Jennifer Anglim Kreder, an associate professor of law at Northern Kentucky University, has recently written an interesting piece on the legal and ethical implications when museums retain personal artifacts. In it, she identifies the conflicting interests of museums to display personal items and the wishes of relatives who want to have such items returned because of their sentimental value. In particular she reports the same story about Michel Levi-Leleu and his father’s suitcase that I discuss in my book, “SuperSense.”
This is the bizarre story of Michel, a 66-year old retired engineer who took his daughter to see a temporary exhibition in Paris on the Holocaust on loan from the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. This exhibition contained some of the many suitcases that the Holocaust victims were encouraged to pack and label in a cynical ploy used by the Nazis to trick the Jews into thinking that they were being relocated rather than being sent to death camps.
Pierre Levi, Michel’s father was one such individual who disappeared during the war. The last time Michel saw his father was in 1943 when he left the safety of a refuge in Avignon in France with a cardboard suitcase looking for a new home with his Jewish family. In 2005, Michel’s daughter spotted a battered cardboard suitcase in the Paris exhibition bearing the name of her grandfather.
Michel response was immediate. He wanted the suitcase back and was soon locked in a legal battle to get the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum to return the item to the family.
Kreder’s report of the proceedings is astounding. The Museum responded by countering with the precedence that no items had ever been returned and that if such claims were ever allowed then this would compromise the whole future of the Museum ever allowing public access. It then attempted to deny that the suitcase ever belonged to Pierre Levi, despite the fact that the case also bore his prisoner number as well. They then said that there were many Pierre Levi’s but again, the case bore the street address of Michel’s father. In dismissing the over-whelming evidence, the Museum regarded Michel’s claims as “highly dubious.”
Kreder’s article is thought-provoking. In a time when many museums are compelled by law to return sacred objects, there is a question of whether museums would survive if they could not display authentic items. This is because we value authentic items more than copies because of our psychological essentialism.
However, in this case, or suitcase to be more precise, it seems unjust to withhold the item from the Levi-Leleu family. For a start, it is very unlikely that all the suitcases in the Holocaust museum could be identified and returned to relatives and there must be thousands. More importantly, Michel does not want the suitcase simply to stick it in the attic. He stated,
“I’m not asking that they give it back to me and I’ll put it in a cupboard. I want it to be seen by the people who visit the memorial.”
However, Michel also reveals a supersense towards the suitcase. One of his reasons for wanting to keep the suitcase in France is that he, “didn’t want it to repeat the journey that it had already made to Auschwitz.”
For Michel, it is almost as if the suitcase had become his dead father. Kreder then goes into a fine-grained analysis of the legal precedence of individuals making claims for return of items but ends the article by concluding that museums are morally obligated to return symbolic objects that should never have been taken in the first place.
I had hoped to be able to update you about the Holocaust suitcase and expected a legal decision to be reached in May this year, but I understand that proceedings are still ongoing.
I’ll keep you posted on this one.
Anyway, do you think that the museum is right by acting on behalf of the majority rather than the individual? I am not so sure.