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January 26, 2015
Moments in Art
Under Nazi Noses, 3
by Lawrence Jeppson

There was a funny satirical movie made in 1959 entitled The Mouse that Roared. The imaginary Duchy of Grand Fenwick declared war on the United States, hoping to lose and then benefit from substantial Marshall Plan aid.

Fifteen years earlier there was a genuine mouse in Paris whose roar was not imaginary. Spinterish, unnoticeable Rose Valland spent four years during the Occupation, making secret records as the Nazis funneled 22,000 major works of plundered art through the Jeu de Paume museum and shipped them off to the Third Reich.

The scope of Nazi plundering throughout all the countries they conquered boggles the mind. The total amounted to five million pieces.

Art wasn’t the only thing the SS stole. Liberators found 5,000 stolen church bells on the docks of Hamburg and 300 Amsterdam streetcars loaded on flatbeds in Bremen.

Big losers were French Jews: 52,828 Jewish lodgings were seized and sealed. Furniture from 47,569 of them was taken for shipment back to bombed German cities. No fewer than 69,619 Jewish lodgings were looted, accounting for a million cubic meters of furniture and requiring 674 trains and 26,984 freight cars to move it eastward.

These figures were reported by Alfred Rosenberg to Hitler in 1943, and surfaced during the Nuremberg trials.

Racist Rosenberg, the head spoiler in France, was relentless boss of the notorious Einsatzsab Reichesteiter Rosenberg (ERR). He benefitted personally from the seizures, his choice of stolen things being third, only behind Hitler and Goring.

Jeu de Paume museum, the gathering and shipping point for art stolen by the ERR/SS. A plaque on the front acknowledges Rose Valland.

As the Liberation began, a handful of men were given twin tasks of preserving art and monuments from destruction, as much as possible, cataloging what they found, and tracking down stolen art. As the war ended, the number of officers and enlisted men put into service guarding, removing, transporting, and returning art increased, but the total number was never great.

At one time I knew the directors of most of the major museums in the United States. I did not know until much later that several of them had been Monuments Men. I thought Sherman Lee, Director of the Cleveland Museum, was the best museum man I ever knew. Otto Wittman, Director at Toledo, was another. Both were Monuments Men

The war still raged while Lt. James Rorimer was the Monuments Man assigned to Paris. Rose Valland was the mouse in the museum who knew the source of every piece of art that came into the Jeu de Paume and its shipping destiny in Germany after the art was crated and dispatched. Surreptitiously, she recorded packing case and railcar numbers.

Before Paris was liberated, the Nazis sent off a last train loaded with treasures. Valland provided information that enabled the Resistance to waylay, delay, and reroute the train, keeping it from leaving France. In October, an effusive article in Le Figaro gave sole credit to French railway workers for the great success. Valland was angry: she was given no credit.

She had another reason to keep her secrets secret.

She had tried to help by sending information through her boss, Jacques Jaujard, and found her information was ignored further up the line. Robert Edsel reports, [The Monuments Men, p. 206] “Months later, long after the end of the war, photographs provided to SHAEF by Valland were found in a file drawer in some out of the way office with a bunch of other ‘useless’ documents.”

The new French government was still finding its way. She trusted no one with the four years of records she had secretly made. She was not ready to share any more information, not even with Rorimer. There was no way yet anyone could make use of her intelligence.

She knew where the great art treasures funneled through the Jeu de Paume could be found. But the mouse was not ready to roar.

Her trust in Rorimer blossomed when he received orders transferring him to the Seventh Army. Away from Paris, he could begin to trace the stolen art. He could make use of Valland’s secret records.

Neither Valland nor Rorimer realized that the Nazis had hidden or abandoned their loot in a thousand different locations.

On 1 March 1945 Rose Valland handed James Rorimer a pack of photographs of Neuschwanstein.

Neuschwanstein, isolated castle in the Bavarian Alps

She told him that at this castle the Nazis had gathered all the ERR from France. He would also find all the detailed ERR records, if the Nazis hadn’t burned them.

Valland made Rorimer promise that he would not give her information to anyone else. He was the one who had to act on it.

If the Nazis didn’t destroy their plunder — which Hitler would decree as Allied and Russian troops crushed him from both sides — Rorimer quickly grasped the logistic nightmare in securing and sending so much art back to its owners. If the loot was still at Neuschwanstein.

Two months would pass before U.S. Army soldiers reached Neuschwanstein in the German Alps. The Nazis had fled. The castle was unguarded, except by the GIs who had reached it. Under specific orders, they had not entered the turreted fairyland built by Mad King Ludwig of Bavaria.

Rorimer and his new assistant and a small group of guards were the first to enter. Neuschwanstein’s rooms were crammed with loot. Rooms were chockablock with art objects and paintings. There were crates labeled ERR, which the pressed Germans had lacked time to open.

Even some roads near Neuschwanstein were strewn with booty that had been abandoned as the Germans fled or were too big to be taken up the narrow road to the castle.

After his gratifying discovery, Rorimer sealed the doors to the castle and posted guards. No one was to enter without him, not even any of the guards.

By the time Monuments Men and other experts were finished, Neuschwanstein was emptied of 21,903 objects taken from 203 private collections.

Rose Valland’s four years of secrecy had paid off, big time.

In September, 1945, she was sent to Berlin as a member of the French commission for the recovery of stolen art. She returned to Paris in 1953. She also had a French Army commission.

Le Figaro had ignored Valland. The French people did not.

Soon she was recognized as one of the great heroes of the Resistance. She was awarded the French Legion of Honor medal and was made a Commander in the Order of Arts and Letters (the highest possible ranking in that group), received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from the United States, the Medal of the Resistance, the Croix de Guerre, and even the Officer’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany.

In 1955, Valland was made head curator of the National Museums of France and then Chair of the Commission for the Protection of Works of Art.

She was 82 when she died in 1980, one of the greatest heroes of the Resistance.

She died near Paris and was buried in the village of her birth, Saint-Étienne-des-Saint-Geoirs, a small community between Lyon and Grenoble.

At various times and in various places, including the United States, exhibitions have been held showing some of the art that Valland helped save. A French association was formed to keep her memory alive.

The latest manifestation came recently, 1 December 2014, when a plaque was unveiled at 4 Rue de Navarre, Paris 8th, where Valland had lived and where she shared her documents with Lt. James Rorimer.

Official unveiling of the commemorative plaque (to the right, above the iron fence) where Rose Valland lived and where she shared her secrets with Lt. James Rorimer. After the war she was given a commission in the French Army; the large photograph shows her in uniform.

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