DAVID GREENE, HOST:
The Nazi plunder of Jewish-owned artwork in Europe during World War II is well-known. But the Nazis also looted thousands of musical instruments from Jews. A conference of researchers in Paris discussed this looting. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley was there, and she sent this report.
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: In the spring of 1945, with Paris liberated but the war in Europe not yet over, French officials announced that hundreds of stolen pianos would be exhibited in three warehouses. French archivist Caroline Piketty says those who'd lost an instrument were invited to write letters to make an appointment.
CAROLINE PIKETTY: (Through interpreter) I was astounded to find there were pianos in so many Jewish homes - even the most modest ones, the tailors and corset-makers. These families were not well-off, but they had a taste for music.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BEARDSLEY: Families before the war played the classics, says Piketty - Chopin, Mozart and popular tunes of the day.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BEARDSLEY: Musician and historian Willem de Vries has written what's considered the defining work on the Nazi pillaging of musical life in Western Europe. He says, around 1935, the Nazis started documenting European Jews holdings in art, literature and music.
WILLEM DE VRIES: So when Germany invaded France in May 1940, there were already commandos ready to seize and steal all the cultural things of Jews in France.
BEARDSLEY: They emptied the apartments of prominent musicians who had fled. The next wave of plundering came with the deportation of ordinary Jews beginning in 1942.
DE VRIES: It was really a very sophisticated organization. The Jews were, of course, sent to the concentration camps, and their possessions were catalogued and inventoried and systematically sent to mainly German people who had suffered from the allied bombings.
BEARDSLEY: Both de Vries and Piketty were at the Paris gathering of scholars. So was Carla Shapreau, who teaches law and European studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Shapreau says there are families still looking for their instruments, but the work is difficult because the documentation is so scattered.
CARLA SHAPREAU: Every nation has records. There's many, many different bodies of records. And without looking at all of those and seeing their interconnections, you're not necessarily going to be able to put the pieces together.
BEARDSLEY: Shapreau's work helped 72-year-old Parisian Daniele Enoch-Maillard fill in some of the blanks in her family's past. Her father fled Paris when the Nazis arrived, hiding out the war in an alpine village. But her grandparents, who owned a music publishing business, stayed. They were deported to Auschwitz in 1943, where they were murdered. Their apartment was emptied.
DANIELE ENOCH-MAILLARD: The paintings and the books, everything, even the bed and the blankets, all the furniture was stolen. My father had nothing when he came back.
BEARDSLEY: Enoch-Maillard never knew exactly what was lost, but a year and a half ago, she was contacted by Shapreau with a full inventory. It included a piano.
ENOCH-MAILLARD: It was a very, very good piano from Erard, and she found everything. She found everything.
BEARDSLEY: Most importantly, the letters and documents showing how hard a non-Jewish family friend had fought to keep her grandparents' music publishing business from being sold.
ENOCH-MAILLARD: It was really fantastic.
BEARDSLEY: Today, she runs the family business. But she's one of the lucky ones. Swiss violin-maker Mark Wilhelm says it's difficult to trace instruments that have been sold and resold, and he thinks a lot of looted instruments went through his country.
MARK WILHELM: We can see that prewar, there were fewer good instruments. And after the war, there have been a lot of good instruments in Switzerland, and we have been quite sort of a hub for instruments in Switzerland, as it was for looted art as well.
BEARDSLEY: Musical instruments were often among a family's most valued possessions, says Pascale Bernheim. She heads an association that researches Nazi-pillaged instruments and organized the Paris meeting.
PASCALE BERNHEIM: When someone has to leave his home in a rush, he takes with him his most precious belongings, and the violin is quite often considered as a very special belonging. And then either you keep it with you as long as you can, or you sell it because you need cash desperately, or you give it to someone you trust to store it. And then the question is, what happens to this instrument if you're not there to claim it back?
BEARDSLEY: And that's what struck archivist Caroline Piketty, who says going through the correspondence of those searching for their pianos was heartbreaking.
PIKETTY: (Through interpreter) These letters were almost all written as the deportees were coming home, so people were wondering if their loved ones, who'd been gone two, three and four years, would return. There was also big hope of finding an instrument that was the center of happy family memories before the war.
BEARDSLEY: Piketty mentions one letter in particular from a woman who wrote that she must get her husband's piano back because she can't imagine him coming home and not being able to play it. In the end, she did find his piano, but her husband never returned.
Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.
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