11/21/2013 11:07 am ET Updated Jan 25, 2014

The Triumph of Art and the Triumph of Souls

Authorities in Germany have found a huge cache of artwork that was originally plundered by the Nazis. These paintings, with their enduring beauty, have survived. It's an inspiring story, similar to the Jewish people. Just as these masterful works of art have emerged from unknown places, so too the stories of our ancestors continue to emerge from out of the darkness. It's a story of a tenacious victory over the Nazis and their attempts to steal the art and then in spite to hide this art from the public. In essence, the very fact that these unfairly gained (indeed, stolen) works are now out in the public consciousness means that their power to elucidate beauty and meaning have been restored to all.

Who knows whether these pictures were preserved out of greed or fear or love? What matters in the long run is only that they made it. Artists tend to produce art as a vain bulwark against time, a gamble on posterity; and for many of the artists whom Hitler loathed, art was an explicit attempt to prevent him from getting the last word.

The story began as a customs investigation in 2010 that led to a raid of the Munich apartment of 76-year-old Cornelius Gurlitt on February 28, 2012, which uncovered 1,405 art treasures that Gurlitt's father Hildebrand, a noted art dealer who dealt with the Nazis, had eventually possessed. Many of the works seized came from Jewish owners, and include art from the 16th century to the 20th, from works by traditional masters as well as at least one previously unknown Chagall masterpiece.

It is estimated that the Nazis seized 700,000 artworks from Jews. Hermann Goering was especially active in accumulating the stolen items. However, what makes this recent finding significant is that many of these works represented what the Nazis termed "degenerate art" (Entartete Kunst), which comprised not only anything by a Jewish artist but also virtually anything that was non-representational, such as Cubism, Dada, Surrealism and even Impressionism. Picasso, Chagall and Otto Dix (who had served as a soldier in the German army in World War I, and still was ostracized) are several of these artists whose works were in the hoard.

The history of these works is extraordinary. In July 1937, Hitler inaugurated the House of German Art (Haus der deutschen Kunst), while on the next day in a nearby space the Entartete Kunst exhibit was launched in a deliberately haphazard manner, with nearly 600 works crowded on walls and hung irregularly with wire or even burlap, and with derogatory statements on the wall to hammer home the approved message that this was the art of inferior peoples. Interestingly, only a handful of the more than 100 artists whose works were condemned were Jewish, and ironically the painter who had the most condemned works in the exhibit was Emil Nolde, an ardent Nazi.

Unexpectedly, the Entartete Kunst exhibit proved to be more popular than the Nazis had expected, traveling to 12 other cities and viewed by millions of people by 1941, many times more than ventured to see the approved German art in Munich. Similarly, a room devoted to denouncing the Jewish composer Kurt Weill and his Threepenny Opera (Die Dreigroschenoper) in the 1938 "Degenerate Music" (Entartete Musik) exhibit in Düsseldorf had to be closed because so many people crowded in every day to listen to the music.

History has vindicated this judgment. The Nazi aesthetic ideal consisted of horrid caricatures of classical art. Instead of the symmetry of the columns of the Parthenon or the dome of the Pantheon, Hitler demanded huge, unwieldy buildings and exaggerated sculptures; the Haus der deutschen Kunst was (and is) an extremely ugly building, and the original art, consisting of nude men with ludicrously huge muscles and similarly embarrassing pieces, has rightly been forgotten.

On the other hand, the Entartete Kunst has formed the core of modern art museums throughout the world. Indeed the recently recovered works have initially been valued at about 1 billion Euros.

As indicated earlier, the newly-discovered art works include a previously unknown masterpiece by Marc Chagall, who spent his early years in a Russian shtetl before settling in France (and barely escaping to the United States during World War II). Today, his paintings and other works are present in museums throughout the world, as well as in other notable locations, such as:

• New York City's Lincoln Center, where his murals, "The Triumph of Music" and "The Sources of Music," adorn the front of the Metropolitan Opera and are the first thing that the visitor sees upon coming to the square.
• The United Nations, where his stained glass window for peace is visible in the public lobby.
Zürich, Switzerland, where he designed a series of five stained glass windows and a rosette window for the Fraumünster church.
• Ein Kerem, Jerusalem, where he presented a magnificent series of stained glass windows to the Abbell Synagogue at the Hadassah University Medical Center. As Chagall noted: "All the time I was working, I felt my mother and father looking over my shoulder; and behind them were Jews, millions of other vanished Jews -- of yesterday and a thousand years ago."

The cost to humanity during this period -- in lives and culture -- continues to defy rational explanation. The recovery of some of the lost art of this period offers a slight recompense, as culture has a restorative quality. The Rambam stated:

If one is afflicted with melancholy, he should cure it by listening to songs and various kinds of the melodies, by walking in gardens and fine buildings, by sitting before beautiful forms and by things like this which delight the soul and make the disturbance of melancholy disappear from it. In all this he should aim at making his body healthy, the goal of his body's health being that he attain knowledge. (Rambam, introduction to his commentary on Avot ("Eight Chapters"), Chapter 5).

The stolen Nazi loot affects Holocaust survivors and their heirs (the rightful owners). There has been tremendous stubbornness of governments and related institutions who feel recalcitrant in returning artwork or objects that are not rightfully theirs, either through a callous attitude of the past or just that they feel that they are too far removed from the events to have had any illicit dealings with those who stole the art in the first place. We are encouraged that the American government has taken the position that the Washington Principles of 1998 should be enforced, so that stolen art recovered from any source should be returned to the rightful owners.

There are databases of many thousands of works that remain officially lost (only a fraction were returned to their rightful owners). While some are confident that all the works will be returned to their rightful owners outside Germany, others wonder why it took the German government to publicly acknowledge the existence of this hoard. Fortunately, there is a team of art experts who are examining the works, and have promised to publish the list, which will help the rightful owners lay claim to these works and perhaps once again share them with the world.

As people continue to seek lost art treasures and (we hope) seek to trace the obscure paths to their rightful owners, let us treasure the value of art in human life. As Rabbi Avraham Heschel said in a 1972 television interview:

Above all, remember that the meaning of life is to build a life as if it were a work of art. You're not a machine. And you are young. Start working on this great work of art called your own existence.

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L'Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V'Aretz Institute and the author of "Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century." Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America."