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 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:
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.
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.