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Israeli college tries to mend fences with Auschwitz over 'stolen' artifacts

A view of Rotem Bides' art installation at Beit Berl, Israel on July 25, 2017
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Auschwitz museum opens investigation into Israeli art student accused of stealing artifacts

It is, perhaps, the most controversial art exhibition now on show in Israel.

Walking into the room where 27-year-old Rotem Bides’ Holocaust-themed installation is currently on display, it's easy to see why her work has generated headlines all over the world.

For six years, Bides – the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors – visited the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in Poland and collected samples for her final project at Beit Berl College, located near the central Israeli city of Kfar Saba.

A detailed description of each object and where it was found hangs near the installation itself, featuring an eclectic array of items: shards of glass, a vial of the artist’s own blood, a metal bolt, spoons, earth in a jar. And, perhaps most ironically, a sign expressly forbidding the removal of any objects from the grounds of the museum.

Theft from the Auschwitz memorial is considered a serious legal offense, carrying with it hefty fines and even jail time.

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This week Beit Berl College organized a press tour of all 31 student exhibits that just opened to the public, an annual rite of passage for one of Israel’s most prestigious art schools.

Leading art professionals, media representatives and academic personnel toured the college grounds and visited the exhibits of Israel’s budding young artists, including Bides.

But Bides – possibly literally – stole the show. Her story first emerged following an article in the Israeli news site Ynet, in which the artist confessed to having taken the items from the camp without the museum’s permission.

“I felt it was something I had to do,”she told the news site. “Millions of people were murdered based on the moral laws of a certain country, under a certain regime. And if these are the laws, I can go there and act according to my own laws. The statement I'm making here is that laws are determined by humans, and that morality is something that changes from time to time and from culture to culture.”

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- A disciplinary hearing -

Following this, and the ensuing furor sparked by word getting out that Auschwitz artifacts had been used in an Israeli student’s art exhibit, the college summoned Bides for a disciplinary hearing.

A decision had to be made on whether to move forward with her installation or take it down completely.

During the hearing, the artist walked back some of the statements she had made to the media earlier.

“Rotem made a formal declaration that she did not steal from Auschwitz or take things from within the camp grounds,” Dr. Gabriel Klasmer, dean of the Art Faculty at Beit Berl, told i24NEWS.

“The last thing an art school wants to do is censor a work, because if we do we end up shooting ourselves in the foot,” he said.

Part of the understanding the college and Bides reached was in the form of a sworn declaration, now hanging outside the exhibition space.

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“I, Rotem Bides, declare that the objects displayed in my graduate exhibition were collected outside the grounds of Auschwitz-Birkenau, and not from within the museum or the extermination camp,” the student writes in the disclaimer.

“I was interviewed by the press as part of public relations efforts connected to the show, however my words and the things I said were taken out of context, and from this there was a misunderstanding and the meaning of my work was distorted. For this, I am sorry.”

When asked why he thought the story had blown up in the international media, Klasmer was guarded.

“I think people are wondering how this Israeli student has the nerve to poke her finger in the eye of Holocaust remembrance,” he noted. “This is the power of art: to raise questions for which we are unprepared and to push the limits.”

During the press tour earlier this week, Bides stood outside her exhibition, looking dejected. She refused to comment on the show or answer any questions posed by the media present.

“She really feels like she’s being attacked,” Klasmer explained. “I don’t think she expected that this [level of media exposure] would happen.”

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- Mending fences? -

Though Beit Berl has taken Bides at her word when she declared that she had not taken anything from within the camp, it is still attempting to mend fences with the Auschwitz Museum.

Professor Tamar Ariav, President at Beit Berl, says the college sent formal letters to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial, the Israeli ambassador to Poland, as well as the Polish ambassador to Israel, defending the decision to move forward with the exhibition.

“I really hope that we’ll receive a response to the letter soon,” Ariav told i24NEWS. “We have a very good relationship with the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial. Each year, we send a delegation of both students and faculty members there.”

“The fact that Ms. Bides found these objects in the area of the camp, but did not take them from within the national site – from which it is forbidden to take anything – meant that this installation from the college’s standpoint was acceptable,” she clarified.

But even if all the objects were found outside the camp grounds, was it reasonable or ethical to take them?

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The story also raises several other ethical questions surrounding art and the Holocaust: What is an artist allowed to do and not to do? Who owns the memory of the Holocaust? How are we permitted to memorialize one of the most difficult periods of Jewish history?

There have been several other cases of theft linked to the infamous Nazi death camp, most notably in 2009, when a Swedish Neo-Nazi stole the iconic “Arbeit Macht Frei” (in English: “Work sets you free”) sign above the gate of the camp.

Following that highly publicized event, the Auschwitz Museum decided to place the original sign in storage for safekeeping. The one visitors now see as they enter the camp is a replica.

- Legal troubles on the horizon -

However, the college’s letters and attempts to reconcile with the memorial may be too little, too late.

In a new statement to i24NEWS, the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum said they would continue to pursue an investigation into the matter.

“If the robbery took place it happened from the area of the Museum,” Bartosz Bartyzel, a spokesman for the museum, said.

“We have reported the case to the [Polish] prosecutor’s office until clarification. We are at their disposal and we are looking forward to their results. ”

Though the museum might not be able to prove with absolute certainty where each object was found, they are convinced the sign prohibiting theft was taken from the grounds of the camp.

“One [thing] can be said for certain,” Bartyzel added. “This case and using the symbolism of Auschwitz for [the purposes of] self-promotion is outrageous.”

Maya Margit is a culture correspondent at i24NEWS. You can follow her on Twitter @mayamargit for the latest updates on the art scene in Israel.

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