My grandfather begins his book, “Survival: The Salvage and Protection of Art in War” with the following words:
Toward the end of 1942, American educators and museum personnel became increasingly alarmed about the fate of the art in the path of the War. William B. Dinsmoor, President of the Archaeological Institute of America, Sumner McKnight Crosby, President of the College Art Association, Francis Henry Taylor, Director of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and David E. Finley, Director of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, proposed to the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States the creation of a governmental commission. With the encouragement of the late President Roosevelt and his Secretaries of State and War, the Department of State announced on August 20th, 1943, the establishment of what was to become the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas. It has been generally referred to as the Roberts Commission, as it was under the Chairmanship of the Honorable Owen J. Roberts, then a Justice of the United States Supreme Court (J. Rorimer, ix).
I remember my grandmother, Katherine Serrell Rorimer, or K.K. as I called her, telling me about the Roberts Commission and the MFA & A on one of my visits to her New York City apartment. She was adamant that I understand what the abbreviation stood for, and I remember how she annunciated each word very clearly, sitting across from me at the dining room table. The Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section, also known as “The Monuments Men,” was the group of allied forces who were directed to preserve monuments and other cultural objects during World War II in France, Germany, and Austria.
My grandfather makes no mention of how he decided to join the MFAA in his book, and I wish I could ask my grandmother now. At that time, they were newleyweds, having just married in 1942.
Matt Damon and George Clooney, gave us a glimpse as to how the conversation might have gone in the 2014 film, “Monuments Men,”playing the real-life characters of James J. Rorimer and George L. Stout, discussing the Roberts Commission over drinks at a bar.
On May 26, 1944, just a few days before D-Day, General Eisenhower issued a letter that became, “the key to all subsequent instructions concerning the preservation of historical monuments and cultural objects in Europe” (J. Rorimer, x).
And here is where my journey begins!
In a few days, I will set sail, crossing the English Channel and landing in Normandy, almost exactly 70 years to date when my grandfather landed on Utah Beach.