A note from the past

I thought I had finished my last blog post a year ago, but it turns out that I have a few updates…

First, when I visited Neuschwanstein Castle, a local reporter named Markus Raffler interviewed me on the topic of my journey as “Monuments Girl.” Here’s the article, which appeared in the newspaper August 16, 2014.  

Monuments Girl German Article

Monuments Girl Article in Allgäuer Zeitung (German)

Monuments Girl Article in Allgäuer Zeitung (English translation)

Second, in February 2014, around the time when the “Monuments Men” movie was released, the same reporter wrote an article about the true story of hidden art at Neuschwanstein.  Below is a copy of the article in its original (German), as well as a version translated into English. (Shout out to my high school German teacher, Mary Ashcraft, who worked on both translations.)

The Treasure in Neuschwanstein Castle (German)

The Treasure in Neuschwanstein Castle (English translation)

And finally, a note from the past…

After leaving Munich, I headed straight for Ohio to visit family and reflect on my journey as “Monuments Girl.” On the last night before I was scheduled to leave, my parents and I had dinner at my aunt’s house where my grandmother, Katherine Serrell Rorimer (also known as K.K.) used to spend summers. While I was clearing dinner dishes, a pile of books on the staircase caught my eye. I paused to have a look. There was a copy of “Survival,” and underneath, was a German book entitled, “Die geraubte Kunst,” written by Kai Freimuth, all about stolen art in World War II.

(I remember when Kai visited my grandmother in the 80s. He was working on his Ph.D., and he spent several weeks interviewing her to learn about my grandfather and the MFA&A).

I picked up the book and began paging through, focusing mostly on the photographs, which were easier to understand than the German text. Just then, I noticed a small, white piece of paper sticking out. It was a note to me! I recognized my grandmother’s handwriting with the following instructions, “Sarah, read about Goslar, page 125.” My fingers flipped furiously through the book, locating the page. Sure enough, there was a section on Goslar, Germany with a two-page spread of the Kaiserpfalz, the Imperial Palace in the center of the town. The photograph showed the interior of the Great Hall piled from floor to ceiling with wooden crates and bundles of important looking papers – clear evidence of hidden art!

I ran into the kitchen to show my family,  “Look – K.K. wrote me a note!”

IMG_1969 - Version 2

I couldn’t believe the timing. My grandmother’s message had been sitting in that book for nearly two decades, just waiting to be found. Had I noticed it any earlier, it wouldn’t have meant all that much, but appearing at the end of my trip, it felt miraculous, like a seal of approval handed directly from my grandmother to me. Although the note was old, the thought was fresh, and I was finally ready to receive it.

You may be wondering about the significance of Goslar. When I was 15 years old, I spent three weeks there as part of a high school summer exchange. I remember sitting on the lawn in front of the Kaiserpfalz with my friends one evening. Little did I know, I was a stone’s throw from MFA&A wartime activities. In my grandmother’s lifetime, Goslar was perhaps the closest I came to retracing my grandfather’s footsteps. K.K. must have understood the significance of that place when she wrote me the note.

Although it took another 15+ years, as well as a bestselling book and a major motion picture for me to take an active interest in the Monuments Men, finding my grandmother’s note brought back the same strange feeling I had experienced on the steps of Neuschwanstein Castle – it was like being in a time-warp. At that moment, the linear timeline I had been following collapsed into a single point; my grandmother was long gone, but in fact, she was right there.

I couldn’t help but wonder, “If only they knew… What would K.K. think about my trip? What would my grandfather say? What kinds of journeys will my grandchildren embark upon? What will they think about me?”

Fortunately, God knows, and time will tell.


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!

The Liberation of Paris

…After checking-in, we were sent to the Hôtel du Louvre to spend what was left of the night. It was absurd, but here in the midst of destruction was this comfortable hotel with hot and cold running water, and big, high-ceilinged rooms, each with French doors, drapes, and a balcony. Just for a moment it was like pre-war Paris. (J. Rorimer, 47)

Hôtel du Louvre

Hôtel du Louvre

Although I'm not staying at the Hôtel du Louvre, my room does have high ceilings, drapes and a balcony!

Although I’m not staying at the Hôtel du Louvre, my room does have high ceilings, drapes and a balcony!

After breakfast…I crossed the Rue de Rivoli for a walk through the Tuileries to the Louvre. Each hour brought more Parisians to the streets. By and large, the rejoicing over our arrival was so real and unconditional that almost everyone, except those actively engaged in immediate combat problems, momentarily ignored the need for facing realities. Champagne flowed from bottles which had been artfully concealed form the Germans. We were witnessing a turning point in the fortunes of a great nation after four years of enslavement. For the French, August 26th is as memorable as the day that Joan of Arc rode into Orléans, or the day the French stormed the Bastille… In the offices of the Louvres nothing much seemed changed from the last time I had been there five years before, until I looked out of the window and saw hundreds of captured German soldiers coralled in the courtyard, and American anti-aircraft equipment being set up on the grounds.

I crossed Rue de Rivoli several times this afternoon!

I made sure to cross the Rue de Rivoli today!

As the monuments specialist officer for Paris it was my responsibility to advise the Commanding General of Seine Section and his Assistant Chief of Staff, G-5, in all matters pertaining to the art and culture of this metropolis and the surrounding Ile de France. I had to promote our relations with the French, to see that they helped themselves, to get them to help carry out our program, and to report my findings and actions taken by our command through technical channels to SHAEF… Early the next morning I stepped out onto the balcony and breathed the almost palpable atmosphere of Paris. Below me stood the Louvre and the Palais Royal (J. Rorimer, 48-49).


Louvre, 2014

Palais Royal

Palais Royal

Using my grandfather’s descriptions as a guide, I walked around the center of Paris today. My friend has joined me here, and we realized after we took this picture that we had been standing in the courtyard of the Louvre on the same ground as the German soldiers!

Courtyard at the Louvre

Courtyard at the Louvre

One month later, on September 25th, my grandfather wrote home about the liberation of Paris.


“You’ve got the Paris post!”

Most of us desperately hoped that our outfits, or we as individuals, would be moved to Paris, whose liberation was expected momentarily. Higher headquarters began to take an even greater interest in the accomplishments of the Civil Affairs section. My colleagues and I left the field for a couple of days to prepare our respective reports on MFA & A, refugees, public safety, and feeding of the inhabitants. There was beginning to be much talk of new assignments. Captain Ralph Hammett, with whom I had traveled about Normandy, was going over preliminary notes I had made and documents I had gathered. At this point, his chief, Brigadier General Cuthbert Stearns, Assistant Chief of Staff, G-5 for ETOUSA and Communications Zone, bellowed my name from down the hall.

I hopped up to answer, wondering what I was going to get chewed-out about.

“Hammet has told me of your qualifications,” he said, without further ceremony, “your Paris connections and background. You’ve got the Paris post. Get there as soon as you can. Our troops will be there sooner than you think.”

I was on my way to Paris, the greatest art center on earth. (J. Rorimer, 45)

By September 7th, my grandfather was so consumed by his work in Paris that he forgot his own birthday.


Now that I’ve made it to Paris too, I’m off to retrace some more footsteps! I’ll be here for 5 days, but that hardly seems like enough time.  Already, I can tell that I will have to come back!

My Grandfather’s First Monument

From the 18-passenger tour bus window, I scoured the landscape of the French countryside, looking for church steeples, checking my map, then reading and re-reading my grandfather’s narrative. It wasn’t long before I had announced to the entire tour group that I was “Monuments Girl.” Our tour guide Stephane was fabulously knowledgeable about all things relating to D-Day and WW II.  He and my fellow traveling companions were very patient as we made several special stops so that I could hop off the bus and snap photos of monuments mentioned in my grandfather’s book.

Saint-Madeleine, the first monument James Rorimer surveyed, near Utah Beach

Saint-Madeleine, the first monument James Rorimer surveyed, near Utah Beach

August 3, 1944
We had zigzagged for a couple of days far from the usual peacetime courses of Dover-Calais and Folkstone-Boulogne, and had landed on the bleak Normandy coast at Utah Beach, scene of the initial landing on D-Day. From there I thumbed my way to the headquarters building of Beach Operations, where I telephoned to the Advance Section Communications Zone and spoke to my new commanding officer.

While waiting for transportation I made my first notes on destruction a few hundred yards from the beach. Here was a small chapel, not mentioned in any of our lists. “Chapel called Ste.-Madeline,” I wrote. “Fr. McAvoy has posted a signed calling for daily services at 1700. Good sixteenth-century Renaissance architecture in Maison Carée style. Fragments which can be used for restoration are in and about the immediate area which is off the highway. Main portal damaged by fragmentation from the south, or west. One lierne rib damaged. Wooden roof with stones is in good condition except for minor damage.” Then I took a photograph for the record (J. Rorimer, 3-4).

As you can imagine, I was elated by today’s discovery, and I am deeply indebted to Stephane for helping me find my grandfather’s first monument!

Normandy Beach Remnants

This is a pictorial summary of the WW II remnants I saw today.  I’ll let the history books be the experts on the wartime details.  Suffice it to say that today’s tour gave me a much better understanding of the geography, scale, logistics, strategies, and landscape in Normandy.

After visiting the Normandy American Memorial Cemetary, Omaha Beach, Utah Beach, Pointe du Hoc, the Airborne Museum, and several other places of interest, it’s clear to me that my grandfather’s story is just one of many, many, many awe-inspiring stories, and I’m just beginning to understand all of the layers!

Also, here’s a map.  (It’s in German, but since the place names are mostly French, it doesn’t really matter.  I think the pictures are informative).

DDay Map






Mistaken for a Spy

The following words are taken from Chapter 1 of my grandfather’s book, “Survival: The Salvage and Protection of Art in War,” 1950. In most cases, the photos are mine.

In Normandy, with our troops waiting for the Avaranches break-through, I was able to cover most places that had not been visited by other monuments officers about to move forward. The nearer to Germany, the more I found trying to cover my sector like trying to clear the woods of acorns… With the dead to be buried, the communications systems to be repaired, and all the other “firsts,” it required the enthusiasm and perseverance of a devout lover of the arts to accomplish anything beyond the posting of signs and the recording of damage (J. Rorimer, 9).

At this point First Army had cleared the Germans from Saint-Lô and Coutances, the Third Army had cut off the Brittany peninsula before sweeping north from Le Mans around the southern flank of the Germans’ Normandy positions. I tried to contact Captain Posey, Third Army’s monuments officer, to get information on conditions in Mont-Saint-Michel…The tides, the many mines and other obstacles placed along the uncertain quicksand beaches had been sufficient bulwark to prevent an Allied landing from the sea. History had proven maritime operations in these waters to be hazardous to the extreme. The high tides, which recede for a distance of more than seven miles and roll in faster than a horse can gallop, make driving on the sands impossible… (J. Rorimer 20)

Low Tide High Tide

Low Tide / High Tide from my Hotel Room in the Rampart

I wondered if this inaccessibility would now continue to be its salvation…What if the thirteenth-century cloister, the church, the large Salle de Chevaliers, with its pointed vaulting supported by a triple row of columns, should be used for military installations and become the objective of enemy fire? … I decided that I would have to go to Mont-Saint-Michel as soon as possible.


The Cloister

Abbey from West Terrace

The Abbey Church from the West Terrace

Stained Glass

Stained Glass Windows in the Abbey Church


Gothic Ceiling with Crossed Ribs

Mont-Saint-Michel was not easy to reach. It stood about one hundred miles from our headquarters at Catz and was at the far end of Advance Section headquarters. There were the inevitable rumors that we would be moving our headquarters at almost any time, and these served to tie up transportation even more seriously than usual. I momentarily forgot Mont-Saint-Michel’s remoteness from the main road when I suggested to my new commanding officer that I could walk there from the main Avranches-Rennes highway, over which were busily moving mountains of supplies coming into Normandy at an ever-increasing rate now that the seas had subsided.

“You idiot,” the Colonel said irritably. “This is twentieth-century war. Who gives a damn about mediaeval walls and boiling pitch?” Then he momentarily relented… “All right,” he said gruffly. “Get going. But let me tell you, Rorimer, you’d better get there in a hurry and come back fast. If you get left behind…”

I had no trouble getting as far as Avranches. The roads were alive with GI vehicles…Transportation [there] was no problem by reason of its being almost non-existent. I got an occasional ride, but for part of the way I was a reluctant foot soldier. I soon realized that I would never make it before dark unless I did get a ride, and I hailed a civilian car. The driver had lost all his possessions except this car, which he had just retrieved from under a hay mound on a friend’s farm, following the long siege of Saint-Malo. The Germans had surrendered there just a few hours before. He dropped me at the end of the causeway outside of Mont-Saint-Michel.

MSM Causeway

Mont-Saint-Michel (J. Rorimer, 1944 / S. Rorimer, 2014)

I had visited this stronghold of the Middle Ages when I was a boy. I had many recollections of the small village built on the sides of the curiously isolated rock formation connected with the mainland by an almost mile-long causeway built in the nineteenth century. I walked the plank bridge over the sands leading to the unguarded gateway. Three OFF LIMITS signs were completely ineffectual. The scene was one of almost indescribable bedlam. This was the one place on the continent which was unguarded, undamaged and open for business-as-usual. Even a British brigadier had found haven in one of the rooms of the hotel for himself and his lady companion. Each day more than a thousand soldiers came, drank as hard and fast as they could, and, feeling the effects, became boisterous beyond the power of local control. The shopkeepers had at first thought that American soldiers would not loot; they had’t counted on these soldiers being drunk.


Tourist Scene in the Village of Mont-Saint-Michel

Passing beneath heavily fortified archways, I clambered toward the picturesque abbey topping the mount. Streets winding beneath the windows of the old houses led up to the final, seemingly interminable flight of steps to the Benedictine abbey. Neither time nor tourists had, until now, been able to dispel its air of serenity mixed with grimness and self-sufficient solitude. In the short time at my disposal I posted warnings, locked all doors leading to dangerous parapets, shut off some of the rooms where further damage could be done, and advised a return to the regular opening and closing hours set by the Beaux-Arts instead of the endless hours demanded by the carousing soldiers. The chief custodian of the monastery and one of the guards had been taken as prisoners to Germany. The former’s wife and one armed guard had done their best to maintain order. Among the hundreds of soldiers, the only officer I could find who might have authority to control the situation was an Air Corps MP captain who was investigating the facilities for bringing troops on pass from an airfield in the vicinity. He told me that the Air Corps had no interest in and no control over ground troops. I was to discover this was not the case when I had further dealings with him the following morning.


Hiking up to the Abbey


“Interminable” Flight of Steps

That night I stayed ad the hotel of La Mère Poulard. Before dinner I was authorized by the Sub-Prefect from Avranches, at a conference with the Mayor of Mont-Saint-Michel, to decide after further investigation whether the town should be entirely closed to troops…We weighed the matter during dinner, and just before bedtime decided that Mont-Saint-Michel with its poetic, historic and artistic atmosphere must, in spite of some good arguments to the contrary, remain open to our troops.


Hotel La Mère Poulard, 2014

Early the next morning the Air Corps MP I had met the preceding day approached me in the hotel dining room and asked to see my papers. He had obviously been dwelling on the fact that the authority I seemed to have was incompatible with my rank of second lieutenant, and furthermore, I had arrived without a vehicle. This latter fact was too much for him. He found it inconceivable that any officer would travel without his own personal transportation.

He concluded that I must be a German spy and, envisioning a hero’s reception for himself, carted me off to his headquarters where I was obliged to sign oaths and papers of every description while copies were made of my papers. It was finally necessary that we go back to Pontorson where we found a Civil Affairs officer who identified me and cleared up the matter for the disappointed captain.

That same day I arrived back at my outfit. When I reached headquarters, I found my belongings already on a truck. (J. Rorimer, 37-41)

Leaving MSM

Leaving Mont-Saint-Michel

N.B. I typed this post while traveling from MSM to Bayeux, and my train passed through Avaranches. Here’s a photo I snapped from the train window. I’m so glad I didn’t have to hitchhike or walk the way my grandfather did!