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US Congress Tries to Aid Holocaust Survivor Recover Paintings - 2002-01-04


The U.S. Congress is preparing a resolution, asking the president to use his influence to have the Auschwitz museum in Poland return a set of paintings to the woman who painted them. The artist, who now lives in California, has been seeking restitution, without success, for 28 years.

Tom Jagninski tells us about the 78-year-old Holocaust survivor who refuses to give up.

Dina Babbitt was an art student in Brno, Czechoslovakia, when the Nazis took over the government and sent her and several thousand other Czech Jews to the Auschwitz concentration camp. Those prisoners not killed on arrival tried to live as normal a life as possible celebrating holidays in secret, establishing an inmates' symphony and theater company, holding classes for the children in the camp. Using paint smuggled in somehow, Dina Babbitt painted a mural in a children's barrack. Her work caught the attention of Dr. Joseph Mengele, the so-called Angel of Death who performed horrific experiments on prisoners. He commissioned the 21-year-old artist to paint portraits of his victims. In this manner, while so many other Czech Jews perished, Mrs. Babbitt survived, and immigrated to the United States after the war.

In 1973, she was living in California when the Auschwitz museum notified her that her paintings had been found. "Joyfully I went off to Poland, and I told my children, I'm going to bring the painting and show you why we are alive today, and I came back with nothing," she says.

Mrs. Babbitt was furious to learn that the museum simply wanted the paintings identified, and had no intention of giving them up. "All my rights, all my human rights, all my power has been taken away from me, exactly like when I was still an inmate in the camp," she says.

But museum Director Jerzy Wroblewski insists that the paintings must stay where they are. "Everything which was created in Auschwitz ought forever to remain in this place. Nowhere else will these works have the same impact on visitors as when they are seen on the grounds of the former camp. It is here that they shout loudest," he says.

However, Mrs. Babbitt refused to take no for an answer. On her return home she began to drum up support for her cause, giving interviews to newspapers, appearing on television and asking famous people like film director Steven Spielberg to write letters of support. Today, her perseverance is finally paying off. She has gained an important ally Nevada Congresswoman Shelley Berkley, who introduced a Congressional resolution calling for U.S. Government intervention in the case.

Representative Berkley says there are precedents for returning artwork to victims of the Holocaust. "I find it most ironic at a time in our history that thousands of Jews across the world who lost precious items and very expensive art items because the Nazis appropriated their treasures, their art, their family heirlooms… these items are being returned to Jews," she says. "Now why would we be returning art that was confiscated from Jews, but not returning art that was created by Jews? I hope what I am not hearing is that if you were a wealthy Jew and had art treasures then you are entitled to get them back. But if you were a poor Jew in a concentration camp and you created art, that you are not entitled to it."

Representative Berkley's resolution has prompted museum director Jerzy Wroblewski to appeal to everyone involved to abandon their campaign, saying it could lead to the dismantling of the museum. "The museum collection contains a very large quantity of documents, works of art and handicraft whose creators were prisoners of the camp," she says. "One dare not think what would happen with this collection if they or their descendants demanded the return of the objects created by them."

However, observers consider it unlikely that Congress will be swayed by Mr. Wroblewski's appeal. Already adopted by the House of Representatives, the resolution is before the Senate, and is expected to pass easily and be sent to the president. Dina Babbitt says she hopes that the moral weight of such an august body as Congress, with perhaps some help from Mr. Bush, will convince the Auschwitz museum of the justness of her cause.

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