SThe town of Wollongong, and its art gallery which houses one of Australia’s most prized regional collections, is stuck in the middle of an unenviable moral dilemma over the apparent Nazi past of its chief benefactor.
Can the fine works of art that Bronius “Bob” Sredersas donated to the city be distinguished from his involvement in possible Holocaust crimes, if it is determined that he worked (as suggested heavily archival documents) for the intelligence service of the Waffen SS, known as the Sicherheitsdienst (SD), during World War II?
And if it is further determined that Sredersas likely worked for the SD in Lithuania, will Wollongong, having officially hailed Bob as a benevolent city hero in numerous ways for decades, be compelled to publicly recount his full malicious story?
Moreover, how could any public acceptance by the city and its residents, and by the gallery, that Sredersas was involved in Holocaust crimes against Lithuanian Jews, change how visitors perceive aesthetically beautiful art? What did he donate?
Should art still be exhibited?
These are just some of the thorny ethical questions Wollongong and his gallery trustees are now asking, after finally asking the New South Wales Jewish Board of Deputies and the Sydney Jewish Museum to assess documentary evidence about Sredersas’ past. .
The council’s decision to act is certainly better late than never. Wollongong-born Michael Samaras first raised Sredersas’ alleged Nazi past with the city in January, but the council did not act until the Guardian published the evidence in late March).
Yet, there are no easy answers here.
In recent days, the gallery announced that it is now officially involved in a process that “will inform future steps with respect to the collection and representation of Bob Sredersas’ story and background”.
The hindsight in the case of Sredersas, and how the city celebrated him when he was seemingly unaware of his alleged Nazi past, is difficult, but hardly unnecessary. No one obviously knew, when the mild-mannered pensioner donated the artwork in the 1970s, that he might have been involved in the genocidal activities of the Nazis in Lithuania. Instructively, however, after he became a public figure, Sredersas’ distrust of his wartime activities might have – or perhaps even should have – raised some concern.
Those who knew him well in the Wollongong community (and there seem to be few of them) will surely wonder now what they may have missed and perhaps how.
Likewise, references in the media and elsewhere to his opaque wartime experiences (notably those that accompanied the 40th anniversary of the Wollongong Art Gallery) now seem charged with a darker prescience.
Sredersas simply lived. Caution avoided. His gift – “Gift”, as reported in the Illawarra – was hailed. The humble former steel mill crane operator was instantly elevated to folk hero status. It has become the subject of national and international profiles. The gallery gave his name to an exhibition space, dedicated a posthumous exhibition to him and still honors him with a wall plaque.
The fine works on which he spent his meager earnings, including Grace Cossington-Smith, Arthur Streeton and Norman Lindsay, form the nationally recognized core of the gallery’s valuable collection.
In 1976, when Sredersas donated 100 works of art to the city, the bequest was graciously taken at face value – as a generous act of appreciation to an industrial city that welcomed him from a Europe war-torn, offered him opportunities and accepted him as part of his community.
That the bequest could, indeed, have been a genuine act of appreciation (or, indeed, part of a personal quest for redemption – as impossible as that would be to achieve given Sredersas’ potential crimes against the humanity) are not mutually exclusive. can actually turn out to be.
Indeed, the Jewish Museum of Sydney’s head of education, Rebecca Kummerfeld, referred to the acute moral complexity of the situation for Wollongong and other communities regarding the ability of people who do good to “do things truly atrocious.”
“If this man turns out to have committed crimes and been involved in genocide, this will be an opportunity to have a dialogue and ask some really tough questions,” she said.
“It is important to understand the people who have contributed to this country. And to understand light and shadow in their contribution, whatever that may mean.
This goes to the heart of the issues surrounding Sredersas. Can Gift be distinguished from any evil with which it may be associated? It’s an age-old cultural question that will forever vex the creative industries: can art, literature, and performance be differentiated from the truly appalling people who sometimes create and otherwise make it possible?
This is the gray area. Discuss.
Some members of the Wollongong community are already demanding that all traces of Sredersas be erased from the town’s official history, that his name be removed from the gallery space that honors him and that the plaque bearing his name and photo be removed from the wall.
Others, including Samaras, insist this is an opportunity for the city to rewrite Sredersas’ history – to tell the truth about him and Gift once and for all, and to understand how a community that embraced him so much could have known so little about him.
Stay tuned. There’s a lesson in philosophy—perhaps a textbook—in this one.