Author’s biography


Brief biography

Born in 1976, Sarah Gensburger is a sociologist of memory, tenured researcher at the French National Center for Scientific Researcher, at the Institute for Social sciences of Politics. “Agrégée” in social sciences (1999), she graduated from the Ecole Normale Supérieure (in Social Sciences) and obtained an additional MA in Public Administration from Science Po Paris in 2000. she defended her dissertation in 2006 at the EHESS. She is interested in the social dynamic of memory. Using this perspective, she has analyzed several case studies and published five books in English and French and numerous peer-reviewed articles and book chapters in French, English, German, Polish and Spanish.

Contact :

Images of Plunder. An Album of the Looting of Jews in Paris

Used by the New York Times in the Op-Ed « The Banality of Robbing the Jews », Images of plunder is the temporary translation of the French title « Images d’un pillage. Album de la spoliation des Juifs à Paris ». Images d’un pillage was written by Sarah Gensburger published in French in 2010 by Textuel Publishing in Paris. It was reviewed in newspapers such as Le Monde (April 16th 2010, by Phlippe Dagen) and academic journals such as Vingtième Siècle. Revue d’histoire (n°117, 2013, by Claire talc, available on J-stor). Up to now, this book has not yet been translated in English.

To contact the author :

English presentation of the book :

The project of this book starts with the idea that photographic evidence constitutes veritable documentation liable to better understand the mindset of the actors involved in the looting of the Jews. Photography allows to approach the “Nazi gaze” that Susan Crane speaks of, which has so received little attention from historians. With this perspective in mind, Images d’un pillage proposes to examine an album of eighty-five photographs at the German federal archives in Koblenz. In so doing, the study intends to participate in the current debate on the role of photography in retracing history. Above and beyond a purely theoretical reflection, this book speaks in defense of photography as an historical source. And of course, the strength and the originality of the 85 pictures make them documents of an inestimable value. For example, the study of the pictures led to the identification of an unpublished and unique photo coverage of the Louvre Museum as a place for the looting of Jews.

The album was put together in 1948 by the Munich Central Collecting Point personnel with snapshots which had been found in 1944 in Paris, in a store that had been used by the Germans for the Furniture Operation (Möbel Aktion), the official name for pillaging apartments that had been inhabited by Jews. Several elements indicate that these 85 pictures were brought to Munich by James R. Rorimer, who had been a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York before the war. After D-Day, one of the Monuments Men, Rorimer was assigned to Paris and the Seine department with the mission to collect documents and information potentially useful for retracing German-seized artwork in the French capital.

So the album shows first the Monuments Men’s and their teams’ gaze : it shows a taxonomic look at spoils to be restored, so to speak the Munich teams’ gaze in 1948.  A preliminary section opens up onto a photograph of the Eiffel Tower. The section features a total of five shots of the capital city. The purpose here is to situate the action, an approach which seems necessary given that the majority of the other photographs are taken from inside. Evidently, then, the theft took place in Paris. The following snapshots are organized according to type of object. Despite the fact that this tactic is not explained by the album’s authors (once again, with the exception of the first page there is no text included in the album), it strikes with great force for contemporary viewers of the document. The groups of objects might be qualified as follows: in succession, « boxes and goods in movement » (23 images); « piles of boxes, stationary » (8); « textiles » (18); « toys » (2); « tools » (2); « kitchen utensils » (12); « light fixtures » (2); « TSF posts » (2); « clocks » (2); « furniture » (12) and « pianos » (2). The creation of these thematic chapters responds to the mission of the Central Collecting Point: restitution of stolen goods. The album begins with the objects that are least recognizable (since they are hidden in boxes) and finishes with the most recognizable (period furniture and pianos).

But a close study of the pictures and the help of several written archives indicate more importantly where the pictures come from. These pictures tell a lot about the German administrative gaze on the seizure of Jewish goods in Paris between 1943 to 1944. The album mixes several different photography campaigns. Distinct from the others is an initial grouping of sixteen photographs with the official ERR stamp on the backs. Within the ERR service was a team of professionals tasked with photographing the seized works, primarily for inventory purposes. This first series is indeed a genuine report, displaying cases leaving the Louvre to be then loaded into a train heading for Germany.  The very day of the report was established with certainty by the author.

The other sixty-nine photographs concern Dienststelle Westen operations and bear no distinctive stamp. Since the Furniture Operation’s archives were destroyed at the end of the war, correctly dating and aligning them poses no small challenge. Most were taken inside the Lévitan camp, and thus, little error is risked in claiming that they were taken after July 18, 1943.  They give a topographic view of the looting inside Paris. A first group appears to have been taking at Lévitan during a visit from Kurt von Behr, the Dienststelle Westen chief. Another one was taken at the Bassano camp in the 16th arrondissement.

Finally, the study demonstrates that the eighty-five photographs appear as administrative documents, witnesses of the pillaging work being carried out. As such, they manifest a shared view regarding the operations, highlighting the actors’ common ideological logic. Their mission: dispossess and accumulate no matter the resulting economic benefit. It was for them not so much about making a profit, but to destroy tremendously, and that, to destroy all traces of those who would be themselves physically exterminated. Beyond the coherent group that, in this regard, the photographs in the album form, there is one image with a particularly exemplary status. Approximately seventy paintings are visible in the image, taken in one of the rooms of the Louvre Sequestration area. That only the backsides of the paintings appear in the photograph suggests that as a whole the images were meant as proof of the administrative work accomplished. The witnessed work was above all else quantitative; the photographs were not intended to display the quality of the art the ERR was manipulated. Here the administrative value of the paintings is nothing but the mass they represent, and the quantity of objects reflects, as such, the quantity of individuals concerned by the racial extermination process.

Above all, the images reveal the various forms of destruction and anonymization which constituted, for those who took part, the looting of Jewish goods. The anonymization factor is doubled upon considering the internees who themselves figure in a number of photographs. Though present, they are in a fashion transparent: backs are toward the camera, or heads are down. Beyond its making up an artifact, the Koblenz album also helps to gain a more nuanced grasp on the existent ties and potential hierarchical relations between racial extermination and economic pillage. Those who analyze the album need not just focus on the viewer’s regard of the finished album, but also on the « gaze », on the regards cast upon the pillage by those who enacted it and by those who wished to compensate after the war for the damages caused. However paradoxically for its creators, the images contained in the album might eventually allow the looted goods to be identified and restituted.

Les Justes de France. Politiques publiques de la mémoire.

Sarah Gensburger, Les Justes de France. Politiques publiques de la mémoire, Paris, Presses de Sciences Po, Paris, Presses de Sciences Po, 2010.

Reviews :

 Nicolas Offenstadt, Le Monde des livres, 18 juin 2010

Anne Simonin, Revue française de science politique, 60, 6, 2010

Simon Perego, Histoire@Politique. Politique, culture, société, mise en ligne 9 décembre 2010

Renaud Hourcade, Revue française de science politique, 61, 2, 2011

Pierre Birnbaum, Cahiers du Judaïsme, n°32, septembre 2011

Gérard Cholvy, Historiens et Géographes, mai 2012

Jean-Marc Dreyfus, La vie des idées, mise en ligne 25 janvier 2013.

In 2006, Sarah Gensburger defended her dissertation of sociology on “the process of remembrance through the title of Righteous among the Nations in the French case” at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS, advisor : Marie-Claire Lavabre ; jury : Alon Confino, Daniel Hervieu-Léger, Pierre Muller, Jacques Revel, François de Singly).

In 2007, her dissertation was awarded a special prize by the Auschwitz Foundation (Bruxelles) and selected as the best dissertation on public policy by the French Political Science Association (Paris). In 2010, part of it was published by the Presses de Sciences Po under the title Les Justes de France. Politiques publiques de la mémoire. The book received significant attention by scholars, both historians and political scientists, in academic journals and newspapers.

Indeed, the book investigates the reason for the development of a policy of memory based on the celebration of the Righteous among the Nations in the French context. Although the title of “Righteous among the Nations” has been awarded in Israel since 1963, foreign governments did not show any interest in this commemoration until the late 1990s. Since then, however, a growing number of European governments have adopted the term. Of all the countries to which this commemoration has spread, the French government’s appropriation of the Israeli terminology may have gone the farthest, forging a new national commemorative expression : the “Justes de France.” This essay explores how the French lexical appropriation has taken place. In doing so, it seeks to introduce a new perspective into the current debate on the transnationalization of memory and to look into the interaction between personal narratives and public frames of memory.




Images d’un pillage. Album de la spoliation des Juifs à Paris


Sarah Gensburger, Images d’un pillage. Album de la spoliation des Juifs à Paris 1940-1944, Textuel, 2010.

À travers les 85 photographies d’un album conservé aux archives fédérales de Coblence, Sarah Gensburger revient sur l’histoire de la spoliation des Juifs à Paris pendant la Seconde Guerre mondiale. Prises par les Allemands entre 1940 et 1944, ces clichés ont été rassemblés en album en 1948 par les services alliés en charge de la restitution des biens volés aux Juifs.

La diversité des sites qui apparaissent sur ces images souligne l’emprise de ce pillage sur la capitale : du Musée du Louvre au Palais de Tokyo en passant par le Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, la Gare du Nord, le camp de Lévitan, les magasins généraux d’Aubervilliers et le camp de Bassano. Ces prises de vue montrent également la banalité des possessions de l’écrasante majorité des familles juives, ainsi que la normalisation et la nature absolue de cette spoliation : des matelas aux postes de TSF en passant par les batteries de cuisine, les jouets d’enfants ou le linge de maison…

Cet ouvrage considère les 85 photographies de l’album de Coblence non comme des illustrations mais comme des sources pour l’écriture de l’histoire. Il tente de saisir les regards que les acteurs de cette spoliation portaient sur leur tâche comme la logique de celles et ceux qui ont œuvré à la restitution de ce butin. Paradoxalement, et alors même que pour ceux qui les ont rassemblées en album, ces images devaient permettre l’éventuelle identification des biens spoliés, elles donnent d’abord à voir l’opération de destruction de toute trace de l’existence des Juifs qu’a été le pillage des biens juifs, dans ses diverses formes. Elles constituent simultanément aujourd’hui l’un des témoignages de cette existence même.