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Who owns the products of slave labour?
March 28, 2002 10:41 AM   Subscribe

Who owns the products of slave labour? Or, more broadly, how do we remember the Holocaust? A unique dispute over ownership rights to artwork in the case of the Auschwitz Memorial Museum vs. former camp prisoner Dinah Gottliebova Babbitt illuminates underlying moral questions about the Holocaust and post-Holocaust culture. Babbitt, now living in southern California, is a university-trained Czechoslovak artist who has been fighting to reclaim her art from the Auschwitz Museum since 1973... [She] was a Jewish prisoner there in 1944 when Josef Mengele learned of her artistic skills and forced her to make watercolor portraits of dying Gypsies in order to get the kind of documentation he wanted on exact skin color and ear shapes. Gottliebova Babbitt made a dozen such portraits, seven of which are now tucked away in Room No. 11 of the Auschwitz Museum. [...] "Mengele ordered me to do it as slave labor. But it was my work, my paintings."
posted by jokeefe (20 comments total)

 
Belongs to her.
posted by Postroad at 10:51 AM on March 28, 2002


Yup, the paintings should be given back. And I agree with the way the article ended, it would be a continual victory for Mengele.
posted by bittennails at 11:13 AM on March 28, 2002


Statute of limitations, then, or apples and oranges here?
posted by y2karl at 11:24 AM on March 28, 2002


Apples and oranges, though it's interesting to compare the cases.
posted by Nothing at 12:06 PM on March 28, 2002


Apples and oranges. The artist is still alive. Her work was stolen. she wants it back. End of story. Yes, her work would be historically important and worth showing. If the museum wants to display it, they should negotiate with the artist just the same as they would have if she had managed to retain possession of the paintings. If the artist was dead and her great-great-grandchildren wanted the paintings back, plus payment for all the time they had been displayed, that would be an apples to apples comparison with the reparations thread. It sounds, however, like the museum officials are trying to stall until she does die, which means they should be beaten soundly about the head and shoulders.
posted by tdismukes at 1:25 PM on March 28, 2002


apropos random thought.
the word holocaust was not used to describe the 'ethnic clensing' of jews, romanies, homosexuals etc. until the 1950s.
posted by asok at 1:27 PM on March 28, 2002


True enough, asok, but I can't help but wonder why you feel compelled to make this point, or what significance you attach to it. In any case, ethnic cleansing is not actually a synonym for genocide.

As for the paintings, I was astonished the article gave no conclusion as to the ownership interest of the German government. Certainly most forced labor involved prisoners turned over to businesses, but Mengele worked for the government. I'm not saying anything more than that obfuscating this issue seems to mean a sandy foundation for the rest of the article.

It's a very tricky question. I actually don't think she has a technical legal claim under most constructions of intellectual property law. Compare with the fact that the camps themselves were constructed with forced labor: does that mean that every descendant gets to stop by and take away a brick? On the other hand, I think the museum has a moral obligation to involve her, but I don't know that it extends to the kinds of ownership rights she's asserting. Few artists have that kind of control over their work once it passes from their hands. My thinking is that she has a moral obligation to permit the museum to share these with the world. I believe that's the way I would feel, as much as I can pretend to put myself in her shoes.
posted by dhartung at 3:12 PM on March 28, 2002


I think the paintings should be returned to her. I find it morally reprehensible that the museum has stalled as long as it has. She was there, she created them, she lived through the death camp and she wants the paintings back. I feel such sadness to know that this poor lady has continued to be a victim of Auschwitz for almost 60 years.
posted by dejah420 at 4:56 PM on March 28, 2002


Re the statute of limitations: Does this apply to inheritances? You can't claim something of value of your family's, even family from several generations ago? I'm just asking. The answer is clearly no, to both questions. We're not talking apples and oranges here. We're talking one boundary set by tradition, another set by a personal opinion.
posted by raysmj at 7:23 PM on March 28, 2002


In recent cases involving World War II slave-labor victims, the statute of limitations doesn't apply if there is a war crime or if there's a crime upon humanity. So I say: If there ever was a crime upon humanity, what white folks did to black people is the worst that ever happened in this country. We would argue that it's not fair to apply the statute of limitations upon us.

from
Harper's Magazine Nov, 2000
MAKING THE CASE FOR RACIAL REPARATIONS.

An interesting discussion allaboutgeorge once posted in a comment to a post of mine. My mind is not yet made up about reparations. I think an argument can be made but then from and to who and how is a whole other can of worms.
I do think the speed and vehemence with which people reject the concept here is... interesting.
posted by y2karl at 9:07 PM on March 28, 2002



the word holocaust was not used to describe the 'ethnic clensing' of jews, romanies, homosexuals etc. until the 1950s.


And "ethnic cleansing" wasn't used to describe the Holocaust until the phrase was created in 1992.
posted by obfusciatrist at 9:37 PM on March 28, 2002


In recent cases involving World War II slave-labor victims, the statute of limitations doesn't apply if there is a war crime or if there's a crime upon humanity.

But in the case of World War II slave-labor victims, the victims themselves are being compensated. Not their great-great-grandchildren, and not other people who happen to be of the same ethnicity.

Furthermore, the people paying the reparations were generally much more closely related to the people who directly benefited from the act in question - there's much less of the "My grandparents immigrated in 1890 - they had nothing whatsoever to do with slavery" or even more relevant "My grandparents fought and died to free slaves in the Civil War" issues.

That's why (IMHO) the moral argument for American slavery reparations is comparatively much weaker.
posted by jaek at 11:00 PM on March 28, 2002


WILLIE E. GARY: Think about this. In 1865 the federal government of this country freed 4 million blacks. Without a dime, with no property, nearly all illiterate, they were let loose upon the land to wander. That's what begins the aftermath of slavery.

SWEET: How many Americans know that 25 million blacks died in slavery? And how many know that virtual slavery was perpetuated for nearly a century after emancipation? Peonage laws made unpaid workers out of debtors. There were sharecropping schemes. Then Jim Crow laws. And even after that, there were other entrenched policies that have kept African Americans living in ghettos.

HITT: Robinson points out that until 1950 the federal government included in mortgage loans restrictive covenants preventing blacks--and only blacks, no other group--from buying houses in white neighborhoods. So blacks could not make their equity work for them. They couldn't move up.

RICHARD F. SCRUGGS: a house is the largest single investment and asset most people have.

PIRES: And it's how every immigrant first got into the middle class. So that policy effectively delayed the arrival of the black middle class by half a century.

GARY: And banks kept it up--denying loans to blacks, often by redlining, by which they literally would draw lines on a map around a neighborhood and not give loans to even creditworthy people living there. That happened until almost last week.


also...


SWEET: It's not just education. It's like, you know, Chris Rock, the comedian, said it best. He has a bit in his act where he's talking to just a normal white guy and says, "Despite all the changes in society, you wouldn't switch places with me, a black man." Then he pauses. "And I'm rich!" The thing is, there are a lot of benefits to being white. A lot.


You really should read the article linked, jack, it's interesting and the questions you raise are dealt with somewhat. I find the my parents immigrated in 1890 argument disingenous since it always omits the and they got a free pass because they were not black part of the equation.

As the quotes above indicate, this isn't about 100 years ago but things that lingered on until well after I was born. As I said before, there are arguments to be made for reparations and they are made quite well in the article linked.
posted by y2karl at 11:30 PM on March 28, 2002


I find the my parents immigrated in 1890 argument disingenous since it always omits the and they got a free pass because they were not black part of the equation.

A free pass to not be lynched for sitting at the front of the restaurant, maybe. But it's not like they all got rooms for the Hilton and a line of credit.
posted by bingo at 11:50 PM on March 28, 2002


I don't know - I read the article and found it fairly unconvincing. It's a bunch of lawyers sitting around trying to decide who they can sue over reparations and on what grounds, all so they can make hundreds of millions of dollars. I suspect the perception that that kind of mentality (whether it's true or not) is behind the push for reparations is a big cause of the vehemence with which the cause is dismissed around these parts.

The my grandparents came over in 1890 argument is no more disingenuous than calling a lawsuit over discriminatory lending by the federal goverment during the 50's a case about "slavery reparations."
posted by jaek at 12:22 AM on March 29, 2002


The article wasn't supposed to be "convincing" about anything, as far as I recall (and would presume if I hadn't - it's Harper's, after all). That you think it does is . . . well, I dunno if it says more about you or not, although the way we all read articles often does say plenty. But the magazine just brought people with ties to other major class action cases together to talk about the matter, about whether there is a case there or what, and let the fur fly. It's really that simple.
posted by raysmj at 12:38 AM on March 29, 2002


dhartung: Compare with the fact that the camps themselves were constructed with forced labor: does that mean that every descendant gets to stop by and take away a brick?

No, but she's not a descendant; she was actually there. If all the people who were prisoners there want to take away a brick, should they be able to? I think so.

Anyway, the article makes the whole museum seem pretty dodgy. What kind of person would both want to become the art director of the museum, and also believe that Mengele would have had ownership rights to the paintings?

I actually don't think she has a technical legal claim under most constructions of intellectual property law...As for the paintings, I was astonished the article gave no conclusion as to the ownership interest of the German government. Certainly most forced labor involved prisoners turned over to businesses, but Mengele worked for the government.

Obviously Mengele did not pay the artist. In the absence of a contract giving the rights of her work to him, or to anyone else, the work she created is hers. Not only was Mengele not her employer, but any claim he had on her in an official capacity (doctor-patient, warden-prisoner) has been retroactively nullified by the international courts that ruled that her very incarceration was illegal and illegitimate as a "crime against humanity."

Besides, wasn't the German government in question effectively dismantled in 1945? Does Germany as it now exists have the right to recall all the army gear and other war "relics" that have been collected all over the world since the war? I don't think so, legally speaking, let alone morally.
posted by bingo at 12:39 AM on March 29, 2002


raysmj: My description of the article as "unconvincing" was only in relation to the claim (by y2karl) that arguments for reparations were made quite well in it. I agree that it was kind of interesting, and even entertaining in places. I'd love to see a video clip of the part where the author says "So you all would work on this for free, right?"
posted by jaek at 12:59 AM on March 29, 2002


But it's not like they all got rooms for the Hilton and a line of credit.

No, just dibs on better jobs--hell, jobs, period--and a chance to buy houses in better neighborhoods among a few other things.

Article aside, the TIMELINE OF REPARATIONS FOR AMERICAN SLAVERY and A LEGISLATIVE AND JUDICIAL HISTORY OF AMERICAN SLAVERY AND ITS AFTERMATH at the end of the article are not a bunch of trial lawyers sitting around talking shop.

I don't sign off on reparations but I do on affirmative action --for the same reason Mr. by-his-bootstraps-totally-against-reparations owillis does--the playing field is not level. Just because de jure segregation is now illegal doesn't mean the magic fairy wand has been waved and all is a-ok. The documentation cited just above is chock full of examples that we have not yet dealt with the aftermath of slavery. The question, the problem of race in this country is a Gordian knot no sword will slice; complex, painful and difficult to face on all sides. Not facing it and pretending it's all over and gone away works in the short term, not in the long... There are no easy glib answers. Excepting comments in MetaFilter, of course.
posted by y2karl at 1:25 AM on March 29, 2002


A full and deep conversation on slavery and its legacy has never taken place in America; reparations litigation will show what slavery meant, how it was profitable and how it has continued to affect the opportunities of millions of black Americans.

From this NYT editorial--you know the drill--by
Charles J. Ogletree Jr.
Harvard Law School and co-chair man of the Reparations Coordinating Committee.
posted by y2karl at 12:46 PM on March 31, 2002


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