Antioch College alumnus Marc Masurovsky ’77 is the co-founder of the Holocaust Art Restitution Project (HARP), created in in 1997, and is currently affiliated with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. He has researched the question of assets looted during the Holocaust and World War II since 1980 and has worked as an expert historian on a class-action lawsuit for Jewish claimants seeking restitution of lost accounts and other liquid assets from Swiss banks. As a consultant and historian for the Department of Justice's Office of Special Investigations, he researched alleged Nazi war criminals living in the U.S., interviewed witnesses to crimes against humanity and studied post-war relations between former Nazi officials and Allied intelligence agencies.
After graduating as “a proud member of the Class of 1977” from Antioch College, Masurovsky earned his M.A. in Modern European History from American University in Washington, D.C.
Masurovsky spoke with The Independent via teleconference to tell us about his work, his passions, and what Antioch means to him.
Tell us about your position and your work.
Although I am currently affiliated with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., my bread and butter comes from a grant from the New York-based Conference of Jewish Material Claims against Germany. I oversee a database of art objects looted in France during the German occupation period, 1940-1944, which transited through a major sorting station called the “Jeu de Paume,” a cute museum located in central Paris in the Tuileries Gardens. Tens of thousands of art objects were processed there after having been seized from Jewish owners throughout German-occupied France and, to a lesser extent, Belgium and Holland. The database can be found at www.errproject.org. It is fully searchable; every one of the more than 21,000 items in the database can be viewed at any time by anyone from anywhere…
I also teach specialized workshops on provenance research, which means that I train people to use their critical thinking skills to understand how to unravel the ownership history of art objects in the context of mass civil unrest, genocide, and other crimes against populations. In other words, provenance research is about recontextualizing art objects into a historical and societal matrix so that one can better grapple with the troubled history of many of those objects as they changed hands, often illegally, before landing on our mantles or on museum walls. The overall purpose behind provenance research is to raise the ethical bar in the art market, in the museum world, and to foster a more critical understanding of cultural history by factoring in the twists and turns of major and minor societal displacements into the ownership path of an object. I should emphasize that provenance research definitely applies to indigenous art, cultural and sacred objects produced by members of the First Nations, as well as by indigenous groups around the world, and is not circumscribed to the Holocaust.
Last but not least, I initiated in 2005 with several colleagues at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum a project which is now called informally “the geographies of the Holocaust,” which posits that a geographical approach to history and especially to the history of mass conflicts, including but not limited to genocide and civil war, can help us apprehend some of the more complex moments in spatial and temporal terms of those historical events, using tried and true geographical and cartographical techniques. In that regard, we worked with several universities to obtain a grant from the National Science Foundation to explore the use of geography in apprehending different aspects of the Holocaust. The end result was a series of mapping projects, or geo-visualizations, which can easily be applied to events like Darfur, Rwanda, Bosnia, and other mass displacements of populations.
What about your personal life? I was once married and have three children, who are all grown up: Alex who is 26, Adam who is 24, and Jason who is 20. As a result of my work, I travel more than I would want to, but it keeps it all interesting. The provenance training programs have taken me to Magdeburg, Germany, Zagreb, Croatia, Prague, and Czech Republic. My work on looted art takes me to France fairly regularly and to other places in Europe and North America. I recently taught a first-ever graduate seminar on provenance research at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas, for graduate students in museum science and cultural heritage.
In my other life, I curate the artwork left behind by my parents, Gregory Masurovsky and Shirley Goldfarb, both artists—my father was a graphic artist and my mother was an abstract painter. Both are deceased. They left behind their unsold artworks which I am now responsible for promoting, a full-time job on top of my day-to-day responsibilities. My mother’s works were recently shown in New York and in Paris, and plans are afoot to produce a catalogue of her works. Not to add too much weirdness, a one-woman play was adapted from my mother’s journals and performed in Paris and Belgium. Such is life.
You seem so passionate about all of your work.Many people ask me why I do the things I do. Yes, it’s true. My job is not one of those regular jobs where you come in and punch the clock at 9 and leave at 5. All in all, it is very important to do what you aim to do, and what drives you to get up in the morning and to sleep at night in mild comfort. Life is too short, and if one can control one’s destiny, all the better. It has not led to a life of stability, far from it, but I would not trade in what I do on a daily basis for anything in the world.
When people ask me: when did you begin to be so interested in the Holocaust? I have trouble answering them. But as I have been asked that question so many times, I felt responsible for coming up with some kind of intelligible answer. Here it comes:
Once upon a time, my father won a graphics prize for a drawing that he submitted to an international competition based in Krakow, Poland. The year was 1966. I was 10 years old. He won the first prize, which, in those days, represented a tidy monetary sum for my parents who were dirt poor for most of their working lives. We had to drive all the way from Paris to Krakow in order to collect the money and spend it since, in those days of the Cold War, the zloty was worth less than Monopoly money in the “West.” We took three weeks to spend it all, drove all over Poland. One of the early stops on our trek was at this place called Oswiecim or Auschwitz, not too far from Krakow. In those days, it was hard to find it because the sign pointing to the camp was very small and easy to miss if you drove faster than 30 miles an hour on a Polish country road. In any event, we found the camp, spent part of the day there. I admit that I was engrossed by the enormity of it all without clearly understanding what I was looking at. It was clear to me, at least then, that an untold number of people died in that place, some were executed in dastardly ways, the remnants of their existence were locked up in glass cages filled with hair, glasses, prostheses, combs and what-all’s. Medieval instruments of torture were on display. I remember visiting the execution yards. My mother flipped out and demanded that we leave the camp, after watching West German tourists taking pictures and eating ice cream.
Later on, in Warsaw, we stumbled on a Hasidic bookseller who seemed to be the only person working on a Sunday—go figure! We bought three books from his ground floor bookshop, which was also his apartment. One of those books documented the crimes committed against the Polish people by the Nazis. It was a pictorial horror show that I embraced as my Bible. When we returned to Paris, I would look at it for what seemed like ages, turning the pages around and looking at the expressions of the people being executed by whatever methods, trying to apprehend death, dying, persecution, and what drives people to do such awful things to other people. Added to that was growing up in France, in a country that had still not recovered from five years of Nazi occupation, collaboration, resistance, and indifference. My friends in school were the sons and daughters of parents who once collaborated with the Nazis, who resisted against them or who simply didn’t care about what was going on around them, preferring to eke out a living and mind their own business, even if thousands of people were being dragged out of their apartments and sent to their deaths, while they were being stripped of everything they owned simply because of what they were. That is the daytime context in which I was raised, outside of my art studio living which was mostly in the early morning, evening and night and weekends.
I became an activist, as most high school students do in France. I had to tangle with neo-Fascists on a daily basis for several years, which was not very pleasant and occasionally led to displays of physical violence. Hence, when coming to Antioch in the summer of 1973, I brought with me baggage that was difficult to translate into the context of a groovy, open-ended college, which had just gone through a crippling strike and was teetering on the verge of shutting down during those humid and hot summer months of 1973.
How did your time at Antioch influence you?Welcome to Antioch! Whatever you do is your own business as long as you are here to graduate. The rest is history.
That adage alone threw a monkey wrench into my young life, being 17 at the time of my arrival in Yellow Springs. I had been educated by Jesuits in civilian clothes, meaning that my academic and intellectual upbringing was rigorous, highly disciplined and disciplinary for 12, long years. At Antioch, I was left to my own devices. I was not familiar with that approach to life despite the fact that I had been raised in a Bohemian household. My thirst for structure turned out to be frustrated by Antioch’s refusal to grant any semblance of structure. I almost drowned and was rescued at the end of my first year by Ludo Abicht, who then taught at the Department of Foreign Civilization and Languages (FCL), at ISSP, and in collaboration with teachers in the Political Science department like Norm Diamond and political economists like Andy Winnick.
Since Ludo had been raised by Jesuits in Belgium, he understood my predicament and taught me a thing or two about discipline, notably self-discipline. I was about to transfer to NYU when he asked me to give Antioch a second chance, which I did, as long as he would mentor me. Those words did not come out as such, but that was our implicit understanding. I stayed, worked closely with him and ended up graduating by the skin of my teeth. I say that because my teachers looked surprised when my name was called in June 1977 to receive my diploma.
Antioch’s gift to me was work-study and a chance to express myself in a nurturing environment. Work-study taught me … how to work, meet deadlines, be accountable, and establish foundations for collaborative ventures and undertakings. In that regard, WYSO and The Record provided me with some of most unforgettable experiences on campus, as well as being a teaching assistant for the “Marx to Mao” class taught by Ludo and Andy, which, in those days, held about 70 students. I also co-taught a class with Ludo on the theory and practice of counter-revolution, which was predicated on the assumption that it was best to know your enemy—how she thinks, acts, and evolves into your nemesis from the French Revolution to present-day. At The Record, I created—with the able assistance of my editor, Andrew Goutman, who now lives in Philadelphia—an international news supplement, an insert, which provided Antioch students with our erudite, pseudo-scholarly political analyses of world events. It was called Turning Point.
At WYSO, I covered international news for Mark Mericle, and I doubt that any newsroom operated quite like WYSO’s did in the mid-1970s, but I might be wrong.
What (career-wise) are you most proud of?My first love was archaeology, my second love was photojournalism, and my third love was journalism. I became neither, except for a brief stint at The Record and WYSO.
I earned my income as a translator and as a language teacher for more than a decade before I ended up running my own language services business in Washington, D.C. Three years after I graduated from Antioch, I became a consultant for the Office of Special Investigations at the Department of Justice, a special unit devoted to ferreting out suspected Nazi war criminals living in the United States who had been granted U.S. citizenship. The OSI’s job was to find them and press for denaturalization and deportation as war criminals. Those three years gave shape to the rest of my professional and academic life. After my contract expired with OSI, I continued to research different aspects of the Final Solution and of the Holocaust period, especially its financial, commercial and “intelligence” underpinnings. I was intrigued by the transitions from war to peace, what historians refer to as “continuities,” what never stopped while peace was established. The reality was that most businesses founded during the wartime period or which thrived in a world of persecution and mass expropriations and killings, continued to thrive in the postwar era. In other words, the vast majority of businessmen and entrepreneurs guilty of association with war crimes were still working and earning a comfortable living in the postwar years, thus giving shape to the post-1945 world, unrepentant and spared from the trials suffered by the few who were indicted for crimes against humanity. I pursued the economic and financial angles until it was time to go to graduate school. I applied to one program at American University in 1987, was admitted, completed a masters in Modern European History, and wrote a thesis. I completed my doctoral work but never hatched the final product, hence I remain ABD since 1994. That dashed my hopes of teaching in an academic setting.
In 1995, I threw myself into the midst of the scandal over looted Jewish assets being misused for decades by Swiss banks. That was the starting point of what I still continue to do today, trying to achieve restitution and a certain degree of closure for Holocaust victims and their families. The highlight of my career? One particular moment that I will never forget was the seizure in January 1998 of two paintings by an Austrian painter named Egon Schiele, which were on loan at the Museum of Modern Art in New York—my first co-op job in the fall of 1973. As it turns out, the paintings belonged to two Jewish families, forced to flee after the March 1938 absorption of Austria into the Reich and had their belongings confiscated. One of those items was a painting, “Portrait of Wally” which ended up in the hands of an unscrupulous anti-Semitic collector named Rudolf Leopold whose museum, the Leopold, is a shrine to looted art, mostly by Austrian artists, many of which belonged to Viennese Jews.
The seizure of the paintings was prompted by a series of escalating threats coming from the Museum of Modern Art which refused to even entertain the notion that there might be a problem in exhibiting stolen art objects. I and my colleagues at the newly-created Holocaust Art Restitution Project had no other choice but to provide supporting documentation to the District Attorney of Manhattan at the time, Robert Morgenthau, son of Henry Morgenthau, who had been the Treasury Secretary to Franklin Roosevelt. Morgenthau ended up believing what we had sent him, and ordered the New York Police Department to seize the paintings at MoMA, the day before their scheduled return to Vienna. Needless to say, American museums, to this day, still smart from that event, since it is the first time that uniformed policemen violated the sanctity of their temples to remove stolen property from their premises. The Austrian government was traumatized, of course, and, as a result of the seizure, initiated internal discussions which led to the passage of a restitution law, which, to this day, serves as a model for how internal restitution can be legislated and implemented in order to foster ethical behavior in museums and the art market, while achieving a measure of justice for victims of racial and political persecution.
What would you say to current Antioch students who are interested in a similar profession?
To those Antioch students whom I admire for wanting to be part of a unique experience that they are helping to shape:
Critical thinking skills and contextualization are the cornerstones of what I do. At least, that is how I think. I wouldn’t have it any other way. My “profession” is a unique combination of advocacy, pedagogy, research, documentation, and analysis, combining many disciplines under one roof: art history, history, forensics, political science, economics, international relations, museum science, ethics, foreign cultures, and languages, to name a few.
In other words, inter-disciplinary thinking and practice lies at the core of my professional and intellectual life, for lack of a better expression. I am happy to come to Antioch and share my experiences and to provide an introduction to what I do. Hopefully, that is part of my future. As for the rest of my life, I don’t have a crystal ball with me.
What does the future hold for you? Tell us about your next project.
If I live long enough, here’s my professional wish list:
- Expand the database of looted art to encompass losses from other countries;
- Establish an international forum through which issues like cultural rights can be addressed in a meaningful way especially as it pertain to the protection of cultural objects worldwide and the prevention of cultural plunder wherever it may threaten individuals and entities as a result of mass conflict.
- Mandating the study of cultural plunder in secondary schools, colleges, universities, undergraduate, graduate, and specialized programs;
- Establishing regulatory frameworks in the US and internationally that mandate ethical standards in the buying, selling, trading, and displaying of cultural objects,
- Ferreting out looted cultural objects wherever they may be and returning them to their rightful owners.
- Teaching provenance research in places like Antioch College.
I also have a special wish for Antioch College: To rehabilitate and document the turbulent years of 1973-1977 so that my class does not have to feel like it does not exist. On a personal level, I want to complete a catalogue of my parents’ creative output and foster exhibits of their works, and hopefully convince my children that this is a worthwhile part of their lives. Well, if I get run over by a truck tomorrow morning, they won’t have much of a choice, will they now?