Almost sixty years after the end of World War II, the French government formally recognized Rose Valland (1898–1980) for her efforts as a Résistant during the Nazi Occupation of Paris between 1940 and 1944. A plaque was placed on the south wall of the Galerie nationale du Jeu de Paume (the Jeu de Paume museum) commemorating Rose’s role in saving precious art stolen by the Germans.
Rose and her boss, Jacques Jaujard (1895–1967), were responsible for ensuring 100% of the Louvre artwork was returned to the museum. Jaujard convinced the Germans to keep their hands off of public or state owned art. Rose was responsible for directing the Americans and British to the various sites in Germany where the Germans had stored the tens of thousands of pieces of artwork stolen from French private collections and other occupied countries.
The Monuments Men
Many of us are familiar with the story of a small group of men who, in the latter stages of World War II, were given the responsibility for identifying cultural works of art, protecting these priceless items from destruction by advancing armies, and tracking down the art stolen by the Nazis. These men were called The Monuments Men.
The movie The Monuments Men was based on Robert Edsel’s best seller The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History. It is a fascinating story of the efforts of these men and one woman.
One of the real heroes of this monumental task was a French art historian, art curator, and member of the French Resistance. Rose Valland was also a spy operating right under the noses of the Nazis.
Rose Valland was The Monuments Woman.
Meet Rose Valland
Rose was born into a blue-collar family living in a small farming community (her father was a blacksmith). Later in life this would impede the progress of her career trajectory (aristocrats tend to be a little snobby towards the “common” folk).
Despite her background, Rose was able to secure a scholarship to an école normale (a teacher school). Graduating in 1918, she went on to study art at the prestigious École nationale des beaux-arts de Lyon. After graduating in 1925, Rose became an art teacher. But she wasn’t done. Rose then began her studies in art history at the École du Louvre and University of Paris. With all of this in hand, she started in 1932 as a volunteer assistant art curator at the museum known as the Galerie nationale du Jeu de Paume in Paris.
Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg
Commonly referred to as the ERR, this organization was set up by Alfred Rosenberg (1893–1946) for the express purpose of looting cultural icons and artwork from public museums and private collections. German law forbade Jews owning property and as such, a “legitimacy” was given to the ERR and its mission when it came to confiscating privately owned art.
Rosenberg was the Nazi Party’s theorist on racial issues (primarily to prove Jewish racial inferiority), Jewish persecution, and degenerate art. Rosenberg was tried in Nuremberg as one of the twenty-four principal Nazi leaders. Convicted and sentenced to death, Rosenberg went to the gallows on 16 October 1946.
The ERR was actually a front for Hitler and Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring (1893–1946). Each wanted to establish their private art collections. Hitler’s goal was to build an art museum in his hometown of Linz, Austria and stock it with stolen art. Göring’s intent was not so “publically minded.”
There was a definite pecking order for who got what first, second, and so forth. Hitler would have first choice followed by Göring. Despite no interest in art, Rosenberg was third on the list with German public museums at the bottom. In reality, Göring always took what he wanted regardless of any consideration for others.
While the Nazis looted the occupied countries, the most prized and priceless artwork came from France (many of the world famous art galleries were in Paris and owned by Jewish businessmen). Göring put his own men in charge of the confiscated art and the central repository at the Jeu de Paume where the art was collected and stored prior to being shipped by rail to Germany.
The Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume
The Galerie nationale du Jeu de Paume or simply, the Jeu de Paume sits on the northwest corner of the Tuileries Gardens in the first district. Constructed in 1861 as indoor tennis courts, the building was used by the ERR during the Occupation as a storage facility for art objects stolen from private collections, including the Jewish owned art galleries (e.g., Galerie Rosenberg, Alfred Lindon, Galerie Raphaël Gérard), collections of wealthy Jews (e.g., Rothschilds, David-Weills, and Bernheims), and Jewish families who were deported to Auschwitz.
On 1 November 1940, the Germans took over the Jeu de Paume for the purpose of storing the first shipment of art—450 crates—until it could be transported to Germany for Hitler’s and Goering’s collections, or to one of the many repositories set up by the Nazis.
Two days later, Göring stopped by for the first of his twenty-one visits to the Jeu de Paume. Each visit was to personally select paintings for his collection. Göring’s men made sure he got the crème of the crop. The German in charge, Colonel Kurt von Behr (1890–1945) along with Hermann Bunjes (1911–1945) and Bruno Lohse (1911–2007) made sure the most priceless pieces were put in front of Göring for selection. Bunjes and von Behr committed suicide after their arrests. Between his cohorts eliminating themselves and cooperating with the authorities, Lohse managed to save his skin.
Rose Valland the Spy
Right from the beginning, Rose kept a journal outlining each piece of art, which passed through the Jeu de Paume (it is estimated that more than 20,000 pieces were taken to the Jeu de Paume). Rose understood the German language but never revealed that to the Nazis. She kept meticulous records of where the art crates were shipped to in Germany or other occupied countries. As a member of the French Resistance, Rose was able to inform other Resistance members of the movement of trains carrying the art. This way those particular railcars were not blown up.
On more than one occasion, Lohse threatened Rose with execution. She would look him in the eye and say, “No one here is stupid enough to ignore the risk.” Rose suspected Lohse of stealing paintings for his personal collection and he knew that Rose knew. This kept him from having Rose shot.
Liberation, Train No. 40044, and Detention
The weeks before Paris was liberated on 26 August 1944 were very dangerous for Rose and the staff of the Jeu de Paume. The Germans knew the Allies would be in Paris shortly and they were panicking. Trucks were backed up to the building and loaded with artwork. Staff members disappeared and Rose knew the Nazis could very easily execute her.
Rose learned the trucks were headed for the train station at Aubervilliers, just outside Paris. On 2 August 1944, five railcars were sitting on the tracks loaded with 148 crates of paintings. The train was waiting to be hooked up to 48 railcars containing confiscated furniture and personal possessions of deported citizens. The additional railcars were delayed and the train never left the station on schedule.
Within a week, Rose presented the copy of the Nazi shipment order to Jaujard. It listed all the train and railcar numbers, destinations of each railcar, and the entire contents of each crate. This information was passed on to the Resistance. On 10 August, a further delay occurred when French railway workers went on strike. However, two days later the tracks were cleared and the train was ready to leave for Germany.
The train with its 53 heavy railcars only made it to Le Bourget when it broke down. By the time the Germans had fixed the problem, French Resistance had blocked the tracks up ahead. Train number 40044 with its valuable cargo never moved again.
Several days later, the French Second Armored Division entered Paris and a small group was sent to the train. They opened up some of the crates and found many paintings belonging to Paul Rosenberg and his gallery. The commander of this group was André Rosenberg, Paul’s son.
After the liberation, Rose was incarcerated as a suspected Nazi collaborationist. She was released and became a member of the Commission de Récupération Artistique (Commission for the Recovery of Works of Art). She continued her discussions with the Monuments Men and their successors in efforts to recover the remaining stolen art.
After twenty years working with museums, Rose was given the title of “Curator” in 1953. She retired in 1968 but continued her work within the arts community.
Less than ten years after the end of the war, France awarded Rose Valland the Légion d’honneur, Commandeur of the Order of Arts and Letters, and the Médaille de la Résistance. Germany would award her the Officer’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany. The United States awarded Rose the Medal of Freedom.
Yet it took 50 years for her to get her plaque.
What’s New With Sandy and Stew?
We’ve just published the Kindle and iBook version of the first volume of Where Did They Burn the Last Grand Master of the Knights Templar? A Walking Tour of Medieval Paris.
Roy is working on the design for the second volume of the medieval book. We will not print this as a soft cover but only as an e-Pub version. We expect to have that published by the end of March.
Sandy and I will be traveling to Paris in September for the purpose of final research on Where Did They Put the Gestapo Headquarters? A Walking Tour of Nazi Occupied Paris (1940-1944). The basic construction of the two volume series is almost completed (I usually work on two books simultaneously). The hardest part has been to take more than 200 potential stops and prioritize the ones I think you’ll want to see. Unlike the previous two themed books, almost every building in Paris seems to have a story behind it from the Occupation.
Again, if you have read any of the walking tour books (in whole or part), we would very much appreciate you writing a brief review on Amazon. It seems books move up the Amazon hierarchy ladder based on the number of reviews. Thanks for taking a couple of minutes to do that for us.
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