Last evening PBS screened the fascinating documentary “The Rape of Europa“, a film based on the book of the same name by Lynn Nicholas, which tells the story of looted and destroyed works of art during World War II. The film combines the detailed historical scholarship of the author with astounding footage and stills of what was lost or stolen during the war. Among these were the tragic stories of the destruction of the Royal Castle in Warsaw and the frescoes of the Camposanto in Pisa. Of all the stories told, however, none made more of an impression upon me than that of the redoubtable Rose Maria Antonia Valland (1898-1980), a lady whose life story proves that one does not need to be a superhero to engage in truly heroic acts.
At the time of the Nazi invasion of France, Mme. Valland was an art historian employed by the Louvre as administrator of the Jeu de Paume Museum in Paris. Today housing contemporary art, in 1940 the former real tennis courts building housed a number of the Louvre’s Impressionist pieces (now in the Musée d’Orsay.) Then in her early 40’s, no doubt Mme. Valland hoped that her work at the Jeu de Paume might some day, if she were successful, get her a more plum curatorial position inside the Louvre itself. She could have had no idea of what was to happen next.
Ahead of the fighting, much of the French national collection from the Louvre was taken out of Paris and hidden at chateaux and monasteries in the French countryside. Smaller museums, art dealers, and private collectors in Paris were not so lucky. Hitler, Göring, and others in the Nazi leadership had an insatiable appetite for art and began the systematic plunder of Paris’ collections. The vast scale of this operation required a central warehousing point, and the Germans chose the halls of the Jeu de Paume for this purpose. One can imagine Mme. Valland’s horror as she saw pieces from the Rothschild collection arriving at her museum.
While in person Mme. Valland may have appeared to be nothing more than a little school librarian of a lady, she had a keen resolve. When they occupied the museum, the Nazis kept her on as the administrator, which would later prove to be a colossal mistake on their part. For you see, Mme. Valland never let her Nazi overlords know that she was completely fluent in German.
No one noticed the mousy woman with her thick glasses scurrying among the works of art, looking at documents and eavesdropping on conversations, all the while making mental notes about where the pieces had come from and where they were headed. Using her remarkable memory, each evening she would go home from work and document, in a secret diary, everything that had come into the Jeu de Paume. While powerless to stop the removal of the art, she was nevertheless able to warn French Resistance fighters about which trains headed out of the city contained the looted masterpieces, so that these cars would not accidentally be blown up and the art lost forever.
Mme. Valland managed to keep up this deception, undetected and at great peril to her own life, for four years until the Allied liberation of Paris. After the war she was able to help return thousands of pieces of art to their rightful collections, not only as a result of her amazing diary, but also by working with museums and post-war governments on the restitution and conservation of art. For her efforts, she was showered with numerous honors, including membership in the French Legion of Honor and the award of the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom. This truly remarkable lady, small though she was, should be an inspiring example to anyone who feels overwhelmed by difficult circumstances in which they may find themselves.