Should universities retain possessions wrongfully acquired during the Holocaust?


By Gwynne Robins, Senior Researcher, Cape SAJBD

“I intend to plunder and to do it thoroughly,” Hermann Göring told the Nazi party.

To do this he set up special units called the Reichsleiter Rosenberg Taskforce (also known as the ERR) which stole millions of books and hundreds of thousands of objects of art in what was considered the biggest robbery in history.

Some of these objects were found by the Allies and distributed to Jewish communities after the war through the Jewish Reconstruction Programme, with 40% allocated to Israel, and 5% given to South Africa through the Jewish Board of Deputies which sent 20% to Cape Town, 5% to Durban, and the rest to Johannesburg. Unfortunately, Johannesburg’s collection vanished over a long weekend together with a Russian security guard, whilst Cape Town’s collection can be viewed at the SA Jewish Museum and the Samson Centre.

But, what about those items that came to South Africa with avaricious Nazis?

Rand Afrikaans University (RAU) (now the University of Johannesburg) owns a valuable collection of books housed in its rare book section, willed to them by convicted war criminal Prof HJ De Vleeschauwer, who had been an ERR book selection commissioner and had signed orders dismissing all Jewish professors and teachers from Belgian universities and schools. A striking feature of his collection is the mysterious removal by cutting or erasure of ownership markings and names in many of the books.

Sentenced to death, De Vleeschauwer abandoned his family and escaped to Switzerland with a young woman and 8000 books. When the National Party came to power in South Africa, he started writing to influential Afrikaans academics. He supported the idea of the Afrikaners’ mission in Africa as ‘a great white people with great Flemish blood’, and attacked the west, the United Nations, the Jews and the communists for opposing efforts to remove coloured people from the common voters’ roll. De Vleeschauwer entered South Africa under a false name with his books and his ‘niece’, and was given a job at UNISA, which later gave him an honorary doctorate.

I recently met with Prof Archie Dick of the University of Pretoria (UP), who has written articles exposing De Vleeschauwer’s past and is investigating the source of his books with Belgian and American academics.

In the same way that RAU had accepted valuable collections looted during the Holocaust, so too did UP, working hard to persuade millionaire Jacob van Tilburg to donate his valuable collection of art and Chinese ceramics to them — even though he had been sentenced to 13 months for collaborating with the Nazis. The Dutch Resistance claimed his collection had been improperly received for safe-keeping from Jews, and that Van Tilburg was connected to a collaborator who promised to transport Jews to Vichy France in return for money, but handed them over to the Gestapo instead. The Dutch Jewish community and the former Netherlands Minister of Culture had demanded that the art be returned, as much had been stolen from Dutch Jews. Rabbi Abraham Soetendorp flew out from The Hague to negotiate with the university but neither the Rabbi nor the Jewish Board of Deputies were successful in showing that the collection had been unlawfully acquired.

UP has held that it will only consider returning objects to its former owners or their heirs with documentary evidence of ownership, choosing simply to move Van Tilburg‘s bronze bust into the basement. Unfortunately, the Nazis were very thorough in their efforts to eradicate Jews, and those few who survived, did not emerge from camps with such documents.

At the time of the donations, apartheid ideology was dominant, with leaders of the universities seeing nothing wrong in protecting condemned Nazi war criminals, nor of being party to the crimes by accepting valuable collections looted during the Holocaust. More than eighty years later, the collections remain with the universities and no effort has been made towards restitution.

Cape SA Jewish Board of Deputies website:, Instagram, and Facebook page.

• Published in the PDF edition of the July 2021 issue.

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