to humanity. For the sake of this museum both the synagogues and the artifacts survived.

Otherwise, the plunder of Judaica was intended to lead to its destruction--usually, by melting it down if it was made of silver or gold. Degenerate art was slated to be traded for art that was more acceptable, or to be sold through myriad willing "neutral" intermediaries in places like Switzerland, Sweden and--yes--France, (to be purchased in active, question-free art markets like that in New York) in order to raise money for armaments, particularly as the war effort moved away from its early blitzkrieg of success.

By then even as the battlefield results were increasingly negative for the Nazis and their allies, the war against the Jews--the Holocaust--continued unabated. That ongoing effort was, of course, facilitated by British and American governments who found good excuses for limiting their efforts to curtail the destruction of the Jews (by bombing the train tracks to Auschwitz, for instance) on the specious grounds that this would take away from their effort to win World War II. Lucius Mummius as a model of self-promoting cultural illusion and his Nazi emulators and expanders were not alone in either looking at plundered cultural property through closed eyes or in promoting illusions about themselves to and for themselves and the wider world.

"Neutral" Europe during WWII