The Nazi origins of Tuks's pride and joy
The University of Pretoria’s celebrated Van Tilburg collection may have been stolen from Dutch Jews, writes Bart Luirink
In 1951 Jacob van Tilburg, a Dutch art collector, managed to transfer 91 cases with valuable art pieces to South Africa - a remarkable effort for somebody who, three years earlier, had been sentenced for collaboration with the Nazis and who later found himself in trouble with the Dutch tax authorities.
There was a strong suspicion that this wartime alderman’s collection had in part been stolen from Jews sent to concentration camps. Today the collection is the pride and joy of the University of Pretoria (UP or Tuks), exhibited in two halls named after Van Tilburg, complete with bronze bust.
But Dutch Rabbi Awraham Soetendorp demands that the investigation into Van Tilburg’s alleged Nazi ties be re-opened.
It was a rather funny and inexplicable coincidence that drew my attention to the so-called Van Tilburg collection.
In a file concerning the South African information scandal in the Seventies, which is in the possession of the Dutch Institute on Southern Africa, I found two newspaper clippings from 1977. They deal with an art collection that had been donated by Van Tilburg to UP.
From the articles I learned that Van Tilburg was a member of the municipal council of Dordrecht, a small town in the Netherlands, from 1927 until 1945, the end of World War II.
The clippings mention that he had been accused of having stolen part of the collection from 30 to 40 Jewish families shortly after they were deported or sought refuge.
A former Dutch resistance fighter and a member of the tribunal that prosecuted Van Tilburg, Piet Kooiman, recalls that it was impossible to prove that the art collector was also guilty of theft: “He defended himself by saying that he didn’t have enough time to give things back after the war because he was arrested shortly after.”
Another witness, a Ms Bienstock, the widow of Wolf Bienstock, living in Israel by 1977, remembers how her brother-in-law had taken some very expensive Persian carpets to Van Tilburg during the war: “But in 1945 [Van Tilburg] told my husband that he had sold them because he was scared to have too many Jewish goods in his house. With the money he bought shares that were taken from him by the German occupiers.”
The Bienstocks did not believe Van Tilburg’s story, but they didn’t pursue the case because they could not prove anything.
It was impossible to see any connection between this affair and the information scandal. And no one seemed to be able to tell me how this case had been wound up.
On the 18th floor of the administration building at UP, Professor Kobus Ferreira seems to be a bit nervous. “Are you aware that this is a very sensitive case?” he asks.
But, of course, he is prepared to co-operate, as long as the curator of the collection, Valerie Esterhuizen, agrees. In a phone-call he emphasises twice that she is responsible if the university’s image is damaged by negative publicity. Esterhuizen does not see a problem and Ferreira promises to get the files.
But he needs some time. So there is an opportunity to see the collection, although it is only a selection.
Not all 80 17th-century and 18th-century pieces of furniture, 9 000 etches, paintings and drawings by “17th-century to early 20th-century masters” (such as Rubens, Vermeer and Wouwerman), 38 Eastern carpets, 3 000 pieces of Delft Blue and, according to the brochure, “one of the most complete collections of Eastern ceramics” (from Japan and Korea, and from the Chinese Han dynasty, 206 to 220 AD, until the Qing dynasty that ended in 1912) fit into the upper-floor halls of the Ou Letteregebou at the campus.
Esterhuizen is seemingly proud of the collection she has now been looking after for four years, surrounded by silence. There does not seem to be much public interest in the collection.
Esterhuizen is not prepared to reveal the value, because UP rector Johan van Zyl forbade her to do so. “But it is considerable,” she says, “and the lower the value of the rand, the more profitable it is for us.”
She knows about accusations that arose at the time of the transfer, but she was not curator at that time, therefore she cannot talk about it.
She refers me to Professor Alexander Duffey of the arts department, who was involved in the original transaction.
The files that Ferreira shows me later are quite disappointing. They are purely administrative: endless minutes of meetings about transport, insurance and security that took place between 1977 - when Van Tilburg agreed to donate the collection to UP - and 1980 - when he died.
There’s nothing about the accusations. The available documents are all numbered and it is clear that quite a few of them are missing. Supposedly Ferreira left the final decision on which documents I could study to Esterhuizen.
After a week she forwards another set of copies, more revealing, and together with the documents gathered from the Amsterdam-based National Institute on War Documentation (RIOD) and the South African Jewish Board of Trustees, it is possible to reconstruct the following story.
Van Tilburg emigrated to South Africa in 1951, after being imprisoned for four months for “collaboration with the Nazis”, since he agreed to continue as an alderman of Dordrecht during the German occupation.
Conflicts with the tax authorities in the early Fifties made him decide to leave the country. In a two- page profile he produced for UP, he states that he was arrested twice by the Nazis, thus suggesting that he was part of the anti-fascist resistance.
Actually, Van Tilburg was once arrested during wartime for illegal share trading, but according to an underground informer in the Sicherheitsdienst (security service), Harry Evers, he was released immediately after an intervention by Nazi chief Hanns Rauter, who instructed his subordinates not to bother Van Tilburg any more.
Other than the Dutch customs authorities, who did not hassle Van Tilburg when he left the country, though he owed the tax authorities quite a lot of money, South African customs were extremely suspicious when the art collector arrived in Durban in 1951.
They could not believe that the 91 cases he brought with him contained only household goods.
It took Van Tilburg a seven-year procedure, which he finally won with the help of a South African professor, who stated that the Dutchman was an art collector.
The Afrikaans newspaper, Die Burger, cheered him as a man “that was arrested three times by the Nazis and emigrated to South Africa out of fear of communism”.
The fact that Van Tilburg managed to befriend high-ranking apartheid servants, like former prime minister John Vorster, might have been of some help as well.
In 1977 UP Professor Van Nilant approached the then 88-year-old Van Tilburg with a request to donate his impressive collection to his university. Van Tilburg agreed to do so when he died.
This agreement, when it became known, led to the first accusations in the Dutch press.
One JC van Hattem stated that he had once heard from a Dordrecht prosecutor by the name of Krner that Van Tilburg had encouraged the Nazis to arrest him and to force him to hand over Jewish jewellery given to him for safekeeping by deported Jews.
A Nathan Engelbrecht, according to newspaper reports, testified before witnesses in the Sobibor concentration camp that he had been betrayed by Van Tilburg when he was on the run from the Nazis.
Underground informer Harry Evers stated that Van Tilburg came and went freely at the Sicherheitsdienst headquarters in Rotterdam.
Rabbi Soetendorp refers in interviews in 1977 to “reliable sources that prefer to keep quiet, because they feel it is too difficult to talk about it”.
And there are more accusations: besides those of the above- mentioned Bienstock family, there are those of Peretz Wang, a timber merchant who worked with Van Tilburg for 20 years before the war; of Henk van Es who was part of the Dutch resistance in Van Tilburg’s home town; and of Cornelis Pijl, head of the political investigations committee who raided the art collector’s home shortly after liberation.
Most of these statements are subjective impressions and hearsay. But not the accusations of Stiel Schmeelewitz, who claims in a letter to Dordrecht mayor T Bleeker in June 1945 that her late husband had hidden 12 000 guilders at Van Tilburg’s.
In the same letter she refers to two other Jewish families, who “saved” 45 000 guilders by hiding it at Van Tilburg’s home.
When Schmeelewitz claimed the money back in 1943, Van Tilburg slammed the door in her face.
It is a mystery why this letter, of which a copy has now been produced by the RIOD, did not seem to have played a role in the proceedings of the tribunal that looked into the accusations against Van Tilburg in 1948.
The tribunal concluded that it was impossible to prove theft.
And so concluded the Dutch minister of justice, Andries van Agt, in 1977, based on a new preliminary investigation by public prosecutor Wim van der Feltz, which he had ordered because of public pressure.
He saw no reason to re-open an investigation, to consider claiming back the collection and to instigate the extradition procedures against Van Tilburg that Soetendorp was asking for. UP’s position in the whole matter was clear and consistent both in 1977 and in 1980 when, with the final transfer, the affair became public again.
As long as there was no proof that any of the pieces in the collection were stolen, the university was not prepared to consider giving them back to the Jewish community in the Netherlands.
But from “strictly confidential” meetings of the so-called boukomitee (building committee), one gets the impression that the nine members were quite nervous. They discussed the matter over and over again.
One of the minutes describes how then rector Eddie Hamman responded to the cultural attach of the Dutch embassy. He reminded him of the fact that a Dr CL de Bruyn, a member of the university council, had asked one of the attach’s assistants whether it was kosher to accept the collection as early as January 1977.
The minutes read: “Hy het die versekering gekry dat daar nie besware bestaan nie [he was given the assurance that there were no objections],” an assurance given four months before the Dutch government more or less cleared the operation.
The UP establishment was kept thoroughly informed about all the negative publicity in the Dutch media. They had decided not to respond, to weather the storm. It was all a smear campaign, and most probably, they thought, there was a “hidden agenda”.
In 1977 it was only a few months before the elections in the Netherlands and, without any grounds, the UP committee felt that the “campaign” had been started by those who wanted to encourage anti-apartheid sentiments for electoral purposes.
When the South African ambassador in the Netherlands later informed the university, via the Department of Foreign Affairs, that “quite a few people in the Netherlands feel that we in South Africa are anti-Jew and pro-Nazi” the members of the boukomitee were annoyed.
Where did this impression come from, for God’s sake? Well, maybe from a party that took place at Maroela, a UP men’s residence, in November 1980.
It was organised by the students. The waiters walked around in the uniforms of the Hitler Jugend. Banners with swastikas were put on the walls. And many Sieg Heils were sounded.
Then vice-rector Danie Joubert was the guest of honour. When the event reached the newspapers, Hamman stated that he regretted the incident but that “at no time was it the intention to offend Jews or hail Nazism”.
Van Tilburg had died a month before. The collection had already been transported to the faculty of opvoedkunde en regsgeleerdheid (education and law) and stored in the building’s basement for 13 years, until the storm was over.
The theft of Jewish possessions - who was ever going to worry about that again? In 1993 the Van Tilburg collection was officially opened.
“For me, Van Tilburg was an astute businessman. He looked at art as trade. But he was genial as well, and full of self- deprecation,” says arts professor Duffey.
Between 1977 and 1980 he was closely involved in the operation. After Van Tilburg had agreed, Duffey visited him every week to make an inventory of the collection.
“He said that he had been treated badly by both sides during the war, that he had stayed in his position as an alderman because the allied forces had asked him to do so.
“He kept repeating how he had been arrested by the Nazis and why. He said that he had helped people to get out of the country in exchange for jewellery,” Duffey remembers.
He denied over and over again that he ever stole anything. “Ek sweer met my hand op die Bybel [I swear with my hand on the Bible]!” he’d then scream.
One day Duffey saw an antique case full of invoices. “I had the impression that he had bought many of the pieces.” But the Van Tilburg family’s lawyers informed Duffey that the contents of the case had been destroyed shortly after Van Tilburg died, at the family’s insistence.
Van Tilburg’s three daughters had inherited a small part of the collection, which they had auctioned immediately. When asked if it were possible that the stolen goods were got rid of in this way, Duffey does not want to respond. He has never heard of a letter by one of Van Tilburg’s relatives in the Netherlands, sent to one of his daughters, that the “whole affair is one stinking sewer”.
“But I have got another story that will surprise you,” Duffey suddenly says, smiling.
“It is not true that everybody at UP blatantly refused to give the collection back to the Jewish community. Professor Hamman actually wanted to. I have understood that a member of the South African government, former minister of finance Owen Horwood, put some pressure on him to do so. He explained to Hamman that the government was negotiating new arms deals with Israel and an exchange of expertise. This Van Tilburg thing created a problem. To pacify the Israelis, he felt that UP should agree to Soetendorp’s demand. Hamman was prepared to do so.”
What made the university eventually decide otherwise? Duffey: “Well, of course Professor Nilant was very much against it. He cherished the collection as his own little baby.”
Horwood denies any involvement in the operation, but Nilant confirms from Trigg, Australia, that Hamman had seriously considered giving the collection back to the Jewish community.
According to Duffey, it was all vanity. The university convinced Van Tilburg to donate his collection since he had no male descendants. With the donation to UP his name would live on forever.
But documents at UP suggest that the art collector had also been pressured by the university, since there was a chance that the South African tax authorities would confiscate the collection after his death.
Soetendorp had no success in the Netherlands: “I could not get any support from the Dutch authorities and more and more I developed a feeling that I was fighting a phantom, acting as a Don Quixote. To be fair, even within the Jewish community lots of people preferred to remain silent,” he says.
What about this anonymous source he seemed to rely on in 1977? Soetendorp: “I had received a phone-call from the neighbour of a Jewish family who fled during the war. At the Belgium border they were already arrested. Betrayed. The next day Van Tilburg came and emptied their house.
“The woman witnessed everything. So finally we had a dependable witness who gave us all the gruesome details. She was prepared to make an official deposition.
“I immediately phoned the attorney general, Paul Brilman, who responded enthusiastically. `At last we have a handle on this case,’ he said.
“But after two days the woman phoned me. The nightmares had come back, she said. She had spoken about it with her children. They strongly advised her against pursuing the matter. I tried to reason with her but she would not listen.”
Soetendorp sighs after recalling this incident. He is shocked when he hears that the collection is now on public display.
“I realise most witnesses have since passed away. However, I do think that the Dutch government should take another look at this case as part of its drive to investigate the theft of Jewish property during the war. It would be extremely sad if the whole affair ends with a regular exposition and a bronze bust in Pretoria.”