WASHINGTON — Paintings, jewelry, religious artifacts and other cultural treasures looted by the Nazis often passed through several pairs of hands in multiple countries once they were recovered by the Allies after World War II.
Meticulous records were kept, but those are spread among a variety of places that preserve archives. Now, they can all be accessed through a single website.
On Thursday, the National Archives announced the launch of an online portal that provides access to digitized records of looted items with cultural significance. While officials stressed that the database is a work in progress, it represents a milestone in a 15-year effort to improve cooperation between the many institutions that house such records.
“You no longer have to travel around the world and spend a fortune to view the materials,” said James Hastings, who coordinated the partnership for the Archives.
Nazis confiscated millions of culturally significant items throughout Europe in the dozen years between Adolf Hitler’s rise to power and the end of the war. Much of the plunder was recovered, but countless items were never returned to their rightful owners — millions of whom were killed in the Holocaust.
“This was a continentwide theft,” said Deborah Dwork, director of the Strassler Family Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Clark University. “There are still warehouses full of this stuff.”
Eleven institutions in seven countries have agreed to participate in the database, and representatives from eight of those were on hand Thursday to sign the agreement establishing it.
Archives officials said they believe the database will be primarily of interest to scholars, but it will be accessible to anyone who wants to trace what happened to a lost family treasure.