Things I learned as “Monuments Girl”

I write this final blog post from home, having returned stateside, leaving behind the grand European environs. It feels bittersweet to say goodbye to my Monuments Girl mission, tracing my grandfather’s footsteps and living life fully in the present, while focusing on puzzles of the past. I was just getting used to the rhythm of traveling by train, using my phrasebook, searching for WiFi, and making connections in unexpected places. At the same time, returning home to family never felt so good; it means so much to be able to share my new insights with loved ones. History normally seems so distant from modern life as a millennial.

It turns out that this trip was way bigger than the story of me and my grandfather. My personal connection to a piece of history became a window into much larger spheres. My journey became all about bridging gaps between generations, making peace between nations, understanding history, and realizing the interconnectedness of all people. It’s inspiring to think about the impact one individual can make, and how each one of us can make a difference, no matter what our field of expertise may be.

Out of all the things my grandfather wrote in “Survival,” by far my favorite is the statement he made having arrived in Germany in the spring of 1945. It bears the imprint of his strong moral backbone, his modus operandi. “The value of works of art to civilization is not limited by national boundaries” (J. Rorimer 137). It’s incredible that my grandfather was able to maintain this standpoint, in spite of the gruesome wartime conditions and the military groupthink at the time. Not only did he understand what things were, he also understood what they meant to individuals, to nations, and to the future history of civilizations. His legacy encourages us to look to the present and ask ourselves honestly if we are learning from the past or allowing history to repeat itself.

For a long time, I felt sad knowing that my grandfather died so young, in the midst of a grand career. It seemed that his family and everyone who knew him had been deprived of so much goodness. Now, I understand how fortunate he was to be able to return from war alive and well, to share his story by writing a book, and to re-establish civilian life with a loving family and a thrilling career. So many people never even had a chance to tell their stories after World War II. This fact has brought a newfound sense of gratitude: a sense of peace that washes away the pain of the past. Although I never met my grandfather in person, I can say that I feel I know him well now.

I’ll close with a quote from Cue Magazine in which my grandfather summarizes his wartime experiences.

Thank you for reading, commenting, sharing, and connecting in such meaningful ways during the last two weeks. It has been an incredible journey, and it would not have been nearly as rich, if it hadn’t been for you – my audience. Thank you so much for joining me!

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The Führerbau and the Munich Collecting Point

It was in the summer of 1921 that I first visited Munich with my father, who had been there in the 90’s, like many another American, to continue his education. He knew the city intimately and he loved its people and their way of life. Association with Bavarian friends and institutions afforded him something of the understanding that broadens the vision and opens the mind to an appreciation of other peoples’ culture. Visiting my father’s old haunts and meeting the friends who had colored his youthful studies left me with a feeling of lasting warmth. This first visit and a half dozen subsequent ones gave me an appreciation of Munich’s gardens, her museums of science and industry, and her food and beer, all of which offered pleasant foils to long hours spent in art museums and galleries rivaling those of Berlin.

The Munich to which I returned on May 7th, 1945, a few days after its capture by Seventh Army, held few reminders for me. The familiar green-topped towers of the Frauenkirche looked down on almost complete destruction. There was no longer any individuality; the rubble, the debris, the almost complete ruin, had a dreadful encompassing similarity. The Residenz, formerly the Bavarian Royal Palace, incorporating four centuries of celebrated architecture with grandiose interiors and housing artistic treasures of great distinction, was badly burned and shattered. Floors had collapsed and works of art which had not been moved to safe-keeping were completely destroyed or in almost hopeless condition… The Nazi official buildings, notably the Führerbau and the Verwaltungsbau, had suffered less because of elaborate camoflage systems and adequately manned fire fighting equipment.

The Führerbau was on the list Rose Valland had given me of repositories in Germany containing French art. This was Hitler’s Munich headquarters. The connecting building was the Party Administration building, the Verwaltungsbau der NSDAP. It was here that Hitler had made his selecitons, and it was the interim storehouse for objects to be deposited in the mine at Alt Ausee pending their eventual placement in his prospective museum in Linz…

I recommended the use of the Führerbau and the Verwaltungsbau as a central collecting point for the works of art looted by the Nazis, and requested that an MFA & A officer be sent to take charge. There were no other buildings in Bavaria so well suited to housing the Goering Collection, the Rosenberg and Hitler confiscations, and other looted items. Lieutenant (USNR) Craig Smyth arrived in Munich shortly thereafter, on June 4th, to take charge of the buildings and the myriad details which attended such an operation (J. Rorimer, 216-219).

On my last morning in Munich, I was invited to visit the central administration of the Bavarian Department of State-owned Palaces, Gardens and Lakes which is located at Nymphenburg Palace, about 30 minutes from the center of the city. It was a real treat to tour the palace and learn more about role of the Administration of Bavarian Castles in saving works of art during World War II. I also got to see the Marstallmuseum, a fabulous collection of royal carriages and sleighs housed in the former stables building. After my visit, I noticed a photograph of the Residenz Carriage Museum and Stables in my grandfather’s book. In 1941, the objects were moved from the Residenz in the center of Munich to their current location at Nymphenburg Palace. The photo below shows the result of the 1944 air raids on the Residenz Carriage Museum and Stables. It’s a very good thing that these spectacular objects were safeguarded.

For additional reading, see Robert Edsel’s blog on “The Establishment of the Munich Collecting Point”
http://www.monumentsmen.com/blog/tag/fuhrerbau/

Munich Residenz & Treasury

...[T]hirty reporters and newsreel men representing the world’s Press came to the castle [Neuschwanstein] to catch a glimpse of the phenomenal treasure house. I had not attempted a search for individual works of art. As far as I was concerned, this was an intelligence and security operation until such time as the bulk of the things could be returned to the French nation. I would have liked nothing better than to take the time to study all of these objects. It would have been particularly rewarding to go through part of the Munich Schatzkammer (Treasury) which had been brought to Neuschwanstein by the Administration of Bavarian Castles. I doubt if the ERR knew it was there. One of the old Bavarian keepers of the castle had confided to me that access to these treasures was hidden behind the stove in the kitchen (J. Rorimer, 191).

Objects from the Treasury in Munich

Objects from the Treasury in Munich

My grandfather’s reference to the Munich Residenz and Treasury made it an obvious destination for me. Plus, who can resist the allure of the such beautiful gold, diamond and pearl-embedded objects! When I met with the current-day representatives of the Administration of Bavarian Castles (Bavarian Department of State-owned Palaces, Gardens and Lakes), they recounted another story about the beloved Munich Treasury. It is said that two days before my grandfather arrived at Neuschwanstein, the objects were removed from behind the stove and relocated to another secret location. It is a very good thing that the individuals working for the Administration of Bavarian Castles had the foresight to keep these treasures safe, and it’s amazing to think that thanks to their work, the treasury is in tact and on display for the public to see. Check it out the next time you’re in Munich!

http://www.residenz-muenchen.de/englisch/treasury/pic11.htm

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

Something Old, Something New…

Heilbronn was desolate and almost deserted. It had been a railroad center of strategic importance and its chemical and other industrial plants had been expanded during recent years. Tens of thousands of German citizens had been killed in a twenty-eight-minute raid by our bombers and in the later artillery bombardments. The stench of unburied dead filled the town. The highest tower of the church of St. Killian had been used for German machine gun nests built into concrete reinforced cubicles. It was as battered as most of the other solidly built stone structures that had once been Heilbronn’s glory. (J. Rorimer,138)

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Church of St. Killian 1933-1944 (J. Rorimer, 178-179)

This morning I departed from Füssen, traveling on three trains eventually reaching the city of Heilbronn. Thankfully, it was not desolate nor deserted. After checking into my hotel, I headed for the church of St. Killian, just a 5-minute walk away. For most of the trip, I have been studying the striking before and after photos in my grandfather’s book (above), and I wanted to see for myself how much the church had changed since its bombardment on December 4th,1944.

I conduced a thorough inspection, both inside and out, as well as from above and below, studying the book as I went, looking for details of original stonework, and imagining myself in my grandfather’s shoes. Here’s what I discovered:

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Pilgrimage to Neuschwanstein

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Rose Valland had assured me that Füssen, south of Augsburg near the Austrian border, was the center for the Einsatzstab Rosenberg activities in Germany. It was there that the great shipments from France were sent during the years of 1940-43, and the archives and inventories assimilated and prepared (J. Rorimer, 160).

On May 1st, word came through that the castles at Füssen had been taken. And now, of all times, I was unable to get a vehicle. Our command expected to move momentarily to Augsburg, or perhaps even to Munich, and all conveyances would be required. In the absence of the chaplain, I unburdened myself to a Red Cross worker in an adjoining office. He told me that he had plenty of vehicles and could lend me a jeep. There was no regular driver available, but I wasn’t going to let this little detail deter me. I did the necessary first echelon maintenance check-up and prepared for the journey. My corporal, John Skilton, volunteered to go along… (J. Rorimer, 163).

The fairy-like castle of Neuschwanstein near Füssen had been built in a fantastic pseudo-Gothic style by the Mad Ludwig of Bavaria. As we approached it from the north through an open valley, it looked in its mountain setting like a prototype of all story-book castles… As the result of a telephone call I had put through to the VI Corps, the castle had been placed off limits, and orders had been issued that no one, regardless of rank, was to enter until I arrived… At the entrance to the castle there were two cannons mounted on armored cars on either side of the great iron doors. The Sergeant of the Guard reported that the castle had not been fortified by the Germans and that we had taken it without difficulty (J. Rorimer 183).

Skilton, a group of representative Military Government and security troops, and I started off to explore the castle… The verticality of the surrounding mountains was repeated in the structure of the castle, so that in going from one series of rooms to another one had the feeling of climbing up the mountainside. When we reached the second level, one of the watchmen produced the usual large cluster of keys, unlocked a door, and we proceeded upwards. At the end of this flight of exterior steps, we came to a room stacked to the ceiling with boxes and crates… The boxes were stenciled with the telltale ERR and other letters and numbers. I wouldn’t have wanted to have been alone; the thick walls with their tiny windowed apertures closed in around us.

We continued our climb up the next winding spiral staircase, and at the top still another door was opened and locked behind us. Except for the throne room and a few other rooms in the state apartments, all available space was used. Works of art were everywhere, most of them marked with Paris ciphers. Confusion indicated that this repository was being emptied when the Nazis had vanished a short time before the arrival of our troops. Here, and on the floors below, racks and specially prepared rooms recently plastered had been partly filled with paintings, rare furniture, tapestries, and other treasures confiscated from France. In addition, there were thirteen hundred paintings which had been sent here by the Administration of Bavarian Castles. These were from the Munich museums and the Residenz and the private collections of the royal Bavarian Wittelsbach family, and had been deposited here before the place was used by the ERR. In several of the rooms we found the art libraries of Paris collectors. Thrown behind and between the books were rare engravings, drawings and paintings. There was no time to look closely at any individual works of art; there were too many extraordinary objects of cultural value.

…In April of 1941 thirty special baggage cars of art objects, and in October of that same year twenty-three carloads more, had been brought here from France. One shipment alone of these objects back to France required 36 freight cars for 1,221 crates which contained 6,000 objects. I passed through the rooms as in a trance… (J. Rorimer, 184-185).

In the planning stages of my trip, I reached out to several of the locations I would be visiting, and one of them was the Castle Neuschwanstein. I soon received a response from the press department at the Bavarian Department of State-owned Palaces, Gardens and Lakes, which manages Neuschwanstein. It turns out that they were very interested in my upcoming trip to the castle. In fact, around the time of “The Monuments Men” movie release, a local reporter had written a story about the history of Neuschwanstein and its connection with the Monuments Men. The press department generously arranged a special tour for me and set up a meeting with the newspaper reporter.

As I approached the castle by bus this morning, I forgot to admire the breathtaking scenery because I had my nose in my book. I was studying my grandfather’s chapter on “The Rosenberg Repositories” and the discoveries at Neuschwanstein in the hopes that I would be prepared to speak intelligently about his experience at the castle.  (This habit has become a common theme on this trip, but I knew I was on a mission, and I would have the rest of the day to take in the scenery – along side hundreds of other tourists).

Before the official tour and my meeting with the reporter, two representatives met me at the information desk. One was a former tour guide at the castle who now worked in a higher up position. The other was a press representative with an art history background who had driven from Munich this morning to meet me. Both representatives appeared somewhere around my age, certainly from the same generation. They accompanied me on the official tour, adding in fun facts and extra details as we trailed at the back of the group.

It’s always interesting to meet people in person having been introduced via email. An official title just doesn’t provide the full picture of an individual. I don’t know who exactly I was expecting to meet, but I had the distinct sense that if I were going to be in Germany for a longer period of time, I would like to know them better. The most interesting part of the whole tour – besides of course viewing the opulent interiors and innovative architecture of the castle – was learning about these two young folks. I asked them if their grandparents had stories from World War II, and they shared a few anecdotes. They said it was hard to get their grandparents to talk about the war. I encouraged them emphatically to ask questions now!

As we talked, I tried to approach the conversation delicately. Having immersed myself in my grandfather’s perspective, I had to remember to disconnect history from the present. Luckily, it wasn’t hard to harbor warm feelings toward these individuals. They were upstanding for multiple reasons – both fluent in English, well versed in art and history, and beyond friendly, they struck me as shining ambassadors for Bavaria and for Germany.

These sentiments were echoed when I met with the newspaper reporter. The first thing he had me do was pose for a picture on the same steps where my grandfather had stood. It was a moving moment for us both. It was that same picture that prompted the reporter to begin investigating the history of Neuschwanstein during WWII, and he had found it difficult to find sources and information. I struck a pose with my own notebook (the one I’ve been using for my blog) and imagined my grandfather. I wonder if he ever had any idea that his future granddaughter would be standing where he stood, honoring his legacy, and learning history through the pages of his book.

After a thorough interview, the reporter bade me farewell, expressing gratitude for the fact that our generation of Germans and Americans feel an openness toward each other and do not harbor resentment for the actions of past generations. While I do not want to jump to conclusions, I can say, that for me, the upshot of today’s tour was a tangible sense of peace and mutual understanding.

I am deeply grateful to the press team at the Bavarian Department of State-owned Palaces, Gardens, and Lakes for going out of their way to make this a very special visit, and I am looking forward to meeting them once more in Munich at the end of my journey.

To paint the picture of Neuschwanstein in 1945, here’s a 30-second clip from the Monuments Men Foundation. You’ll also hear Monuments Man Harry Ettlinger speak about the treasures found within. Harry worked closely with my Grandfather in Germany. Nowadays, he speaks in public frequently about his wartime experiences.

You can also read Harry’s bio on the Monuments Men Foundation website:
http://www.monumentsmenfoundation.org/the-heroes/the-monuments-men/ettlinger-t-4-sgt.-harry-l

Or, you can read about Harry Ettlinger in this recent article from USA Today!

http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/07/25/real-life-monument-man-recounts-exploits/13194475/

Spotted in Paris

Although I’ve mentioned this before, I must reiterate the fact that being in France during the last week or so has been extra meaningful because of the timing.

When I planned this trip, I wasn’t really aware of the way my dates lined up to position my travels exactly 70 years after D-Day, the Liberation of Paris, and my grandfather’s landing in Normandy. Not only have I have come across many unexpected connections to the 70th anniversary, but also, since the general populace is aware of the historical significance of this time, people have been all the more responsive when I have approached them out of the blue.

Below are some photos of things I spotted in Paris over the past 5 days.  They all connect in some way or another with WWII or my grandfather or adventures fact-finding. I can definitely relate to the following quote from my grandfather’s chapter on Paris. “In the early days of September I chased around the city like a tourist who has but a few days to see Paris.” (J. Rorimer 55). I was that tourist!