The east is ours
The appropriation of the frescoes is intolerable, because it is an expression of Israel's inability to understand that there was and is Jewish life outside the confines of the Hebrew language and the Israeli nation.
A few years ago, there was a big to-do in Israel about an attempt made by a branch of the Bratslav Hasidim to disinter the remains of the sect's founder, Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, and bring them to Israel secretly. It was easy to explain the absurdity of the proposed act, because this rabbi was not "one of ours," and died in the early 19th century, so the media melee quickly adopted the usual circus of events having to do with Haredim (ultra-Orthodox Jews).
Now the museum of Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority, a state-created institution, has admitted to taking part in a no less bizarre act. On behalf of the museum, the frescoes painted by Polish writer and artist Bruno Schulz, who came from a Jewish family, were removed from Ukraine, where the town of Drohobych is now located. It was there that Schulz was born and grew up, and where he worked until his murder by the Nazis in 1942, after they forced him to paint for them.
The clash between Yad Vashem and Ukraine about whether the paintings were purchased or fraudulently removed has now come to an end with the museum's admission that the Ukrainian version is correct. But the act of deceit was necessary because of something that was obscured here, something no true common sense can explain, and which certainly does not fall within the sphere of international law - namely that the work of an artist who was a victim of the Holocaust belongs to Israel, because the Holocaust is "ours."
The truth is that Hebrew readers knew nothing about Schulz until 1979, when Schocken published a book of his stories in Hebrew translation. However, the Poles have considered Schulz a great writer from the time of his arrival in Warsaw in the 1930s, and not just in retrospect, after his death, as people like to say about Kafka, whose novel "The Trial" Schulz and his fiancee translated into Polish.
In 1938, at the age of 46, Schulz was awarded Poland's most important literary prize. There was never any debate - whether it be one he held with himself or a discussion among his intellectual milieu - concerning his Polishness. When he was 20, his town became part of Poland. After World War II, when he was no longer alive, Drohobych became part of the Soviet Union. Now it is part of Ukraine. The dispute in which Yad Vashem intervened so dubiously and clumsily is part of a much more logical dispute, between Poland and Ukraine.
The appropriation of the frescoes is intolerable, because it is an expression of Israel's inability to understand that there was and is Jewish life outside the confines of the Hebrew language and the Israeli nation. Schulz was born in 1892. His peers from Galicia who immigrated abroad usually went to Germany or the United States; only a small minority came here.
Were it not for our inability to understand that Jews live and are creative as part of other cultures, and not as part "of us," Yad Vashem would not have had to resort to allegedly "examining paintings" and then removing them. Beyond questions of honesty on the part of a state institution, other questions are raised as well: Would Yad Vashem personnel also secretly appropriate paintings from Germany?
For example, in little Osnabruck, in northern Germany, there is a large museum containing only works by Felix Nussbaum, a Jew who was born there and then studied and lived in Berlin, before fleeing to Belgium, when the Nazis came to power. There he lived in hiding after the Germans occupied the country, until he was hunted down and murdered in Auschwitz. His family sold the collection to Osnabruck after the Israel Museum in Jerusalem declined to purchase the works. Does this collection belong to Yad Vashem - at least the final works among Nussbaum's oeuvre, which the artist completed when he was in hiding and hungry in Brussels? In this case there appears to be a simple answer: Israel would not dare become embroiled with Germany, not even for paintings located in the homes of Nazis (and, one would bet, not even to abduct a ranking Nazi war criminal).
Similarly, the March of the Living, in which youngsters from our high schools participate, would not take place in Bergen-Belsen or Dachau, and the proud flags of our youth would not fly from the windows of Germany's exact trains. With the Ukrainians, it's "convenient for us." The same goes for the Poles: They can be turned into the prime scum of the Holocaust. After all, the Holocaust happened there, in the east, just as the Nazis wanted, far away from Germany. And there we can also do whatever we please: Our children run wild in the hotels in the name of national pride, and Yad Vashem makes off with paintings by a great Polish writer who was murdered because of his Jewish origins. We will cleanse Eastern Europe of its Jewish remnants. In their stead, we Israelis, the heirs of the Jewish people, will come.