No easy answers in search for truth about prized art collection and its benefactor’s past | Paul Daley

Steel city Wollongong, and its art gallery boasting one of regional Australia’s most prized collections, is wedged in the middle of an unenviable moral quandary over the apparent Nazi past of its prime benefactor.

Can the beautiful art works Bronius “Bob ” Sredersas gave the city be distinguished from his involvement in possible Holocaust crimes, should it be determined that he worked (as archival documents strongly suggest) for the intelligence service of the Waffen SS, known as the Security Service (SD), during the second world war?

And if it’s further determined Sredersas did in all likelihood work for the SD in Lithuania, will Wollongong, having officially hailed Bob as a benevolent city hero in numerous ways for decades, be obliged to publicly retell his full malevolent story?

Further, how might any public acceptance by the city and its residents, and by the gallery, that Sredersas was involved in Holocaust crimes against Lithuanian Jews, alter the way visitors view the aesthetically beautiful art he donated?

Ought the art still be exhibited at all?

These are just some of the thorny ethical questions Wollongong and the administrators of its gallery are now asking themselves, having finally requested that the New South Wales Jewish Board of Deputies and the Sydney Jewish Museum assess the documentary evidence about Sredersas’ past.

The council’s decision to act is certainly better late than never. Wollongong-born Michael Samaras first raised Sredersas’ suspected Nazi past with the city in January but the council did not act until the Guardian published the evidence in late March).

Still, there are no easy answers here.

In recent days the gallery has announced it is now formally involved in a process that will “inform future steps with regard to the collection and representation of the Bob Sredersas story and background”.

Hindsight in the case of Sredersas and how the city feted him while seemingly unaware of his suspected Nazi past, is difficult, though hardly pointless. Nobody evidently knew, when the mild-mannered retiree donated the artworks in the 1970s, that he might have been involved in the Nazi genocidal activities in Lithuania. Instructively, however, after he became a public figure, Sredersas’ caginess about his wartime activities might have – or perhaps even should have – raised some concerns.

Those who knew him well in the Wollongong community (and there would appear to be few) will surely now be asking themselves what they might have missed and perhaps how so.

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Similarly, the references in media and elsewhere to his opaque wartime experiences (not least those that accompanied the 40th anniversary of the Wollongong Art Gallery) now seem freighted with a darker prescience.

Sredersas lived simply. Avoided attention. His gift – “The Gift ”, as it was reported in the Illawarra – was lauded. The humble former steelworks crane driver was instantly elevated to folk hero. He became the subject of national and international profiles. The gallery named an exhibition space after him, dedicated a posthumous exhibition to him and still honors him with a wall plaque.

The beautiful works he spent his meager earnings on by, among others, Grace Cossington-Smith, Arthur Streeton and Norman Lindsay, form the nationally recognized nucleus of the gallery’s prized collection.

Some say this is an opportunity for Wollongong to rewrite the Sredersas story – to tell the truth about him and his gift to its art gallery. Photograph: Jessica Hromas / The Guardian

In 1976 when Sredersas donated 100 artworks to the city, the bequest was graciously taken at face value – as a generous act of appreciation to an industrial city that took him in from war-torn Europe, afforded him opportunities and accepted him as part of its community.

That the bequest might have, indeed, been a genuine act of appreciation (or, indeed, part of some personal quest for redemption – as impossible as that would be to attain given Sredersas’ potential crimes against humanity) are not mutually exclusive from who he may actually turn out to be.

Indeed, the Sydney Jewish Museum’s education officer Rebecca Kummerfeld referenced the acute moral complexity of the situation for Wollongong and other communities about the capacity of people who do good to also “do really atrocious things”.

“If it does come out that this man did commit crimes and he was involved in genocide, it is going to be an opportunity for dialogue and asking some really challenging questions,” she said.

“It is important to understand the people who contributed to this country. And to understand the light and shade in their contribution, whatever that may mean. ”

This goes to the heart of questions surrounding Sredersas. Can The Gift be distinguished from any evil he may be associated with? It’s an age-old cultural question that will forever vex creative industries: can art, literature and performance be differentiated from the truly appalling people who sometimes create and make it otherwise possible?

That’s the gray area. Discuss.

Some in the Wollongong community are already calling for any trace of Sredersas to be expunged from the official story of the city, for his name to be stripped from the gallery space that honors him and for the plaque bearing his name and photograph to be taken from the wall.

Others, including Samaras, insist this is an opportunity for the city to rewrite the Sredersas story – to tell the truth about him and The Gift once and for all, and to figure out how a community that so embraced him, may have known so very little about him.

Stay tuned. There is a philosophy lesson – perhaps a textbook – in this one.

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