Yevgeny Khaldei / Corbis

Growing up with war loot

The lasting legacy of wartime 'souvenirs'

April 12, 2014 4:00AM ET

I grew up with war loot. There were no Caravaggios, van Goghs or Mondrians on the walls of my family's apartment in Lviv, Ukraine. Instead, there were little things — silverware or knickknacks — that my grandfather, then a 21-year-old Soviet Army lieutenant, brought home from Germany in June 1945.

George Clooney's star-studded latest film, “The Monuments Men,” and the Munich collector Cornelius Gurlitt’s recently discovered stashes of more than 1,280 artworks with questionable provenance lend the notion of looted art an aura of glitter and gloom. New claimants step forward daily to unravel further stories of Nazi decadence related to the expropriation of the works' original Jewish owners. But we have yet to start talking about the much more pervasive war loot: the onetime enemy's traces that clutter thousands of ordinary families' sideboards, with no prospect of ever finding their way onto legal caseworkers' desks and little glitter to speak of.

We can begin to imagine the range of such "souvenirs" in existence, and how far they have since spread, by recalling that by the summer of 1945 some 270,000 Red Army servicemen were stationed in Germany, not to mention the hundreds of thousands who had departed soon after V-E Day. Despite the occupation authorities' warnings against barakhol'stvo (materialism), my grandfather and his peers laid hands on personal and household items in the Germans' abodes. Entering even the most modest apartments, they were shocked at the relative affluence that had apparently done nothing to prevent the German Blitzkrieg against the have-nots in the East. And so, to the victor went the spoils (or "trophies," as they were called): Such was the unwritten and often violent order of the day. To quote from Alexander Solzhenitsyn's 1950 poem “Prussian Nights,” “vacuum cleaners, wine and candles,/Skirts and picture frames and pipes,/Brooches, medallions, blouses, buckles” made their way into the U.S.S.R. They seemed like small compensation for murdered relatives and fallen friends. Even the carefully staged icon of victory — Yevgeny Khaldei’s photograph of the soldier raising a red flag over Berlin’s Reichstag on May 2 — had to be retouched; on the man’s arm, there were more watches than the hour would have occasioned.

Quaint anecdotes

Quaint anecdotes about war loot and its provenance have been passed down from one generation to another in families like mine. One of ours concerns a gigantic hunk of soap that my grandfather captured somewhere in East Prussia in February 1945 and dispatched to his mother in bombed-out Kiev. She grated it right upon receipt, only to be sorely disappointed when her dream of finding valuables went pop like a bubble.

Once demobilized, her otherwise impractical son honored her expectations, returning with an 18-karat gold Swiss watch of the Lunesa brand. His other "trophies," in contrast, were a far cry from the glittering tokens of victory. There was a simple serving platter with heat-transfer floral décor — no gilding or hand paint. Next to it sat a pair of silver-plated serving tongs and a corroded cake spatula, its serrated edge bristling at the table guests on special occasions. They didn't seem to mind then — and neither do they now.

In considering these objects more closely, we will find it difficult to identify with their turbulent pasts and impossible to simply erase their bloody, violent legacies.

Anya von Bremzen, an award-winning food writer and quick-witted purveyor of Soviet memories on U.S. soil, reported similar nonchalance in a recent phone conversation. Her grandfather, a senior Soviet intelligence officer called upon to question Hermann Goering at the Nuremberg trials, commended himself for returning with few "trophies." His restraint contrasted with his peers' concupiscence, motivated, von Bremzen believes, by three main factors: poverty; accumulation of objects in response to war trauma; and hoarding as an overall "constant condition" in the Soviet Union, where "nothing was disposable." Particularly memorable was a small jewelry chest, where von Bremzen's grandmother would keep her husband's letters and notes. Yet such incongruous intimacy did not strike anyone as particularly odd.

But odd it was. At times it was outright creepy, as in the case of the slim notebooks in which my graphomaniac grandfather (a journalist-to-be) used to write down his poems and war diary entries. On the first page, the former German owner's writing stuck out like a sore thumb, neither erased nor torn out. In my mind, the handwritten evidence of the books' provenance epitomized all things uncanny, with hints at the war's multiple horrors. They lay in wait, in the depth of a drawer chest, for my curious but very uneasy younger self. This unease only increased as the diary, along with some other "trophies," was effectively repatriated to Germany, where my parents moved in the late 1990s. 

Overdue challenge

Some 70 years after the end of the Second World War, the time is ripe to revisit how we regard these objects. In considering them more closely, we will find it difficult to identify with their turbulent pasts and impossible to simply erase their bloody, violent legacies in order to project our current hopes and fears. Their meaning is in generating unquiet: responsibility rather than happiness, reflection rather than love, and war-wariness rather than political idealism. And we could certainly use more of the latter these days, as the media rotate a kaleidoscope of war memories and fears — from World War I to Russia's imperial ambitions in Ukraine — in front of us.

Except that now, this overdue challenge is up against yet another obstacle: the newly popular view that art and material culture are there to make us feel better. In the mind of the British critic Alain de Botton, the main champion of this approach, ours is the age of "art as therapy." By aligning the objects with "our deeper selves," he proposes, we can remedy our "fury, depression and despair" in no time. To this end, de Botton reinvents captioning. Artworks, his captions are out to prove, are not some arcane historical messages but reflections of our present emotions. We are not alone with our problems and desires. Stuck in a rut of a long-term relationship? A look at a Renaissance painting of a young love will be your best refresher. Exhausted from the daily grind? Check out a Dutch genre scene — drudgery is the stuff of ages. Solutions are as easy as a Hungry-Man dinner.

But looking for quick fixes is the wrong approach. Often enough, the quest for feeling better comes with its own side effects: complacency, amnesia and selective engagement with reality. Difficult objects, which resist being assimilated into our comfort zones, can do a lot more for us. Instead of whisking away our problems and offering easy closure, they keep us on our toes.

So instead of shrugging off the discomfort, we should cultivate it. For I am not alone in sharing my space with such objects — and neither is World War II their only source. Unease has considerable potential. In the age when drones and nuclear missiles make armed conflict deceptively disembodied and distant, war loot — Soviet or any other — reminds us of the war's visceral physicality. Following the recent comeback of 19th-century-style geopolitics, its accessories — the spoils of face-to-face combat, plunder and rape — should make us think about the big implications of little things.

Yuliya Komska is an assistant professor of German studies at Dartmouth College. She writes about transatlantic culture and media during the Cold War. This year she is a public voices fellow with the OpEd Project.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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