According to Today-in-24, the French Government reported this week that four works that were looted by the Nazis during the German occupation of France in the Second World War have been restored to the heirs of the Egyptian-Jewish businessman Moïse Levi de Benzion. Benzion was born in Alexandria in 1873 and was the founder of the Benzion department stores in Cairo. He had an impressive collection of Chinese and Oriental art, textiles, carpets, books and Egyptian antiquities. The restitution of the paintings to Benzion’s heirs is a blow for Magda Haroun, head of the Cairo Jewish ‘community’, who had demanded that the works go back to Egypt.
The four works, three kept in Paris in the Louvre Museum and another in the Orsay Museum, are small in size and date from the 19th century.
The authorship of these paintings corresponds to Georges Michel, Paul Delaroche, Auguste Hesse and Jules-Jacques Veyrassat. This batch of four pieces belongs to the state program National Museums of Recovery (MNR), whose objective is to return to their rightful owners the thousands of works that the Nazis stole.
According to the French Ministry of Culture, investigations carried out on the origin of these four paintings determined that they belonged to Levi de Benzion (1873, Alexandria, Egypt-1943, Roche-Canillac, France).The collector and businessman bought these works in 1920 and they were stolen from his palace de la Folie in Draveil (Paris region) by the Nazi art looting organization l’Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg.
There were about 60,000 works and objects recovered from Germany that returned to France since the end of the war, in 1945, of which about 45,000 were returned to their owners before 1950.
Among those that were not claimed, a large part was sold and another, about 2,000, was left to the care of French museums due to its artistic interest.
Since 2016, the MNR program has helped restore 54 works to their legitimate heirs.
During the Second World War, according to Wikipedia, Lévi de Benzion’s collections in Paris and the chateau La Folie in Draviel were extensively looted by units of the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR), the Nazi unit charged with following behind invading German troops and identifying and seizing works of art from occupied countries. Records of the ERR indicate that 989 items were seized from the Lévi de Benzion collection alone. Lévi de Benzion was arrested by the Nazis in France and died in September 1943. His collection was sold at auction at Villa Benzion, 6 Rue El Amir Omar, Zamalek, Cairo, in March 1947 in a sale of over 900 lots. (Here is the auction Catalogue. ) Several other department-store owners lived in Zamalek, but like many other large private houses in the area, Villa Benzion no longer exists.
Typical of the handling of the looted paintings was Gustave Courbet‘s Entree d’un Gave (1876). Lévi de Benzion acquired the painting in 1919; the ERR seized it in 1940 and moved it to the Neuschwanstein castle. In 1941 it was acquired by Walter Hofer for the Hermann Göring collection. Göring, however, was not interested in modern art, preferring Old Master paintings instead, and the work was among a number of modern paintings subsequently exchanged for older works selected from Theodor Fischer‘s Galerie Fischer in Lucerne. Fischer sold the painting to Willi Raeber of Basel, who in turn sold it to Galerie Rosengart of Lucerne, who sold it to Arthur Stoll. After the war, the painting was claimed by Paule-Juliette Levi de Benzion of Cairo and restituted to her in 1948. After changing hands several more times, it was sold to the Birmingham Museum of Art in Alabama in 1999.
What really happened to the million Jews who lived in Arab lands? Unfortunately, so many people spread lies about what happened to those Jews – chiefly as a way of propping up a false Palestinian narrative – that most people have no idea of the truth or the scale of the disaster. They see the lies spreading online, but simply do not have the material they need to counter the disinformation campaign. David Collier summarises the issue in his blog:
The ‘Jewish problem’ in the Arab lands:
A simple fact: in the 20th century almost a million Jews resided in ancient Jewish communities spread throughout the Middle East and North Africa.
Another simple fact: at the end of the 20th century, there was almost nothing left.
So what happened?
At the root, although there is no ‘catch-all’ that tells the story of every single Jew in all of the Arab lands – it was belief in the supremacy of Islam, rising Arab nationalism and Islamic antisemitism that all played their role. Whilst it is true that Jewish history in the MENA region was better than the Jewish experience in Europe, this is hardly a difficult benchmark to pass.
Peaceful co-existence’ involved the subordination and degradation of the Jews. The status of Jews as Dhimmi (second class citizens) meant that life was unpredictable; sometimes calm – sometimes violent – but the Jewish experience was always left to the whims of the local rulers.
The 19th century brought about the partial collapse of the Ottoman Empire – and this signalled dark times for the Jews. Pogroms – violent riots against Jews – began to reappear with alarming frequency. The Arab response to the vacuum of power left from the weakness in the Ottoman regime, resulted in power struggles – and both rising Arab nationalism and religious extremism left Jewish blood flowing down city streets. All this upheaval started occurring long before modern Zionism entered the equation.
A key point must be made. The idea that before Zionism, Jews had lived in peace in Arab lands is an absolute myth. For a full history it is worth reading the Lyn Julius book ‘Uprooted’ .
The need for the whitewash:
By the early 20th century, the attacks on these Jewish communities were brutal. Much of it was government driven, with increasing anti-Jewish legislation appearing throughout the region. But there was also a lot of anti-Jewish violence on the street. This all spiked dramatically when Israel was founded but had started long before. The growing hostility was to drive the ethnic cleansing of every major Jewish community inside Arab lands. The creation of nearly a million Jewish refugees.
For those pushing an anti-Israel agenda – and whose entire narrative is built around the non-necessity of Zionism and the tragic existence of Palestinian refugees, the true history surrounding Jewish refugees creates five key problems:
- The image of co-existence is a myth
- There were more Jewish refugees created than Arab refugees
- The value of what the Jewish refugees had stolen from them was many times greater than anything the Arab refugees can claim they lost
- The attack on the Jewish communities was unprovoked and on an innocent civilian population. The same is not true of much of the Arab population in the mandate, with many Arab villages choosing a violent confrontation that fuelled a civil conflict
- Like it or not, many Arab families in the mandate area had simply moved into the area as the Ottoman empire collapsed – or as Zionist investment created opportunity. This means many of the Arab refugees had no real roots in the mandate area (one example – the ‘Palestinian’ hero of the 1930s, Izz ad-Din al-Qassam – was born in Northern Syria.) The same could not be said of the ancient Jewish roots in places such as Egypt, Iraq or Yemen.
All of these factors create a huge problem for anti-Israel activists. In real terms, the unprovoked destruction of the Jewish communities in the MENA region was far worse than the destruction of the Arab communities engaged in civil conflict in the mandate area.
In exposing ‘racism against Palestinians’ , the young members of the far-left UK organisation Na’amod went too far when at a recent Limmud UK session they tried to minimise the collaborative role of the Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini with the Nazis. Lyn Julius writes in a blog previously published in the Jewish News:
‘You are entitled to your own opinions, but not your own facts’.
I was reminded of this old adage while listening a presentation at Limmud by Na’amod (Hebrew for ‘Let’s stand’). This UK-based organisation, which is supported by leftwing young Jews and claims to represent both Zionists and anti-Zionists, is currently running a campaign called ‘Racism isn’t kosher’.
All individuals have their prejudices and biases. The speakers went through common tropes that Jews believe about Palestinians. They were not an invented nation. The ‘Nakba’ was not a lie. The Arabs love their children as much as the Jews do.
But when the speakers suggested that Palestinian collaboration with the Nazis was a trope, they were in danger of losing all credibility.
A reminder of the facts:
It is well-documented that many, if not most, Arabs supported the Germans. Beginning in 1933, the self-declared leader of the Arab world, the Palestinian Mufti of Jerusalem Haj Amin al Husseini, made overtures to Hitler. He received Nazi funding—as did Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood—for his 1936 -1939 Palestinian revolt, during which his thugs killed Jews, British soldiers and any Arabs who rejected his pro-Nazi agenda. He was the driving force behind a pro-Nazi coup and the massacre of hundreds of Jews in Iraq in 1941. He then fled to Berlin and spent the rest of the war, together with 60 other Arabs, as Hitler’s personal guest, broadcasting antisemitic radio propaganda to the Arab world. He was never tried at Nuremberg for war crimes.
In the service of the Third Reich, the Mufti recruited thousands of Muslims to the Waffen SS. He intervened with the Nazis to prevent the escape to Palestine of thousands of European Jews, who were sent instead to the death camps. He had plans to bring the Holocaust to Palestine. The Arabs pressured the British into curtailing Jewish immigration that could have saved millions of lives. The Mufti dragged the Arab League into war with Israel and into driving out their Jewish citizens. His legacy still endures today in Palestinian and Islamist rejectionism of the Jewish state.
If ‘Palestinian collaboration with the Nazis’ is a trope, then I’ve got some snake oil to sell you.
But in an echo of the former London mayor Ken Livingstone’s 2017 claim that Hitler supported Zionism, the young Na’amodists crossed the moral Rubicon when they claimed that Palestinian collaboration with Nazism was parallel to the agreement that the Zionists negotiated with the Nazis in the 1930s. The Ha’avara agreement facilitated the relocation of Jews to Palestine in 1933. It allowed a portion of Jewish emigrants’ possessions, which they were forced to hand over before they left Germany, to be re-claimed through transfers to Palestine as German export goods. But Hitler did not care whether the Jews went to Madagascar or Palestine, as long as he got rid of them from Germany. When Israel later reached an agreement to airlift Jews from Yemen or Iraq, or when it paid hard cash to Morocco to secure the emigration of its Jews in 1961, did this mean that the Yemeni, Iraqi or Moroccan governments supported Zionism?
Apologists both Arab and western have tried to downplay the pivotal role played by the Mufti. Even the new chairman of Yad Vashem, Dani Dayan, caused a scandal in Israel recently when he refused to re-instate a photo of the wartime Mufti meeting Hitler.
But wishful thinking and bending the facts — however inconvenient — to suit an agenda, is in nobody’s interest. Concealing racism in the Palestinians while holding a microscope to Jewish ‘Islamophobia’ or Israel’s purported crimes does nothing to advance mutual understanding and reconciliation.
According to this article in Haaretz by Ofer Aderet, academics and archeologists have found amulets and Hebrew manuscripts in the ruined synagogue in Tamanart, one of several Jewish sites slated for restoration by the Moroccan government. After the destruction of the First Temple, refugees fleeing Jerusalem are said to have established a Jewish kingdom in the adjacent village of Ifrane in the Atlas mountains, one of the oldest communities in North Africa. In 1792, 50 Jews jumped into a burning furnace after the local ruler made them choose between converting to Islam or death by fire. They’ve been called “the immolated” since, their ashes interred in the ancient local cemetery.
Remainders of a Jewish-Moroccan community that existed for centuries were recently found in a remote town in the Atlas Mountains, on the edge of the Sahara Desert. The small Jewish community of Tamanart lived there from the 16th century to the early 19th century. Recently, researchers from Israel, Morocco and France conducted salvage excavations in its ruined synagogue.
Along with the building’s walls, they found Scriptures and pages from the synagogue’s genizah, a repository for damaged written matter and ritual objects, as well as a few paper amulets. One was meant to protect a woman in labor and her newborn, another a personal charm meant to protect its owner from trouble and disease. “The texts in these amulets are based on formulas found in the Book of Raziel, an ancient Kabbalist book,” says Orit Ouaknine-Yekutieli, a researcher of modern Morocco who teaches at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. The book, which includes texts for charms, was in use by Jewish communities in Morocco.
Among other texts written on these amulets were a Kabbalist version of one of God’s names, as well as quotes from the book of Genesis and from the priestly blessing (such as “the angel who hath redeemed me from all evil, bless the lads; and let my name be named in them, and the name of my fathers Abraham and Isaac; and let them grow into a multitude in the midst of the earth” Genesis 48:16) and “The Lord lift up His countenance upon thee, and give thee peace; So shall they put My name upon the children of Israel, and I will bless them,” Numbers 6:26-7).
This website is dedicated to preserving the memory of the near-extinct Jewish communities, of the Middle East and North Africa, documenting the stories of the Jewish refugees and their current struggle for recognition and restitution.
Point of No Return
Jewish Refugees from Arab and Muslim Countries
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