Another heroic woman for us . . .
Rose Valland (1898-1980) was a curator at the Louvre Museum in Paris during the Second World War. In 1940, as German forces began their occupation of France, Nazi officials took over the Louvre's Jeu de Paume Museum -- a modest gallery of Impressionist works, located in the Tuileries Gardens. They used the building for a sinister purpose: to store priceless works of art confiscated from French museums and Jewish-owned private collections. Valland supervised the daily operations of the Jeu de Paume, while the Nazis filled it with plundered masterpieces. The Germans likely viewed her as a quiet, methodical administrator. What they didn't suspect was that she understood German. And perhaps Valland never suspected the importance of the role she was about to play.
The Nazis' Art Theft
The Nazis-- acting on an executive order from the Chancellor of Germany, Adolf Hitler-- set up a repository in the Jeu de Paume for nearly 22,000 looted art objects. Hitler, himself a failed artist, sought to organize the seizure of European cultural treasures, particularly those owned by Jews. To accomplish this, he established the Special Staff for Pictorial Art, which operated under the auspices of the ERR (Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg), a foreign affairs division of the Third Reich. The Jeu de Paume became the staff's headquarters.
The Nazis enlisted Valland to catalogue their stolen art objects. As she quietly worked, she eavesdropped on discussions in German and kept secret lists of the plundered treasures. As much as possible, she tracked the dispersements and shipments of art. Because the Nazis photographed every object they stole, Valland pocketed the negatives as she left at night and made copies of them. On four occasions, the Nazis became suspicious of Valland and threw her out. Yet each time, she managed to return and continue spying.
Stalling the Nazi's Heist
By the end of the war, as the Nazis grew anxious to evacuate the museum and ship out their precious cargo, Valland thwarted them. A train bound for Germany, loaded with French paintings and other valuables, never made it out of Paris -- thanks to Valland. She reported her observations to the French Resistance, whose sabotage efforts stalled the train until the Allies came to liberate Paris. After the war, using Valland's documents, the French informed the Allies where some of Europe's most cherished art treasures were hidden.
Valland spent the remainder of her life working diligently to recover and protect French cultural property. The French government awarded Valland numerous honors for her lifetime of courage and devoted service. She was a recipient of the Légion d'honneur, the Médaille de la Résistance, and was named a Commandeur of the Order of Arts and Letters. In the 1950s, she also received the Officer's Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany.
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