‘The Monuments Men’: Courage on film, in life
by Judy Elliott
February 23, 2014 12:00 AM | 1794 views | 0 0 comments | 39 39 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The explanation for George Clooney’s license to add fictional scenes to the plot of his new movie, “The Monuments Men,” is “History, yes, but movie history.”

So, did one flesh-and-blood monuments man, played by Bill Murray, get a lead on a cache of stolen Impressionist art, its whereabouts known by a nephew of the German dentist who pulled his aching tooth? Indeed he did.

But did Rose Valland, a brave assistant at the Jeu de Paume Museum in Paris, secretly spit in Nazi Hermann Goering’s glass before he drank champagne as priceless art was taken for his estate in Germany?

Probably not, but it is a moment of victory in the movie, a bow to the bravery of Valland, who pretended she did not understand German as she listened in on Nazi plots, kept a ledger of art works taken and their destinations, then passed the information to French Resistance operatives.

She risked being shot. After the war, as Goering’s fate as a war criminal was set in stone at Nuremberg, Valland stood at his estate, overseeing the packing of stolen museum treasures for their return to France.

There could have been no sweeter retribution for her as one of a few dozen women who would track down stolen art for decades to come.

The original small band of “Monuments Men,” respected in American and British museum circles as curators and scholars, volunteered to don uniforms and serve near the front, working to save centuries-old monasteries and churches and searching for paintings taken through Nazi pillaging.

After the German surrender, more than 300 civilians, known as the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Section, kept at it as finders of art.

The number of stolen treasures found was mind-boggling, thousands of medieval church bells, slated to be melted to make German weapons, the rose granite lions from the Louvre in Paris, tens of thousands of paintings, many stacked in an underground salt mine in Austria.

What Hitler did not burn, (destroying contemporary art, including Picassos, paintings his deranged mind found offensive) he hid to fulfill his egomaniacal dream of a Fuhrer’s museum to be built in Linz.

Before their story was told on film, the book, “The Monuments Men,” followed eight of the original group, those serving in France, the Netherlands, Germany and Austria, as they uncovered priceless art and sculpture.

One, Harry Ettlinger, a 19-year-old driver and translator, is remembered in the movie as a young soldier, photographed with Rembrandt’s self-portrait, found hundreds of feet underground in a mine.

Stolen from a museum in Ettlinger’s hometown of Karlsruhe, Rembrandt’s work had hung on a wall blocks from Ettlinger’s boyhood home, but he had never been allowed to see it, forbidden to enter the museum because he was Jewish.

In a recent article, Ettlinger, now in his 80s and living in New Jersey, is not bitter. “Our attitude,” he said, speaking of the Allies’ Monuments Men, “was we were not there to take spoils of war, but to give them back.”

In May 1945 in the mining village of Altaussee, Austria, two of the Monuments Men found tunnels into a salt mine, blocked, following an explosion of German bombs.

Miners using picks and shovels cleared enough debris away for a man to crawl through. Deep in the mountain, two Monuments Men found the Bruges Madonna, Michelangelo’s 16th-century marble sculpture, covered with an old mattress.

Sixty-nine years later, Germany has a new minister of culture, Monika Grutters. She will oversee a center where research on provenance needed to return stolen art will be compiled.

Her decision to centralize the work of restitution follows the 2012 discovery of more than 1,280 paintings and drawings in the Munich apartment of the son of an art dealer who had ties to the Nazis.

In a new Germany, for museums and families, their paintings stolen by a demonic enemy, the work of the Monuments Men (and women) goes on.

Judy Elliott lives and writes in Marietta.
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