Robert Edsel's Blog

Blog entries for the ‘Amazing Stories’ Category

Monuments Woman Anne Olivier Bell Turns 100!

June 20th, 2016 | 1:00 am

Today is the 100th birthday of Anne Olivier Bell, one of just two living Monuments Women. Following the end of World War II in Europe, Anne was commissioned as a Major in the British Army and reported for duty to the British Monuments, Fine Arts & Archives headquarters in Bünde, Germany. There she coordinated day to day operations to recover works of art that had been stolen by the Nazis from caves and mine, where they had been hidden for safekeeping, including the spectacular discovery at Grasleben.

December 2007. At Winfield House, residence of the Ambassador of the United States to the United Kingdom, with Anne Olivier Bell and Ambassador Robert H. Tuttle. Photo Courtesy of Robert M. Edsel Collection.

Anne had another very successful career years later as a researcher for her husband Quentin’s book on his aunt, Virginia Woolf, and her own literary achievement, The Diary of Virginia Woolf. This five volume work consumed twenty-five years to complete.  It remains the definitive source on the life of Woolf.   For her achievements Anne was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. She continues to devote time supporting the Charleston Trust, which manages Charleston House, country home of the historic Bloomsbury Group, an influential gathering of writers, artists, and philosophers.

The Monuments Men Foundation wishes Olivier, as she now prefers to be called, the very happiest of birthdays.

You can read more about Anne’s life at http://www.monumentsmenfoundation.org/the-heroes/the-monuments-men/popham-anne

 

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Memorable weekend in Fort Meade with the 352nd Civil Affairs Command

May 17th, 2016 | 11:08 am

I’ve had many memorable experiences during the past thirteen years researching and writing about the Monuments Men and women, but few compare to my trip to Fort Meade, Maryland, to spend time with the 352nd Civil Affairs Command on the occasion of their 50th anniversary.  Civil Affair soldiers are doing remarkable work in conflict zones all over the world, in particular those with the 352nd, ranging from rescue missions like the one that followed the earthquake in Haiti, to protecting cultural property and other important monuments in Iraq and Afghanistan war zones.  Deployment of these volunteers to troubled spots around the world is increasing in frequency and duration to meet the ever growing needs.  Their professionalism and commitment to mission redefine bravery and service to others.  It was an honor for me to meet so many of them and listen to some of the challenges they must overcome.

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With Brigadier General Alan L. Stolte, Commanding General of the 352nd, and Command Sergeant Major Earl G. Rocca

Brigadier General Alan Stolte, Commanding General of the 352nd, and Command Sergeant Major Earl Rocca, both distinguished combat veterans, kindly included me in one of their mid-day briefings before allowing me time to make a presentation addressing General Eisenhower’s leadership role in the preservation of works of art and monuments during World War II.  I also had a chance to discuss the experiences of the Monuments Men during World War II—both what worked, and what didn’t, and how we can learn from those experiences to do a better job protecting cultural property in conflict zones today.  It’s amazing how life comes full circle:  just that morning, I had a wonderful tour of the Fort George G. Meade Museum by its director, Robert Johnson, where I saw numerous photographs of a very young Dwight D. Eisenhower and George S. Patton taken in the 1920’s during their assignment to Fort Meade.

Mid-day briefing and Q&A

The role of those serving in the Army Reserve is greatly misunderstood by the general public.  Far from being weekend soldiers, these men and women are often on extended missions that place them in harm’s way alongside active duty soldiers.  Like the Monuments Men and women of World War II, those serving in the 352nd Civil Affairs Command often find themselves in operational deployments that take them into war zones including Panama (1989), Desert Shield (1990), Desert Storm (Iraq and Kuwait-1991), Somalia (1993), and Bosnia (1996).  They have been in continuous service post-9/11 with multiple tours of duty in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Horn of Africa.

More than 200 guests attended that evening’s Spring Formal wearing their “dress blues.”  I was honored to be included in the official receiving line and have the chance to greet each of them and their spouses.  Following dinner I delivered formal remarks to the audience along with my thanks for the many sacrifices they and their families make in defense of our nation and, as I pointed out during my comments, in perpetuating the legacy of the Monuments Men and women.  But the most poignant moment occurred afterward my remarks with the tribute to those killed in service.  “Historically, following battle, units are reassembled and a roll call is conducted to identify those soldiers that are wounded, missing, or killed in action.”  Having made that statement, Command Sergeant Rocca conducted roll call, stating each name three times while a photograph of that particular fallen comrade appeared on the screen.  By my count there were about seventeen names, including several women, who had been killed in action, another painful reminder that freedom is not free.

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50th Anniversary Dinner

Our nation is truly blessed to have such mature, well-informed men and women in uniform doing work that is vital to the best interests of our nation and people of good will everywhere.

 

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Happy Birthday to Monuments Man Rouben Sami!

August 15th, 2015 | 5:45 am

Today, I’d like to wish a happy 94th birthday to Monuments Man Rouben Sami!

I was privileged to meet with Rouben and his wife Lee at their home in Florida just this past year, the 21st? Monuments Man I’ve met and interviewed during my many years of research. His recollections about the work he did as Deputy Director of the Offenbach Archival Depot (OAD) brought back a flood of memories for me about another Monuments officer I interviewed and came to love—Colonel Seymour Pomrenze.  In fact, it was Col. Pomrenze who recruited Rouben to assist with the daunting work being done at the OAD.

It was clear that Rouben loves to laugh. He joked about being one of the few workers at the Depot who had the use of a Jeep, saying, “All the officers were my good friends because they had no vehicles!” He also mentioned that, because he knew so many foreign languages, officers would shout, “Where’s Rueben? Get Rueben! He can talk to us!”

The five-floor Depot was home to approximately 2.5 million books and manuscripts, which the Nazis looted from more than sixty libraries across Europe and Russia. As Deputy Director between May and August 1946, Rouben was responsible for the successful return of hundreds of thousands of these documents and volumes to the their respective homelands.

Though they spoke many different languages and came from different walks of life, Rouben and his colleagues at the OAD shared common ground in their commitment to return every single object to its rightful owner.

Rouben hailed from New York City, but he was in fact raised in Palestine.  Not surprisingly, the return of Hebrew books and rare manuscripts stolen from synagogues and individuals carried with it special significance for him. He later said, “I loved the job because I was helping my own people.”

Thank you, Rouben Sami, for your devoted service as a Monuments Man. I join with thousands of others to wish you a happy birthday filled with many more years of wonderful memories.

Rouben’s wife, Lee, and I look on as Rouben Sami signs a copy of Rescuing Da Vinci. Each one of the Monuments Men and women I’ve interviewed has signed this book making it the most rare and treasured document among hundreds in the collection of the Monuments Men Foundation.

 

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Monuments Man Lennox Tierney passes away at age 101

June 18th, 2015 | 12:05 pm

Monuments Man Lennox Tierney has died, age 101. Only five Monuments officers are still living.  Of the twenty Monuments Men and women I have interviewed, only Tierney and Sherman Lee had served in the Pacific Theater, primarily in Japan. Fluent in Japanese, and a greater scholar of Asian art, Tierney was assigned to General MacArthur’s occupation headquarters as Commissioner of Arts and Monuments following the end of the war. In this role, he advised General MacArthur on all topics regarding arts, monuments, and culture, in particular the restoration of damaged cultural sites. He also photographed cultural sites, compiled reports, and served as translator to General MacArthur and his staff as needed. Tierney often worked independently at Occupation Headquarters liasing directly with other Monuments Men including Langdon Warner, Laurence Sickman, and of course Sherman Lee. He served in this position until 1952, but remained in Japan thereafter to continue his study of Japanese arts.

Lennox had a very long and distinguished career as a teacher sharing his lifelong knowledge and love of Japan and its cultural history with others.  When we met last year in Salt Lake City, Lennox—at 101 years of age—was in the late stage planning for another trip to Japan accompanying another of the many groups interested in learning more about this fascinating culture.  I marveled at his energy, drive, and enthusiasm.

Robert Edsel presents Lennox Tierney with an American flag that was flown over the U.S. Capitol

 

With the passing of Lennox Tierney the world loses another remarkable member of the “Greatest Generation,” whose sense of shared sacrifice helped build the world we enjoy today.  Japan’s cultural heritage is richer because of Lennox Tierney; so too is the United States for introducing so many Americans to that country’s great treasures.  He will be missed!

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Eight Years Honoring the Heroes!

June 6th, 2015 | 10:57 am

Eight years ago, on the 63rd anniversary of the D-Day landings, I announced the formation of the Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art.  Four Monuments Men participated in that ceremony.  Today only one of those four is still with us bringing the number of living Monuments Men and women to just six.  We always knew we were in a race against time to gather their stories and honor them.  What I couldn’t know at the time was the degree of success the Foundation would have in achieving its objective to raise worldwide awareness of theses heroes and honor them for their achievements.  One feature film, and two more books, would introduce their legacy to a global audience.  Through the advocacy of the Foundation they would receive honors from two different presidents and the members of Congress.  Soon they will receive the Congressional Gold Medal, our nation’s highest civilian honor.

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In front of Michelangelo's Bruges Madonna, June 2015

As I walk the streets of Bruges, Belgium on a day when we remember the enormity of the sacrifice of young men who fought their way onto the bloodied beachheads of Normandy, and the courage of their leaders—in particular General Eisenhower, who made that fateful decision to “GO,” I give thanks also for the handful of Monuments Men and women who selflessly volunteered for military service to help preserve so much of the cultural world we enjoy today.  The world we have inherited is profoundly richer for the great objects of beauty they helped saved, none more so than Michelangelo’s Bruges Madonna which I visited this morning.

The Monuments Men Foundation team has accomplished much, but as the daily destruction and theft of cultural treasures in Syria, Iraq, and now Yemen remind us, much remains to be done.  Please join the Monuments Men Foundation and learn how you can help us reestablish the respect for the cultural treasures of others that defined the work of these scholar-soldiers.

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70th Anniversary of the Near Destruction of ‘The Last Supper’

August 15th, 2013 | 10:12 am

Earlier this summer I sat down with my friend Nick Mueller, President and CEO of the National WWII Museum, and discussed measures taken to preserve works of art in Italy during the war, including the precautions that ultimately saved ‘The Last Supper’ in Milan from destruction during the August 15/16, 1943 raid.

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70th Anniversary of the near destruction of ‘The Last Supper’

August 15th, 2013 | 9:43 am

 Today marks the 70th Anniversary of the August 15-16, 1943 raid on Milan which nearly destroyed Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece ‘The Last Supper’.  I describe this remarkable event in great detail in my new book Saving Italy; you can read an excerpt here: https://medium.com/history-and-politics/443d30976fb2

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Bombing of Milan

August 8th, 2013 | 6:00 am

(Light filters through the shattered 19th century glass-vaults of the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan after the air raids of August 1943. Photo from Rosa Auletta Marrucci, ed., Bombe sulla città: Milano in guerra 1942–1944 (Milan: Skira, 2004).)

Seventy years ago today, the bombing of Milan began in earnest. Until spring of 1942, WW2 bombing of Italian and European cities had mostly consisted of daily incursions aimed at military targets. When sir Arthur Harris was put in charge of the British Bomber Command, in February 1942, area bombing became the new normal practice. It consisted of multiple raids, which were carried out at night and the objectives were oftentimes highly populated areas. These raids were inevitably less precise than the day attacks and unsurprisingly killed many more innocent victims.

As one Italian newspaper reported, on August 18th, 1943: “the frequent and intense bombing by the Anglo-American aviation on the Italian territory, with the subsequent destruction of the cities and the massacre of helpless population, goes way beyond the normal practice of war. For our enemies, it is no longer about the pursuing of military targets…their purpose is obviously a terrorist one.” (Saving Italy, 39)

By Summer 1943, the British Bomber Command had started to plague Italian towns. Those dangerous nights with a full moon and cloudless sky were called “notti da inglesi” (British nights). On August 8th, 1943 at 00:52 the first of many consecutive air raid sirens broke the silence of the night in Milan.  197 Lancasters left the British base, most of them directed towards Milan.  Some records report that 161 people were killed, 281 were injured.

Two of the survivors have recently entrusted the Italian newspaper Il Corriere della Sera with some of their memories of those dramatic days.  Lamberto Caimi, now 82 years old, was just a boy back in 1943. He still remembers the fast runs to the air raid shelters every time the sirens went off, and the fear of being buried alive. The situation in Milan was miserable; the black market existed only for “those who had the money.” Everyone else was seen gathering branches and grass from neighboring parks to warm themselves up with some improvised fires.  Sergio Udine, now 87 years old, recalls standing on the roofs of the buildings tirelessly removing fragments of incendiary bombs. “I would get off of the roofs only to help the older ones removing corpses”, Udine says.

The raid of August 8th, 1943 was the first, yet not the last, time that historical buildings of Milan were badly damaged. More bombing followed on the nights of August 13th, 14th and 15th. The Duomo, the Castello Sforzesco, the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, the Palazzo Reale, the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II and the Teatro alla Scala were just a few of the many buildings that suffered horrible scars of war. What was left after Summer 1943 was a destroyed city and a shocked population.

Ten years ago, Caimi created the film Desmentegass. Molti non ricordano on the witnessed of the Milan bombing. With the approaching of the 70th anniversary, he attempted once again to find somebody interested in a new production to “keep alive the memory, to leave it as an inheritance … to the new generations.” This time, however, he found almost no support at all; only four students from the School of Cinema said they might make a short film in 2014. “The number of survivors like me drops season after season” Caimi remarks, “but you see, who did not live the bombs, will never be able to understand.”

 

 

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Helmutt Ruhemann and the Monuments Men

July 16th, 2013 | 4:01 pm

(photo from the Helmutt Ruhemann Archives at the Hamilton Kerr Institute)

Morwenna Blewett, a British art restorer, has been researching the numerous Jewish restorers who fled Nazi Germany and settled in London. There is an interesting article about her search on hamhigh.co.uk, here. One such restorer was Helmutt Ruhemann, considered a leader in his field at the time. In the 1930s, Ruhemann corresponded often with Monuments Man George Stout. While researching The Monuments Men, we came across their correspondence in Stout’s papers at the Smithsonian Archives of American Art.

While their letters in the early 1930s often focused on conservation efforts, in time Ruhemann began sharing the hardships of working under the Nazis. In July 1933 he wrote Stout saying, “In the museum nothing has changed up to now, but I think it is only a matter of days.” Later that year, Ruhemann and his family escaped to England. By 1938, the situation in Germany had vastly deteriorated. He told Stout, “Details are only now beginning to get known. A 67 year old uncle of mine has been in the concentration camp for a fortnight. We are not trying to get him over here…A number of friends got a note – after days of anguish – from the concentration camp, that the ashes of their relatives could be fetched for a fee of – I believe – 3 or 5 marks. A 70 year old aunt of friends of ours has been stabbed to death in her flat, etc. etc…we are trying to get our last friends out of that hell.” (Dec 4, 1938 letter to Stout, Stout Papers, Smithsonian AAA.)

Through his correspondence with Ruhemann and others. Stout was well aware of the situation in Europe – not only in Nazi Germany, but across the continent where every museum had taken precautions to protect their collections from the coming war. After America entered the war following Pearl Harbor, Stout led the way for the Monuments Men. You can learn more about his efforts in The Monuments Men.

 

You can learn more about Ruhemann on the National Portrait Gallery’s website.

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April 12, 1945: A Day of Momentous Implications

April 12th, 2013 | 5:52 am

Having heard about the extraordinary discovery of most all of Nazi Germany’s gold reserves and paper currency, along with its vast cultural wealth from Berlin’s greatest museums and libraries, in a salt mine in Merkers, Germany, Generals Eisenhower, Patton and Bradley left SHAEF headquarters in Rheims, France and made a visit to see it firsthand.  As the Monuments Men, led by George Stout, were urgently crating the works of art for removal from the mine, the generals descended in a rickety elevator manned by a lone German operator.

Left to Right: Generals Bradley, Patton, and Eisenhower (Photo Courtesy of National Archives)

Their sense of disconnection was palpable:  billions of dollars (in today’s currency) of gold bars and bagged coins sat stacked in one chamber adjacent to some of the world’s greatest works of art. Chests filled with gold fillings pulled from the mouths of murdered victims of the Nazi genocide sat idle, not yet smelted into bars to sit atop the Reichsbank horde.  Suitcases of silverware, another reminder of property stolen along with the lives of the owners, lined several walls.

 

General Eisenhower at Ohrdruf Concentration Camp (Photo Courtesy of National Archives)

Later that afternoon, the generals visited Ohrdruf, the first Nazi work camp liberated by American forces. Strewn before them were the corpses of the dead and emaciated figures of those near death.  General Patton, old “Blood and Guts”, had to lean against the side of one of the bunkhouse sheds as he was sick to his stomach from the horrors and stench of what he was witnessing.

 

President Franklin Roosevelt attending Yalta Conference in February 1945, less than 2 months before he died. (Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons)

After dinner, as the generals returned to their respective tents, General Patton overheard on the BBC the announcement of President Roosevelt’s death earlier that day.  At age 63, 12 years into his presidency, having led the nation through its most perilous fiscal crisis and a world war, Roosevelt was gone. He did not live to see the fruits of his leadership – victory – which would follow 26 days later in Europe, and 125 days later in Japan.

April 12, 1945:  a day that had momentous implications for our nation, the world, and the Monuments Men.

 

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