The remarkable 2008 documentary “The Rape of Europa” tells the story of the Nazi plundering of fine art across Europe. It is full of many accounts of heroism, none more impressive than that of Rose Villand, a meek-looking librarian out of central casting, who is as perfect and example of how ordinary people can rise to extraordinary levels of courage and innovation in times of crisis.
Rose Valland was born in Saint-Étienne-de-Saint-Geoirs, France on November 1, 1898. She earned two degrees in the arts from the École des Beaux-Arts in Lyon and also studied at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, then added degrees in art history from both the École du Louvre and the Sorbonne. Her academic credentials, however, did not immediately advance her career, as Valland began work at the Jeu de Paume Museum in Paris as an unpaid volunteer.
In October 1940, during the Occupation of Paris, the Nazis commandeered the Jeu de Paume Museum and converted it into the headquarters of the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg, or ERR, the Nazi art looting organization created by frustrated artist Adolf Hitler. There The Nazis stored paintings and other works of art stolen from private French collectors and dealers, including thousands of works taken from Jewish-owned galleries. The museum’s collaborating curator, Andre Dézarrois, fell ill in the summer of 1941, and in a stroke of fate for civilization, Valland became the de facto director of the museum. Jacques Jaujard, Director of the French National Museums including the Louvre, gave Valland a daunting assignment: she was to use her post in the museum to spy on the Nazi art theft operation.
The Germans, as explained in “The Rape of Europa,” took scant notice of the “little mouse” of a woman who kept her head down, seldom spoke, and appeared to follow orders. They didn’t even realize that she spoke German, but under their noses she was acquiring crucial information from the conversations of drivers, guards, and packers relating to the looted art treasures…60,000 of them. Villand witnessed the frequent shopping trips of Nazi Reichsmarshal Hermann Goering as he made more than twenty separate visits to the Jeu de Paume to select works of art for Hitler’s planned Führermuseum in Linz, Austria, and his own personal collection. Possessing a remarkable memory for details, she recorded her discoveries regarding the movements, names of the victims, number of pieces and where they were going, names of the agents responsible for transfers, names of the carriers, brands of the boxes, numbers and dates of convoys,as well as the names of the artists and the dimensions of the pieces that passed before her. She relayed the information to Jaujard and the French Resistance while keeping her own meticulous records. She warned the Resistance of convoys containing important artworks so that they would be spared, all while knowing that she would be executed as a spy if her activities were discovered by the Nazis—and at least twice, they nearly caught her.
When Paris was liberated by American forces in late August 1944, Valland was still in peril. Though she possessed enormously valuable information about the fate of tens of thousands of masterpieces stolen from French collections, her apparent cooperation with the Nazi left her at risk of being tried as a collaborator. Eventually, months of building a relationship of trust with “Monuments Man” Capt. James Rorimer, in part by alerting the Allies to the locations of the German and Austrian art depots so they would not be destroyed in bombing raids, Valland could turn over her records. They served as virtual treasure maps for Rorimer and General Eisenhower’s Monuments Men to find vast repositories of looted art, most notably at Neuschwanstein Castle in the Bavarian Alps. Hidden inside that castle were more than twenty thousand works of art and cultural objects stolen by the Nazis from French private collectors and art dealers. Valland’s extensive notes later were instrumental in returning looted art objects to their rightful owners.
Finally able to openly continue her mission of helping to recover the art treasures whose theft she had tracked, Valland applied for and received a commission in the French First Army in 1945. She worked closely with the other Monuments Men at sites, identifying works of art belonging to France. In 1954 she was named Chair of the Commission for the Protection of Works of Art, and . recorded her experiences in her book, Le Front de L’Art (1961). The 1964 Hollywood film, “The Train,” starring Burt Lancaster and Paul Scofield, relied heavily on her accounts.
Unlike many heroes of World War II, Valland received recognition during her lifetime. She was awarded the Legion of Honor, the Medal of the Résistance, the Officer’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, was made a Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters by the French government, and in 1948 was awarded the United States Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Truman. Valland retired in 1968 but continued her efforts to find and return stolen works of art until her death on September 18, 1980.
Hardly any Americans know her name. That needs to change.