Recent episode of the Womanica podcast, we told the story of Rose Valland (1898-1980), an art historian, curator, and French Resistance member during World War II who hid in plain sight as a secretary while secretly documenting the shipments of artistic masterpieces out of France by the Nazis. She is responsible for the discovery and protection of over 60,000 pieces of looted artwork through her work during and after the war. For her extraordinary efforts, Rose received the Legion of Honour, was made a Commandeur of the Order of Arts and Letters and was awarded the Médaille de la Résistance. She also received the Medal of Freedom from the United States in 1948.

LISTEN to her full story on Apple, iHeart, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts (the link is also in our bio):

Throughout history, women have been told to make themselves smaller, to diminish themselves. Some have used that idea to their advantage, disappearing into new identities. For others, a disappearance was the end to their story, but the beginning of a new chapter in their legacy. This month we’re talking about Disappearing Acts.

Due to its secluded and strategically unimportant location, the palace survived the destruction of the two World Wars. Until 1944, it served as a depot for Nazi plunder that was taken from France by the Reichsleiter Rosenberg Institute for the Occupied Territories (Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg für die besetzten Gebiete), a suborganisation of the Nazi Party. The castle was used to catalogue the works of art. After World War II, 39 photo albums were found in the palace documenting the scale of the art seizures. The albums are now stored in the United States National Archives.

This is where the story picks up. Much has been written about these remarkable men and the woman who made sure they could restore what was stolen. Rose made herself “smaller” in order to use it to her advantage, like not letting her occupiers know she knew German, and thanks to Rose she passed this location along. This castle was a chosen hiding place due to its difficult location, plus the allies spared it from bombing with resistance information that treasure was stored there.

The True Story of the Monuments Men | History| Smithsonian Magazine 

There is another hidden location deep in the Alps. The Swiss and Austrians had built hundreds tunnels throughout their mountains over centuries and this was Hitler’s home turf.

The link above is a treasure trove of information about this momentous undertaking.

My focus is about Rose and how her story was uncovered.

The work was largely forgotten to the general public until an art scholar, Lynn H. Nicholas, working in Brussels, read an obituary about a French woman who spied on the Nazis’ looting operation for years and singlehandedly saved 60,000 works of art. That spurred Nicholas to spend a decade researching her 1995 book, The Rape of Europa, which began the resurrection of their story culminating with the movie, The Monuments Men, based upon Robert Edsel’s 2009 book of the same name. The Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art holds the personal papers and oral history interviews of a number of the Monuments Men as well as photographs and manuscripts from their time in Europe.

“Without the [Monuments Men], a lot of the most important treasures of European culture would be lost,” Nicholas says. “They did an extraordinary amount of work protecting and securing these things.”

Nowhere, notes Nicholas, were more of those treasures collected than at Altaussee, where Hitler stored the treasures intended for his Fuhrermuseum in Linz, Austria, a sprawling museum complex that Hitler planned as a showcase for his plunder. On that first foray, Kirstein and Posey (portrayed in pseuodyminity by actors Bob Balaban and Bill Murray, respectively) had also discovered Michelangelo’s Madonna, which was spirited out of Bruges, Belgium, by the Nazis in September 1944 as the Allies advanced on the city. Within days, they’d also found priceless works by Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer.

The Allies knew of Altaussee thanks to a toothache. Two months earlier, Posey was in the ancient city of Trier in eastern Germany with Kirstein and needed treatment. The dentist he found introduced him to his son-in-law, who was hoping to earn safe passage for his family to Paris, even though he had helped Herman Goering, Hitler’s second-in-command, steal trainload after trainload of art. The son-in-law told them the location of Goering’s collection as well as Hitler’s stash at Altaussee.

Hitler claimed Altaussee as the perfect hideaway for loot intended for his Linz museum. The complex series of tunnels had been mined by the same families for 3,000 years, as Stout noted in his journal. Inside, the conditions were constant, between 40 and 47 degrees and about 65 percent humidity, ideal for storing the stolen art. The deepest tunnels were more than a mile inside the mountain, safe from enemy bombs even if the remote location was discovered. The Germans built floors, walls, and shelving as well as a workshop deep in the chambers. From 1943 through early 1945, a stream of trucks transported tons of treasures into the tunnels. 

Stout also noted that there were plans for the demolition of the mine. Two months earlier, Hitler had issued the “Nero Decree,” which stated in part: All military transport and communication facilities, industrial establishments and supply depots, as well as anything else of value within Reich territory, which could in any way be used by the enemy immediately or within the foreseeable future for the prosecution of the war, will be destroyed.

The Nazi district leader near Altaussee, August Eigruber, interpreted the Fuhrer’s words as an order to destroy any objects of value, which required the demolition of the mines so the artwork would not fall into enemy hands. He moved eight crates into the mines in April. They were marked “Marble – Do Not Drop,” but actually contained 1,100 pound bombs. His plans, however, were thwarted by a combination of local miners wanting to save their livelihood and Nazi officials who considered Eigruber’s plan folly, according to books by Edsel and Nicholas. The mine director convinced Eigruber to set smaller charges to augment the bombs, then ordered the bombs removed without the district leader’s knowledge. On May 3, days before Posey and Kirstein entered, the local miners removed the crates with the large bombs. By the time Eigruber learned, it was too late. Two days later, the small charges were fired, closing the mine’s entrances, sealing the art safely inside.

Stout originally thought the removal would take place over a year, but that changed in June 1945 when the Allies began to set the zones of post-VE day Europe and Altaussee seemed destined for Soviet control, meaning some of Europe’s great art treasures could disappear into Joseph Stalin’s hands. The Soviets had “Trophy Brigades” whose job was to plunder enemy treasure (it’s estimated they stole millions of objects, including Old Master drawings, paintings, and books).

Click the link for the rest of the story of recovery!

Monument Woman of Resistance
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