Author continues work of those who rescued looted art

El Paso Times 21 September 2008
By Maribel Villalva

The Monuments Man

EL PASO -- Robert Edsel didn't set out to educate the world about World War II, but he found that one war story still needs to be told.

In addition to the millions of lives lost in the war, hundreds of thousands of priceless works of art were destroyed or stolen by the Nazis so that Adolf Hitler could create his Führer Museum in his hometown of Linz, Austria.

A brave group of men and women called the Monuments Men fought to protect these works, retrieve them from the Nazis, and, when possible, return them to their rightful owners.

In his own quest to learn more, Edsel found that not much had been written about these Monuments Men. That's when his 10-year journey began to document their heroic work.

In 2006, Edsel published his first book, "Rescuing Da Vinci," featuring more than 400 photographs of the Monuments Men during the war.

"I call this the greatest theft in history. Not only was it theft of property, but it was theft of culture and ways of living," Edsel said. "There was tremendous looting, and they were targeted, premeditated efforts. That's the real understory that had not been written about."

Wednesday, Edsel will speak to El Pasoans about the Monuments Men and their work during World War II. His visit is sponsored by, and will be a fundraiser for, the El Paso Holocaust Museum and Study Center.

Beverly Dudley, a museum board member and chairwoman of the event, happened to be watching television on a Sunday morning in January -- coincidentally, the same morning the El Paso Holocaust Museum and Study Center reopened in its new building Downtown -- when she saw a segment about Edsel and the Monuments Men.

"I had never heard of him or of the group of men and women who actually rescued these masterpieces and artifacts that had been stolen by Hitler and the Nazis," Dudley said. "He was such a dynamic speaker, and his personal journey alone was so interesting. I thought it was an omen and that we needed to have him tell this amazing story here."

Dudley said Edsel was surprisingly easy to track down, and he agreed almost immediately to come to El Paso to speak.

"It's a perfect fit for El Paso, or honestly, anywhere, because it broadens people's scope of the Holocaust and how far-reaching its effects were," Dudley said. "If not for the Monuments Men, all of this precious art and culture would have been lost to the world."

Edsel, who spends much of his time traveling to speak on the topic, said everywhere he goes, people are enthralled with the story.

"This is a people story and it doesn't matter if you don't have an interest in art or what your income level is," he said. "Even several years later, after I've spoken to thousands of people, no one says to me, 'That's yesterday's news.' In fact, it's quite the contrary."

Edsel's passion for the work of the Monuments Men began after he took a break from his own busy life. When he was in his late 30s, Edsel decided to leave a lucrative and successful career in the oil industry so he and his family could move to Europe.

"I was driven by a search for meaningfulness. I was interested in learning something new, and I knew that if I didn't carve out the free time, the opportunity wouldn't exist," Edsel said.

"My research into this topic began with the most innocent of intentions. As I was trying to find answers for myself, I was frustrated because there weren't any books on the topic, and that just aroused my curiosity even further."

Edsel learned of group of about 345 men and women from 13 nations (about 30 percent Americans and 20 percent Britons) who served in the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives program of the Allied armies -- also known as the Monuments Men.

Many of these people were already serving in the military and asked to be transferred, Edsel said. Others were museum directors, curators, educators or just "people of good will" who wanted to see works of art protected.

In France alone, tens of thousands of works of art were confiscated by the Nazis from Jewish-owned art collections, according to the U.S. National Archives & Records Administration. In fact, "the first shipment of confiscated art objects sent to Germany from Paris required 30 rail cars. Among the first 53 paintings shipped to Hitler was Vermeer's 'Astronomer' from the Edouard de Rothschild collection, (which) today is in the Musée de Louvre in Paris," according to the agency.

Many of the Monuments Men have since died; those still living are in their 80s and 90s.

"Their service to the country is over, but their mission is not finished," Edsel said.

He founded the nonprofit organization Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art. "We're trying to continue their mission and preserve their legacy," Edsel said. In 2007, the foundation was awarded a National Humanities Medal by President Bush.

Also in 2007, Edsel worked with Texas state Rep. Kay Granger of Fort Worth to develop a Congressional Resolution formally honoring the Monuments Men.

"On June 6, 2007, the 63rd anniversary of D-Day, the 'Monuments Men' were recognized for their heroic and valiant efforts to locate, identify, catalogue, restore and repatriate priceless works of art and irreplaceable cultural artifacts during and after World War II," according to a press release about the resolution.

Edsel also collaborated with Lynn Nicholas, author of the book "The Rape of Europa," to make a documentary film by that name about the theft of European art by the Nazis. The film received critical acclaim.

A highlight of Edsel's work has been the discovery of two leather-bound photo albums that documented art that had been looted by the Nazis during the war. They were intended to keep Hitler appraised of their work and let him pick out pieces for his Fürher Museum.

Edsel worked with the heirs of the albums to acquire them and donate them to the National Archives. Several dozen such albums are in existence.

El Pasoan Alyn Brown Morton, a former commissioner on the Texas Commission for the Arts, first heard Edsel speak in Austin at a private event and said she was excited to hear he was coming to El Paso.

"I'm really looking forward to hearing him speak again. I want to hear more about the project. For example, I want to know how the Monuments Men were able to get together and hide these works of art. It's just amazing," she said.

Brown Morton said she has told many people about the work of the Monuments Men and has given Edsel's book to several people as gifts.

Edsel said he's excited about his trip to El Paso and the opportunity to spread his message.

"I've gone through a tremendous sacrifice to get this story out. I've spent my life savings doing this," he said.

He's working on an educational program and DVD about the Monuments Men.

"I want to put that in schools and libraries everywhere," he said. "I know I want my kids to know that story and the heroic aspect of World War II.

"It's not about beating people over the head with this; it's just about telling the amazing stories of these people."

Maribel Villalva may be reached at; 546-6129.
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