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.

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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 For example, the study of the pictures led to the identification of an unpublished and unique photo coverage of the Louvre Museum as a place for the looting of Jews.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.