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Feb 2013 Journal

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Letter from Israel

Three books I have read in the last few months, all of them well-researched and dealing in one way or another with art or artists and the Second World War, have given me many hours of interest and plenty to think about.

The first, which I picked up by chance last year in the bookshop near our hotel in Bloomsbury, Villa Air-Bel by Rosemary Sullivan, describes the events in a house on the outskirts of Marseille where several of the leading Surrealist and Dadaist artists of Europe found refuge from the Nazis while they awaited rescue and escape from France. The story of Varian Fry’s efforts to rescue leading Jewish intellectuals and artists from Vichy France is fairly widely known by now, but this story has not been brought into the public eye until recently. Artists such as Marc Chagall, Max Ernst and André Breton, together with several others, were able to survive and even continue their creative work thanks to the efforts of the French Resistance, American benefactors and Fry (who actually lived in the house too).

I happened to pick up the second book on a similar subject, 21 Rue la Boetie by Anne Sinclair, in a French supermarket. I read it in French, but it may also exist in an English version. The author is, by now, the ex-wife of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, someone whose reputation is rather problematic, but she is a journalist and TV personality in her own right in France. She starts her story in 2010, when she was required to submit identity documents at a French town hall and was asked where her grandparents were born. All her grandparents were Jewish and her maternal grandfather, Paul Rosenberg, had been a renowned art dealer in pre-war Paris, representing, inter alia, Matisse, Braque and Picasso. In fact, he and Picasso became good friends, with Picasso living next door to the family in the early years of his first marriage. When the Nazis invaded France the family escaped to the south of France and eventually the USA. Paul Rosenberg managed to send many of his paintings ahead and was therefore able to open an art gallery in New York. It is thanks to his efforts and acumen that many Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works have survived since they were regarded as ‘degenerate art’ by the Nazis, who even destroyed some pieces. Anne Sinclair gives a detailed account of the way the Nazis ravaged her grandparents’ former home and place of business as well as how, after the War, her grandfather succeeded in reclaiming much of what had been stolen from him.

The last book, Monuments Men by Robert Edsel, was mentioned to me in passing by my sister after hearing about Anne Sinclair’s book from me. I was intrigued by what she told me and promptly ordered the book from Amazon. It gives a detailed account of the work of a special Allied unit, consisting mainly of Americans but also of representatives from England and France, whose job it was to protect the monuments of Europe from destruction and damage by both the retreating Germans and the advancing Allied forces in the final years of the War. The unit also worked valiantly to trace and rescue the art that had been filched by the Nazis throughout Europe and secreted in over a thousand (yes, one thousand!) hiding places, mainly in Germany and Austria. These included salt mines, castles, marshland and other sites too numerous to mention. The entire book reads like a detective story and involves heroic and courageous acts by men whose pre-War life had been spent in libraries and museums and whose principal motivation was to rescue the art treasures of Europe and restore them to their rightful owners.

All three books describe events that are amazing, admirable and truly inspiring.

Dorothea Shefer-Vanson

previous article:A record of the fate of Polish Jewry (review)
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