The one person who above all others enabled us to track down the official Nazi art looters and to engage intelligently in that aspect of the whole picture was Mademoiselle Rose Valland, a rugged, painstaking and deliberate scholar. This girl was an assistant at the Jeu de Paume when the Germans arrived and converted the building into the central clearing house for the finest of the confiscated works of art. She told me that judging from what she personally had observed, the Germans had taken one-third of the privately owned art from France. Throughout the war, and in the absence of the director, she stayed at her post in the museum. Time and time again the Germans tried to discourage her presence. She was led to the door with a frequency that bordered on the comic; but each time she disregarded their orders and returned to the museum. Her blind devotion to French art made no allowance for any thoughts of personal danger (J. Rorimer, 109).
…At night she would sneak out the negatives which the Germans had developed during the day. She had prints made and then returned the negatives to the files the following morning. With imprisonment in a concentration camp, or death, the penalty if she were caught, she had been fortunate. Even the watchman’s logbook, which had the names of all the visitors to the Jeu de Paume for more than a four-year period, had come into her possession (J. Rorimer 111).
Rose Valland knew “where…the works of art that were removed to Germany [had] been secreted” and she shared her information with my grandfather and the SHAEF Mission to France (J. Rorimer 114).
“You must go to Germany, James,” she said. “I’ll join you as soon as I can, but you must go right away”…”[T]he Nazis have collected and catalogued their booty…In the castles of Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau” (J. Rorimer 112, 114).
Before I go to Germany tomorrow, allow me to recount my experiences retracing the footsteps of Rose Valland in Paris.
For me, the obvious first step was to inspect the outside of the Jeu de Paume. The building is located on the Place de la Concorde, at the edge of the Tuileries Gardens. There, I found the following plaque, dedicated to Rose Valland. (I welcome my readers to translate this plaque by responding to this post in a comment)!
I figured that if there was a plaque dedicated to Rose Valland, surely the museum folks inside would know something about her story. So, I entered the museum, approached the ticket booth, and began my prepared dialogue in French.
I did my Monuments Girl spiel, showing the picture post-card with my grandfather’s image, then my grandfather’s book, next a copy of “The Monuments Men,” and finally my blog business card. The cashier informed me that the building is now a private gallery devoted to contemporary photography, and she directed me to the museum book shop. The librarian at the book shop showed me Rose Valland’s memoir and another book of her complete notes, both in French. Then, almost as an afterthought, he pointed out a children’s picture book in French entitled, “Rose Valland, l’espionne du musée du Jeu de Paume.” At the bottom, I read, “L’HISTOIRE EN IMAGES.” I was elated! It was the perfect reading level for me with my beginning French skills! I paged through the book looking for a cartoon character of my grandfather. He wasn’t there, but I did find an equally exciting part, a two-page spread of the German soldiers captured in the courtyard of the Louvre! I knew that scene already from reading my grandfather’s account! (See my previous post on “The Liberation of Paris). I didn’t hesitate to make my purchase.
To round out the heroic story of Rose Valland, fast forward to 1955, the year my grandfather was appointed as the Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Below is the congratulatory letter he received from Valland. (If you can’t read French, there is an English translation provided below). My favorite part is Valland’s reference to “justice,” since so many of my grandfather’s wartime letters mention his struggle with the military hierarchy and trying to get things done being ranked as a 2nd Lieutenant.