Monday, September 24, 2007

Rose Valland

I had never heard of Rose Valland before yesterday, when we went to see The Rape of Europa, the documentary about the systematic plundering of Europe's art treasures by the Nazis. That fact now seems surprising, given that, according to this account by Robert Edsel, she had not only been awarded the French Legion of Honor, the Medal of the Resistance, the Order of the Arts and Letters, and the Officer’s Cross of the Order of Merit from the Federal Republic of Germany, but received the very rare honor for a non-American of being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

I've written before about the heroic efforts of the Monuments Men, aka the "Venus fixers," who were often among the first Allied soldiers in WWII to venture into a new town, after the Nazis had been bombed or shelled out of it, in order to see what could be done to save, restore and/or repatriate the architecture or art found there. Their efforts form a central story within the tale of The Rape of Europa, but the tale of the rather bookish and shy looking curator from the Louvre, who at great risk to herself, single-handedly collected and preserved (in a secret diary she kept in her home) the origins and eventual destinations of great works of art stolen from prominent Jewish families and art dealers in Paris by the Nazis was one that had escaped me. Apparently none of the Nazis suspected that this quiet, unassuming French woman spoke German and was spying on them to later record the details that would prove invaluable in returning stolen works to their rightful owners.

Here's the story in the words of
The Rape of Europa author, Lynn H. Nicholas, from an interview with NEH Chairman William R. Ferris:
Rose Valland was a curator at the Louvre Museum. During the war the Germans took over a small and beloved museum called the Jeu de Paume, which was where the impressionists and more modern pictures were shown. They took over that building as a storage place for the things they were confiscating and buying. Rose Valland was the person who watered the potted palms and took care of the French maintenance staff. In fact, the whole time, she was spying on the Germans and making lists of what had been confiscated and where they were sending things, which was very brave. The Nazis took photographs of everything they stole, and she would take the negatives home at night and make copies of them, so that after the war the French were able to provide the Allies with information on where the objects were hidden.

In the last days of the war—it's a great story—the Nazis had loaded up a train with works of art that they wanted to remove before the Allies got to Paris. Rose told the French Resistance about it and they managed to keep the train kind of backing and filling around Paris for a couple of days until the Allied armies could liberate the city. They found the train sitting on a siding right near Paris. This was made into a movie called
The Train with Burt Lancaster and a beautiful French lady playing Rose Valland—not very accurate, but it's a good movie.
In 1961 Valland wrote about her spying experiences in Le front de l'art, but it seems to be out of print. If you find a copy (a translation actually, my college French ain't what it used to be), please do let me know where. This heroine's story deserves to be celebrated again and again. Especially today. It was difficult to watch this film and not compare the efforts of the US during WWII to protect and repatriate Europe's art, under the direct orders of Roosevelt himself, with the shameful ambivalence of the current occupant of the White House and his belligerent first Secretary of Defense. Indeed, compare their actions, as Barry Crimmins brilliantly summarized them in the Boston Phoenix:

Unfortunately, an urgent plea for the United States to safeguard priceless antiquities in the former Mesopotamia, made to the court-appointed Bush administration in January by a committee of scholars, must have gotten lost under a stack of doctored documents. While the corporate media focused quite happily on the looting of government buildings and Saddam’s and his collaborators’ swanky homes, a two-day pillaging of the Iraq National Museum went undetected.

When questioned about the looting, an impatient Doomsday Don Rumsfeld asked rhetorically, "My goodness, were there that many vases?" Items looted from museums on the banks of the Tigris River are understandably of little interest to Rummy, since the only history he respects is Genghis Khan’s foreign policy.

Rumsfeld deepened the pit by summarizing the anarchy thusly, "It’s untidy. And freedom’s untidy. And free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things." With this remark he unintentionally disclosed that some of the freest people in the world are now occupying 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Granted there was impatience among soldiers and officers with the efforts of the "Venus fixers" (as that derogatory nickname suggests), but Eisenhower made it clear that American values demanded our troops do all that war would allow to preserve those treasures. I have to conclude that the lack of such efforts in the invasion of Iraq boil down to racism and ignorance.

Labels: Iraq, Rape of Europa


Blogger prettylady said...

Hooray for heroic librarians! Hooray! Hooray! Reminds me of some of my clandestine activities while working as an archivist at Bank of America; copies of publicity spin memos found their way to some political activists of my acquaintance. Nobody ever suspects a librarian of anything.

I have to conclude that the lack of such efforts in the invasion of Iraq boil down to racism and ignorance.

Or just myopic self-interest. Crying 'racism' when a person simply cannot see two centimeters past their own nose, or take an interest in anything outside of their own tiny circle of interest, unnecesarily complicates the issue, IMO. Racism is a symptom of the problem, rather than a cause of it.

9/24/2007 09:49:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for highlighting this Edward, Rose Valland and the efforts of this country under Roosevelt to preserve the art plundered int WW2 need to be remembered.

And I disagree with the above comment about racism, as a gay man I think it's at the heart of far too many things. Our present ruling Party which controls our government has two overwhelming traits, racism and greed and they filter into everything they do.

9/24/2007 09:58:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I'm willing to be convinced, PL, but when you compare how obvious it was to the American leaders who had taken the Grand Tour of Europe in their youth, that certain cities (like Florence and Rome, both of which Nazis occupied) had to be treated gingerly because of the art treasures they held (because they realized that the European heritage is OUR heritage), with the complete lack of interest on the US side with protecting the Baghdad museum and the Mesopotamian heritage, racism does seem to be an answer that matches all the questions.

Paul Krugman has a great column today about racism's persistence in the GOP, despite how far we've supposedly come. I don't think he's wrong.

9/24/2007 10:00:00 AM  
Anonymous bambino said...

What a great movie, and an amazing story. If you have a change this is one of must see art movies

9/24/2007 10:26:00 AM  
Blogger prettylady said...

Did George W. take the Grand Tour? I'm seeming to recall that he'd never been out of the U.S. before being elected, or something.

I really believe that the standard of cultural eduation has sharply declined in the last half-century. Even if some Americans get a good specialty education, the humanities are grossly neglected; the vast majority of us are not culturally literate in areas outside of our money-making careers.

I don't believe that American leaders of the past consciously preserved European art treasures because they are OUR heritage, so much as because they had been sensitized to the fact that art in general is important. Our current leaders are simply Philistines.

Don't get me wrong; I believe that people, all people, are racist as a 'default' setting. It's hard-wired into us. I also believe, however, that racism is not effectively combatted by pointing a finger at those racist people over there, and saying that Racism Is Bad. This just makes people defensive, and while they are shouting 'I am too not racist! My Secretary of State is black!', forty thousand precious art treasures get plowed under.

9/24/2007 10:46:00 AM  
Blogger Tyler said...

W took the ground tour of Midland and Odessa. The ones in Texas, that is.

9/24/2007 03:41:00 PM  
Anonymous joy said...

hi ed,
after some sleuthing I managed to unearth one copy of the first edition of Le front de l'art, alas @ $500. Can't find the purported 1997 re-print anywhere (yet!). However, I did find a biography on and elsewhere: Rose Valland, résistance au musée, by Corinne Bouchoux, (Geste Editions, 2006) available from ~16 euros... will keep looking...


9/24/2007 04:55:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

I think Tyler meant "grand" tour, not "ground," but something about "ground" seems appropriate here...

9/24/2007 07:38:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Hey Joy,

has anyone told you recently how totally awesome you are? Even if they have, they were understating the case.


9/24/2007 08:28:00 PM  
Blogger A Reason to Paint said...

What a fabulous story; thank you for sharing, I am now eager to read more about it.

9/25/2007 02:55:00 AM  
Anonymous joy said...


sweet! but save that until (if?) I can find the '97 reprint!

9/25/2007 09:48:00 AM  
Anonymous gemma said...

Le front de l'art : défense des collections françaises 1939 - 1945, PLON 1961
-pages 262 -
2nd edition RMN 1997 January (Reunion des
Musees Nationaux) -

you can find an original copy at the Art Institute of Chicago Library

my friend is looking for the 2nd edition in Paris. I'll keep you posted

advice: please see the french movie:
La Bataille du Rail - Director René Clément
(one of the leading and talented French directors of the after-World War II era)

12/02/2007 09:50:00 AM  
Blogger ST Haber said...

According to, Rose Valland's book will be coming out in English soon.

11/26/2008 09:46:00 AM  
Blogger Eddie the B. said...

I had been curious about "Le front de l'art" because of my longtime appreciation for John Frankenheimer's film "The Train," based upon the book. I hope ST Haber is correct that an English language editin will be released soon.

It's also funny coming across another chance reference to "La Bataille du Rail." I first heards of this a few days ago in an IMDb thread on "The Train." No mention has beenmade elsewhere, to my knowledge, of Frankenheimer's being aware of this film before he took on "The Train" project, but there sure seems to be a lot of speculation on that point. Two days later, I stumbled upn "La Bataille du Rail" on the shelves of the media section of the Baton Rouge Public Library. Go figure! Csomic Coincidence Control Center is working overtime!

2/06/2009 01:17:00 AM  
Blogger Omgrrrl said...

I came across your blog when I was updating my own. I recently returned from Paris with my 8th grade son and was very moved by the story of Rose Villand. Sounds like you were too.

And hey - let me know if you ever find her book in English!

7/21/2010 01:36:00 PM  

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