The Holocaust Suitcase

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.


Filed under Essentialism, In the News

16 responses to “The Holocaust Suitcase

  1. Susan

    Thanks for this posting it is very thought provoking. Museums throughout the world have thousands of objects that are held in great esteem by many tribes and people, think of the skulls etc “re-patriated” to the aborigonal tribes from the British museums and the Native American artifacts sent back to their tribes by American and other international museums. I guess we all have a strong supersense when it comes to objects that seem personal to us or where there is a strong religious connotation. I’m not sure about the personal vs. the collective argument for a museum sending back items though. Surely the purpose of the exhibition is to be thought provoking and educate as well as sending a message. If linking into the supersense of the audience is a powerful way of getting the message across, then this should override the individual’s wishes particularly if the message is diluted by reducing the link between the object and the audience say by having a photograph or facsimile? I guess what I am saying is that I can understand the museum’s stance in that they want their message to be powerful and thought provoking and by having the original objects this plays into mans’ natural supersense and thus increases the value of the exhibition. Rather cynically I am sure the publicity of the case cannot be doing the exhibition any harm. What do others think?

  2. brucehood

    People feel emotional in the presence of authentic objects and some people experience this more strongly than others depending on the individual and/or the object in question. You might say that its just association – the sight of the object triggers all sorts of feelings. In the case of revered objects then some form of awe (see my previous posting on Richard Dawkins) and in the case of something notorious then some form of repulsion. But here is the interesting thing. When you discover that the object is not authentic then those experiences are greatly reduced. That’s not something that association can easily explain in my opinion. Ok getting a bit technical here but let me give you another personal anecdote.
    Some years ago I visited the Lascaux caves. We chanced upon them during a driving holiday in the Dordogne region of France. These are caves with the most amazing prehistoric paintings. I was in awe. However, my French was so pitiful that it was only after leaving that I realized that the whole experience was a sham. They were a reproduction of the real Lascaux caves that were several miles down the road and had been closed off to the public. I felt cheated and rather stupid. I seriously doubt that I would have had such emotional experiences if I knew they were fake.
    Association may have triggered the first experience but it probably would not have triggered it knowing that the cave was a copy.
    That is not easily explained unless humans evoke a sense that there is some intangible property that we infer resides in the original.

    Controversial theory… who disagrees?

  3. Katie

    I feel torn about this particular situation because I am a great believer in the sanctity of public museums/memorials. I personally would be content simply to know of it’s existence and be able to see it myself, without feeling the need to claim ownership and remove it from a very worthy exhibit. But there is no denying the museum has responded poorly – very poorly.

    As this is a case of anthropomorphising (sp??) the suitcase into Michel’s father, the museum could simply state that such a belief would not stand up in court as reason to give him ownership. The suitcase now exists solely as part of a state exhibit, not as (even a partial) substitute for his deceased father.

  4. brucehood

    Katie, I understand your issue.. That’s the whole point. This is not black and white and we all differ in what we regard as the right answer….. coz there isn’t one!

  5. Katie

    Just an interesting note that this debate carried over into a lengthy discussion at dinner with my in-laws last night – it was definitely the overriding impulse to sympathise with the individual’s connection with the object.

    But I found this part of Susan’s comment particularly interesting on a second read: “by having the original objects this plays into mans’ natural supersense and thus increases the value of the exhibition”

    Suggests I think that a group supersense about an object – through a more general human sympathy – competes with a single individual’s supersense in this case. That’s probably really obvious, but I take a while to process this stuff 🙂

  6. 6th

    Thanks for spotting the problem with the link on my blog … fixed it now but am also glad coz it means I found this blog and its a great read.


  7. brucehood

    Thank you 6th.I am really tempted to make it over to dublin to check this meeting out…

    Also Katie, I think this tension between personal versus public interests in the case of symbolic objects is a really difficult one. I think one of the reasons that the cases are so important is because they personify the individual suffering of so many with something as common as a suitcase. I am pleased it became a worthy after-dinner discussion.

  8. This discussion makes me wonder to what degree something like supersense is responsible for the attachment we feel to those we love. After all, it would seem fair that, otherwise, we should merely value them for their properties rather than holding them dear over and above what they are like.

  9. Katie

    That’s a powerful point, Konrad. It’s something that I think can either be beautiful or devastating about supersense – how well we understand something as fundamental as attachment to other human beings.

    Waiting eagerly for Bruce’s take…

  10. brucehood

    Yup Katie & Konrad, this is one of the main themes developed in the book. In order for something (person or object) to become sacred, they must be deemed to be irreplaceable, something unique. I think the supersense facilitates this process. It enables you to feel that emotional connection that a copy would not generate.

    At some point I should post a blog about disorders such as Capgras Syndrome where individuals think that spouses have been replaced by identical replicants…. truly shocking.

  11. Glad you mentioned Capgras as this was precisely the issue I was thinking about also. The implications this has for the status of superstition are interesting, to say the least.

  12. This may be an obvious question but it took me a couple of hours to think of it – Do people with Capgras exhibit different behaviour in terms of attachment to objects?

  13. brucehood

    The condition is so rare and mostly concerns delusions related to spouses but yes, there are a few documented cases of Capgras towards personal objects. (again discussed in SuperSense)

  14. I was actually thinking of a slightly different question. Do people who have the normal type of Capgras exhibit differences from the norm in terms of whether they value objects in part according to who owned them previously? This doesn’t have to be as striking as Capgras towards personal objects, it could just be not caring whether a multiple murderer wore a cardigan that is being offered them.

  15. brucehood

    I don’t think anyone knows the answer.. the condition is just so rare. Though I do wonder whether a Capgras-type dissociation can ever be experimentally simulated…. that’s the sort of approach the cognitive scientists often adopt. Will keep you posted.

  16. Pingback: Schindler’s List – Artefact – Dominic Fairley

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