The Ethicist

Tragic Artifacts

  • comments
  • Print
  • Reprints

Traveling in Poland, I visited antique stores offering Jewish items — menorahs, mezuzas — that seemed more than 65 years old, suggesting that they were looted in the Holocaust. I saw things I wished to make part of my own Jewish home but found myself unable to pay for what was probably stolen property. Part of me wishes I had stolen (liberated?) some of them. Would that have been justified? RANDY MALAMUD, ATLANTA

Illustration by Matthew Woodson


It would not have. While these objects undoubtedly have a tragic history, it is less certain that they were stolen, explains Marilyn Henry, a columnist for The Jerusalem Post who has written much about such sad relics. She e-mailed me to say that “while the items may have been looted during the Nazi era, they may have been treated as legally ‘abandoned’ when the family was deported; they may have been sold at fire-sale prices by the original owner/family to raise funds to flee; they may have been held with the best of intentions by neighbors in anticipation that a Jewish family would return, and the family did not return.”

Nor is it clear that the shopkeepers you encountered were culpable in acquiring these objects. As you note, the enormities that befell the owners of these objects occurred before all but the most elderly of these shopkeepers could have been involved. But even if a shopkeeper was knowingly trading in contraband, that would not justify your theft. Instead, you should report such matters to the authorities.

If an object can be traced to its rightful owner or community, you should try to return it, perhaps through an organization like the Commission for Art Recovery. You might be able to do so for objects of great financial value, but more often, Henry wrote me, “as beautiful as these objects were, many of them were mass-produced, or did not have decorative features or imprints that would make it possible to associate objects with a particular Jewish family or a Jewish institution such as a synagogue.”

In this likely case, you could purchase an object and donate it to a Jewish institution or use it in your own home, reverently and respectfully, much as you wished to do — “restoring it to the Jewish life for which it was destined,” in Henry’s words.

There can be unintended consequences if we all forswear buying Judaica so steeped in suffering and death. Agnes Peresztegi, director of the Commission for Art Recovery, Europe, said in an e-mail: “It would not serve our purposes to eliminate the market, because if silver Judaica cannot be sold due to the issues of questionable ownership, they may get melted for the silver.” She, too, agrees that to put these items to their intended use can be an honorable commemoration.

I go to the same breakfast place a few times a week. I usually eat light, and typically my bill is $5 or so. This morning I had a big brunch and spent $15. But the amount of work for the server was the same. It seems unethical that I was required to tip three times as much today, simply because I was hungry. Agreed? STEVE, PORTLAND, ORE.

I would prefer that servers were paid a living wage, making them immune to the whims of penny pinchers like you and me, but the system we actually have makes it customary to tip at least 15 percent of the final bill. You should not stiff your server simply because you can imagine a better payment plan. Who can’t? Mine involves pure gold dusted onto the skin: it gives the cheeks a healthy glow.

Otherwise, why limit your tightwad logic to the server? Why should that diner owner’s profits rise if, instead of a side of bacon, you order a side of diamonds? Why should a real estate agent earn more if you buy a mansion instead of a shack? Many transactions give the seller a bigger reward when the customer spends more, even when little or no extra effort is required.

Instead of thinking that you tipped too much recently, think how little you tipped all those other times. Feel better?

Send your queries to or The Ethicist, The New York Times Magazine, 620 Eighth Avenue, 6th Floor, New York, NY 10018, and include a daytime phone number. Randy Cohen’s podcasts of The Ethicist are now available at, iTunes and

  • comments
  • Print
  • Reprints
Get Free E-mail Alerts on These Topics