I recently appeared on the Morning Joe program alongside legendary historian Doris Kearns Goodwin to discuss my new book, The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History. I had just finished telling the hosts, Mika Brzezinksi and Willie Geist, how excited I was to write about a woman heroine in the dramatic story of this small group of museum directors, curators, art historians, architects and artists who volunteered to save so much of the great cultural treasures of our western world, including paintings by Leonardo da Vinci and sculpture by Michelangelo, from the destruction of World War II and theft by Hitler and the Nazis. In fact, I stated my belief that Rose Valland was the greatest heroine of World War ll. Upon making that statement, Doris Kearns Goodwin raised her fists triumphantly and said, “Finally, a woman!”
This small group, numbering no more than a dozen men on the ground within about a month of the D-Day Normandy landings, and no more than 60 or so in all of Europe responsible for protecting structures (hence the moniker “Monuments Men”) and other works of art, were faced with an impossible task. With an average age of about 40 years, most all with accomplished careers and families, these men and women had every reason not to volunteer for service in harm’s way. Still, they felt they had an important contribution to make; they wanted to serve. Without vehicles, (many hitchhiking their way from place to place) and supplies, they depended on their resourcefulness and creativity in solving problems never before confronted by an army attempting to fight a war on the one hand while mitigating damage to cultural treasures on the other.
Upon arriving in Paris, one of our heroes, Monuments Man James Rorimer (who, like most other Monuments Men and women would make significant contributions to the cultural development of our nation, in this instance as only the sixth director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art) would meet Rose Valland, a French woman who worked under the watchful eyes of the Nazis for four long years making secret records as they stole tens of thousands of works of art from collectors and dealers in Paris. Unbeknownst to the Nazis, Rose understood German. Had she been caught—and there were several close calls, she would surely have been executed. Her relationship with Rorimer was a key element in the success of the Monuments Men locating and ultimately returning to France many of the works stolen by the Nazis.