Jacob van Tilburg loses his head

Bart Luirink

A bronze bust depicting Dutch Nazi collaborator Jacob van Tilburg has been consigned to oblivion in the basement of the University of Pretoria (UP), but controversy is still raging about his art collection on display on the campus.

The collection was in all likelihood stolen from Dutch Jews deported from Holland during World War II. The Dutch Jewish community has demanded that the art be returned, but resolution of this problem has been held up by a flurry of consultations.

Many parties were involved: the South African Jewish Board of Deputies; Deputy Minister of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology Brigitte Mbandla; the board of UP; the South African ambassador to the Netherlands, Carl Niehaus; the Dutch embassy in Pretoria; Dutch Rabbi Awraham Soetendorp; and the former minister of culture in the Netherlands, Aad Nuis. The end result: Van Tilburg lost his head in the most literal sense, but the exhibition remains.

Returning the collection to the Jewish community does not appear to be an option, even though Soetendorp has been suggesting this since 1977. UP has agreed to institute a limited inquiry into the origins of the collection to be carried out by its faculty of history. The university has also promised to circulate a pamphlet explaining the dubious origins of the collection.

UP has also promised to pass copies of all documentation on the collection to the international Lauder commission, which investigates lost or missing Jewish property taken during World War II. UP is adamant that it will only consider returning specific pieces of art to its former owners or their heirs if they can produce documentary evidence of ownership. This is not very likely 53 years after the war.

Jewish Board of Deputies president Marlene Bethlehem confesses to be pleased with the agreement reached with UP. She points to UP’s “constructive attitude” and the “cordial atmosphere” in which the deliberations took place.

The collection will stay where it is with the blessing of the board of deputies, and Bethlehem believes the most important goal has been achieved: UP has admitted doubts about the collection’s origins. And best of all, she claims, Soetendorp was over the moon about the agreement.

That is being economical with the truth. Soetendorp’s contact with the board of deputies was limited to one telephone conversation. “I pointed out to them that there was no point in limiting the return of items on the basis of proof of ownership. There are very few survivors left. But more importantly, there is a body of evidence to show that Van Tilburg had stolen much of this collection, and bought the rest with money stolen from Jewish refugees,” says Soetendorp.

Soetendorp said Niehaus was shocked when he was told that the collection had been on show at UP since 1996. The rabbi said Niehaus appeared to favour the return of the collection to the Jewish community. But Niehaus denies this: “It is my job to represent the point of view of the South African government, which concurs with the agreement reached between the Jewish Board of Deputies and UP.”

He introduced Soetendorp to Mbandla while she was on an official visit to the Netherlands last July. “We ... spoke about the matter for at least one- and-a-half hours. She expressed empathy with my point of view,” says Soetendorp.

Mbandla’s representative, Pierre Botes, says she is not prepared to comment because of the “highly sensitive” nature of the issue. He adds that the ministry was under the impression that an amicable solution had been found. While South African stakeholders showed “admirable flexibility” in finding this solution, it is “this Dutch rabbi” who keeps causing problems, says Botes.

But Soetendorp is not prepared to accept this convolution in which justice becomes subordinate to the desire for putting a brave face on things. For many decades the Jewish community felt threatened by anti-Semitism at UP, he said. Having UP show a willingness to negotiate was probably interpreted as a sign of the longed-for recognition of equality.

Soetendorp said UP should not display the collection on moral grounds. His plan is to revive talks with the Dutch minister of culture to persuade the Dutch government to ask for the return of the collection to the Jewish community.

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