Ever since elementary school, Rachel Davidson ’13 (Bethesda, Md.) has been interested in the Holocaust. Her maternal grandfather, Erwin Schwager, escaped his hometown of Munich, Germany, the day before Kristallnacht, the infamous Nazi-instigated “Night of Broken Glass” in 1938 when Jewish businesses, synagogues, and homes were destroyed. Schwager’s brother escaped to Israel, but their parents died in concentration camps.
Davidson, a double major in international affairs and government & law, is helping organize a conference on campus, scheduled Oct. 27-28, that will explore the topic of Nazi-looted art from diverse perspectives. Lucian Simmons, vice president and world director of restitution at Sotheby’s, will be the keynote speaker. Davidson is working as an EXCEL Scholar with Diane Cole Ahl, Rothkopf Professor of Art, and Rado Pribic, Williams Professor of Languages and chair of international affairs.
“The interdisciplinary and cultural basis of my major is one of the things that I think appealed to Professor Ahl,” explains Davidson. “While she is an art professor, they wanted someone who came from a more international and cultural background. When reading the articles regarding Nazi-looted art, I analyze what the cultural implications were rather than the facts about the individual artifacts. When it comes down to it, by stripping countries and peoples of their art, the Nazis stripped them of their culture and history as well. I think that’s at the core of the conference.”
Ahl estimates that Davidson has already researched and summarized more than 100 articles, several books, and many websites while making conference preparations. She also is identifying potential speakers, and met with one at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
“Careful, advanced preparation and organization is necessary for a successful conference,” says Ahl. “I have worked with EXCEL Scholars who have done excellent research for my publications, but this is the first time that a student has assisted me in organizing a conference. Rachel has become an expert in this area. Her intelligence, engagement, and enthusiasm, not to speak of her excellent research, have been inspiring and energizing.”
Pribic and Ahl decided to organize the conference after watching The Rape of Europa, a film detailing the systematic theft, destruction, and survival of European art during the reign of the Third Reich. Last summer, Pribic traveled to Germany and Austria to research looted art and its restitution to the rightful owners. Even though the war ended more than 60 years ago, looted art is still an international hot topic.
“Obviously, a conference on Nazi-looted art has a catchy title, but there is also a very contemporary and relevant significance in organizing it at this point in time,” explains Pribic. “For example, the litigations involving looted art are still ongoing and often unresolved. There are also plenty of other examples in history of looted art across the globe. We are approaching the conference as an interdisciplinary and international project that should draw great interest not only from the Lafayette community but also beyond.”
In fact, provenance issues – the history of ownership – are not as cut and dry as Davidson thought. There are ethical, legal, historical, and social perspectives that come into play, as well as government, museum, and gallery legal claimants.
“It surprised me how reluctant so many countries still are when it comes to returning Nazi-looted pieces to their rightful heirs,” she says. “It seems like it would be a straightforward solution, but the countries in possession of the looted art view them as cultural treasures.”
Davidson is eager to see the final product in the fall.
“It’s exciting to be an integral part of making this conference happen,” she says. “I can’t wait to see how everything comes together next October.”