Legendary actress Helen Mirren on Tuesday lent star power to a bipartisan fight to recover artwork stolen by the Nazis.
“When the Jewish people were dispossessed of their art, they lost some of their heritage,” Mirren said at a Senate hearing. “Memories were taken along with the art, and to have no memories is like having no family, and that is why art restitution is so imperative.”
The effort to recover art, jewelry and other property large and small that was confiscated by the Nazis has brought together a cast from Sens. Charles E. Schumer and Ted Cruz to Dame Mirren.
A bill to make it easier to make claims on items looted by the Nazis was introduced by Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas in April. The bill would establish a new six-year statute of limitations for people seeking recovery of artwork stolen decades ago.
Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a supporter of the legislation, said the measure would merely “unlock the court house door” to allow old cases to be brought.
Mirren played Maria Altmann in the 2015 film Woman in Gold about the Jewish refugee’s efforts to recover family-owned artwork from the Austrian government.
“Portraying Maria Altmann opened my eyes to mankind’s capacity for indifference, ” Mirren said. “It turned my attention to and fueled a personal resolve to do my part to try to open the eyes of others and help make people aware of the sad fact that — more than 70 years later — victims of the Holocaust and their families are still contemplating whether to seek restitution for what was stolen from them and lost under the most horrible of circumstances.”
At the hearing Tuesday, Cruz noted the timing of the hearing, falling the day after the 72nd anniversary of the D-Day invasion of Normandy. The Texas senator also recalled that the Allied forces uncovered the unspeakable horrors of the Nazi death camps.
“They also discovered, hidden away in churches and underground mines, countless works of art and other valuable cultural property that the Nazis had taken from their victims,” Cruz said. “These stolen treasures were not simply the spoils of war; they were the fruits of a policy that stretched back well before the war to 1933 when Hitler and the Nazi Party took power.”
Blumenthal, the ranking Democrat at the joint Judiciary subcommittee hearing, said it was important that Congress “speaks on behalf of justice.”
“The destruction and looting and theft of this art was more than pilfering of property, it was an act of inhumanity,” the Connecticut senator said.
Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley of Iowa said he was prepared to put the artwork recovery legislation on the committee agenda when the bipartisan group of sponsors says it is ready.
Ronald Lauder of the World Jewish Restitution Organization also testified at the hearing.
“What makes this particular crime even more despicable is that this art theft, probably the greatest in history, was continued by governments, museums and many knowing collectors in the decades following the war,” Lauder said. “This was the dirty secret of the post-war art world, and people who should have known better, were part of it.”