Court: Holocaust Survivor's Family Must Return Ancient Tablet to Berlin

The judges rule that it was impermissible for the occupying Soviet army to steal cultural artifacts after World War II.

An ancient Assyrian gold tablet that the Soviets stole from a Berlin museum in 1945 will be returning to Germany, rather than its current owner, the family of a Holocaust survivor.

A New York appeals court rejected the family's claim that the Museum of the Ancient Near East, a branch of the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, had waited too long - 60 years - before filing its claim to recover the tablet. The court also rejected the family’s contention that the tablet should be treated as “a spoil of war” that the survivor received from a Soviet soldier in exchange for cigarettes at a displaced persons camp.

According to the judges, it is impermissible for an occupying army to steal cultural artifacts.

The 3,200-year-old Assyrian gold tablet is less than two inches long and weighs 9.5 grams. It was discovered during excavations by German archaeologists before World War I at a temple to the fertility goddess Ishtar in northern Iraq.

The plate was placed in the Museum of the Ancient Near East in 1934 and transferred to a warehouse during World War II. In 1945 it was unclear what had happened to it - it ultimately came into the possession of Riven Flamenbaum, a Polish Jew who survived Auschwitz.

“It could fit in the palm of your hand. We played with it as children," Hannah Flamenbaum, Riven's daughter, told The Associated Press last month.

“He never tried to sell it .... This was sort of the legacy of his suffering in the camps,” she said. “The thought was if we’re allowed to retain it, put it on display in one of the museums, whether down here in Battery Park City in Manhattan or even in Israel. Use it as a way to talk about the Holocaust ... and my parents’ story.”

According to court documents, the tablet dates to 1243 to 1207 B.C., the reign of King Tukulti-Ninurta I of Assyria. Placed in the foundation of the temple of a fertility goddess, its 21 lines call on those who find the temple to honor the king’s name.

The museum’s lawyer, Raymond Dowd, said the judges had shown moral leadership in their unanimous decision. He said many other artifacts were still missing from the museum since the war. The Flamenbaums' lawyer, Steven Schlesinger, said the family was disappointed.

AP