600 Feet Underground

On the outskirts of Heilbronn I noticed the distant super-structure of a mine shaft, and wondered if this could be the support for the elevator cables. I was anxious to make an immediate inspection of the mine but decided that I had better go first to the local Military Government headquarters for an appraisal of the military situation… Military equipment, both German and American, littered the area. Some of the buildings were still smoldering and occasionally burst into flame… (J. Rorimer 138-139)

For many months the Germans had been bringing their most cherished possessions to the mine by car and truck load and placing them at the foot of the mine shaft… The average depth of the salt deposits was six hundred feet below the earths’s surface. The removal of the salt had left storage spaces three hundred feet long, fifty feet wide and averaging seventy feet in height… We found out later that some of these areas, of which sixteen had been used for storage, were as high as ninety feet… The total area used covered approximately ten thousand square yards of mine floor. The real extent of the salt deposits had only partially been proven by test borings, but it was estimated that there were twenty square miles of minable salt in Heilbronn (J. Rorimer 139-140).

The almost constant temperature and humidity, roughly 50 degrees and 60 to 65 per cent respectively, guaranteed that the deposited works of art would not suffer from sudden changes in atmospheric conditions. German scientists had investigated the practicability of storing such objects in the mines for more than a year before they were used as repositories. Paintings and other objects were not affected by the moisture or action of the stable salt under the existing conditions. Iron was of course attacked by rust, but this could be prevented by coating it thickly with oil or grease. Thin films of salt dust deposited on works of art were not harmful and could be readily wiped off before the objects were removed from the mines. In the library of the Rosenberg headquarters in Paris I had found a volume dealing with the economy of Germany. In the section devoted to salt mining, I learned that before the war salt mines in Germany and Austria were producing about 10 per cent of the world’s supply. (J. Rorimer, 137-138)

The Kochendorf salt mine, five miles north of Heilbronn, was a very important repository… Unlike the storage chambers at Heilbronn, those at Kochendorf were some thirty-five feet above the water level and there was no danger of seepage… On July 9th, John Nicholas Brown, Lieutenant General Clay’s cultural adviser, and Lieutenant Colonel Mason Hammond of U.S. Group Control Council, went down into the Kochendorf mine with me. We looked at some of the contents – the famous Grünewald painting of the Virgin from the church at Stuppach, dozens of canvases from Stuttgart, and furniture from the Palace of Ludwigsburg. Here at least the Germans had done an excellent job of safeguarding their own treasures and those confiscated during their occupation of foreign lands. We decided that the wisest course would be to leave everything right were it was; it was safer here than it would be in the hands of unqualified personnel (J. Rorimer, 147-149).

When I read these passages from my grandfather’s chapter entitled, “Art Underground,” I knew that I wanted to visit a real salt mine, and if possible the same one that he wrote about in his book. Nowadays, the Heilbronn and Kochendorf Salt Mines are active during the week, so if you want to visit, you must go on a Saturday or a Sunday. Since 1984, the two mines have been connected underground, but only the Bad-Friedrichshall Kochendorf Salt Mine, a 30-minute drive from Heilbronn, is open to tourists. I arranged a ride with a local tour guide, Frau M.

Out of all the Monuments Girl excursions I had planned, I was most looking forward to touring the salt mine. However, I really hadn’t thought about what that meant in practical terms until I arrived at the visitor’s center. There was the superstructure of the mine shaft, just as my grandfather had described it, with two spinning wheels atop, supporting the elevator cables. I had been studying the black and white image in his book for weeks, trying to make sense of its architecture. As I approached, I was mesmerized by its striking resemblance and I grew weak in my knees. I wondered if It was too late to cancel, but I couldn’t. And I wouldn’t! I had come all this way for a very specific purpose. I wanted to experience a real salt mine.

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My guide forged ahead into the elevator, and I gingerly followed behind. A horde of other tourists crammed in like passengers at rush hour on a New York subway. I wanted to cling to Frau M., but I restrained myself and took deep breaths instead. The canvas elevator doors closed. I could see through the gaps to the elevator shaft. As we began to descend, the thought of taking the elevator down 200 meters suddenly sank in. How often do you get in an elevator and go down first? It’s a much different sensation than getting into an elevator and going up. When we reached the bottom, the doors opened, and I breathed in cool salt air. Frau M. began enumerating the wonderful health benefits of mineral-rich air, but all I could think about was whether we would have enough oxygen. “Not to worry,” she said, “there are air shafts, of course.”

Underground it was dark; The air felt heavy, and I steadied myself on the salty wall. For an hour and a half, we wandered through open caverns as wide as football fields and as high as cathedral domes. It was almost too much to try and imagine my grandfather and the 178 consecutive kilometers of hidden artwork, so I focused on acclimating instead.

After a while, I relaxed a little. High-tech interactive exhibits installed in 2011 brought levity and light. There was a short film about Pangea and the formation of salt deposits in the earth’s crust. Then there was an exhibit dedicated to the process of mining with a highly realistic dynamite “boom” that went off every few minutes, echoing throughout the gigantic chamber. I almost forgot I was in a salt mine when I walked through the laser-like moving light beam that gave the impression of swimming in water.

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But then it got heavy again. One exhibit was devoted to the history of a forced labor in the mine. Everything was in German, so I could only piece together information, but what little I gathered was enough. And actually, I didn’t want to imagine.

One area looked familiar, even though I’d never seen it before. Wooden crates of all sizes were stacked on top of each other. The colossal cavern dwarfed the large pile. I focused in on the informational video. My guide, who who had been interpreting informational plaques into English, grew silent. As we listened and watched, the topic became clear: removing hidden art from the salt mine at the end of World War II. The narrator was describing the work of the Monuments Men. I glanced at Frau M., then back to the screen, tapping my fingers excitedly on the railing in front of me. And then, as if in slow-motion, I heard, “…an American officer, James J. Rorimer, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City…” No translation was necessary.

I couldn’t believe it. There I was, 600 feet underground, in a salt mine, in a part of Germany few tourists visit, having traveled half-way around the world, and I was witnessing my grandfather’s legacy. I didn’t have to imagine him this time. The evidence made it very clear. Words failed me, but I knew without a doubt that I had made the right decision.

One of the small connecting tunnels, Kochendorf Salt Mine

One of the small connecting tunnels, Kochendorf Salt Mine

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9 thoughts on “600 Feet Underground

  1. Great! You have followed in your Grandfathers footsteps, he would be proud and thank you for the inside look at this fascinating topic.

  2. Sarah, I was a rifle squad leader in the company that crossed the river and landed on the Heilbronn salt mine on April 4, 1945. Of course, we didn’t know until the movie came out that the mine was there. It was a blog of yours tracing your grandfather’s route to the Heilbronn mine that showed that we had landed on the mine. I don’t remember a headframe, but perhaps wouldn’t have known one had I seen it. I haven’t been able to retrieve your blog mentioning Salzwerke Strasse and other streets. Can you help me?. I have written a number of things about the battle which would be of possible interest to you

      • Sarah,
        If you will send me a post office address I will send you a little book of wartime experiences, including Heilbronn. The blog I am looking for refers to your going to the surface facilities at the Heilbronn.mine. You describe seeing the street signs. One, as I recall, was Salzwerke Strasse., It was finding on Google the names in your description that showed me that we had landed on the mine. Here is a from the little book;

        The Salt Mine
        for Chester Merrill
        American Cemetery, Nancy, France

        We had crossed the river in those small boats
        and as we ran toward the wall I was hit
        and the medics, without hope, carried me to the command post
        and laid me among my dying comrades.

        They say where we crossed the river
        there is a salt mine and that they found there hidden treasure:
        thousands of paintings and other things unimaginable.
        There was a Rembrandt among the paintings
        and the ancient stained-glass windows, 12th to 14th centuries,
        from the cathedral at Strasbourg.
        The Nazi officers had orders
        to destroy it all, the so-called Nero Decree,
        but in the confusion of our attack
        the miners prevented the mine from being destroyed
        and an American officer who knew of the treasures
        appeared at the mine in time to keep it from flooding
        and everything was saved.

        I wish that as I lay there among my comrades
        we had known of the Rembrandt
        and those windows.

  3. Sarah,
    In one of your blogs you describe following street signs to the mine in Heilbronn. I can’t find that blog. Can you point me to it?

    Phil Ellsworth

  4. Sarah,

    I have found what I was looking for in “Monuments Men”. I have been documenting that our company landed on the salt mine when we crossed the Neckar during the battle of Heilbronn.

    Phil

    sarah

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