Monumental Mission

Assigned to find art looted by the Nazis, Western Allied forces faced an incredible challenge

(Cheryl Carlin)
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Lindsay was there to greet the first convoy on the morning of August 20, 1945, when 57 heavily loaded trucks, escorted by armed tanks, rumbled up to the Wiesbaden Collecting Point. Capt. Jim Rorimer rode like a proud potentate at the head of the motorcade, a bumper-to-bumper procession of artwork stretching miles from Frankfurt. As the first trucks backed up to the Wiesbaden storage areas and began to unload their cargo without incident, Rorimer turned to Lindsay. "Good work you're doing," he barked before racing off to his next crisis. "And that," says Lindsay, "is the only compliment I ever got in my whole time in the Army."

After the brutalities of a long war, those gathered at Wiesbaden were particularly touched when one old friend showed up that morning. Germans and Americans alike heaved a collective sigh of relief as the crate containing Queen Nefertiti rolled onto the docks. "The Painted Queen is here," a worker cried. "She's safe!" Having escaped Berlin, survived burial in the mines, rattled up the bombed-out roads to Frankfurt and endured seclusion in the vaults of the Reichsbank, the beloved statue had finally arrived.

She would have plenty of company in Wiesbaden, where the cavalcade of trucks kept coming for ten days straight, disgorging new treasures in a steady stream. By mid-September, the building was brimming with antiquities from 16 Berlin state museums, paintings from the Berlin Nationalgalerie, silver from Polish churches, cases of Islamic ceramics, a stash of antique arms and uniforms, thousands of books and a mountain of ancient Torahs.

When a delegation of high-ranking Egyptians and Germans came to check on Nefertiti, Lindsay arranged an unveiling—the first time anyone had gazed upon the Egyptian queen for many a year. Workers pried open her crate. Lindsay peeled off a protective inner wrapping of tarpaper. He came to a thick cushioning layer of white spun glass. "I leaned down to pull the last of the packing material away and I'm suddenly looking into Nefertiti's face," says Lindsay. "That face! She's gazing back at me, 3,000 years old but just as beautiful as when she lived in the 18th Dynasty. I lifted her out and put her on a pedestal in the middle of the room. And that is when every man in that place fell in love with her. I know I did."

The majestic Nefertiti, carved from limestone and painted in realistic tones, reigned at Wiesbaden until 1955, when she was returned to Berlin's Egyptian Museum. She resides there today in a place of honor, charming new generations of admirers—among them her fellow Egyptians, who maintain that she was smuggled out of their country in 1912 and ought to be returned. Although Egypt recently renewed its claim for Nefertiti, Germany has been unwilling to give her up, even temporarily, for fear that she might be damaged in transit. Besides, the Germans say, any works legally imported before 1972 can be kept under the terms of a Unesco convention. Yes, say the Egyptians, but Nefertiti was exported illegally, so the convention does not apply.

At least Nefertiti has a home. The same could not be said for the cultural treasures that finished the war as orphans, with no identifiable parentage and no place to go. Among these were hundreds of Torah scrolls and other religious objects looted from European synagogues and salvaged for a prospective Nazi museum devoted to "the Jewish question." Many of these objects, owned by individuals or communities obliterated by the Third Reich, were given their own room at Wiesbaden.

Stalking the corridors of the vast Landesmuseum at all hours, Lindsay felt an involuntary shudder each time he passed the Torah room. "It was an unnerving situation," he said. "We knew the circumstances that had brought those things in. You couldn't sleep at night."

Wiesbaden's inventory of famous paintings and sculptures was whittled down and repatriated—a process that took until 1958 to complete—but the Torahs and other religious objects remained unclaimed. It soon became clear that a new collecting point was needed for these priceless objects still being unearthed in postwar Germany.

This material was sent to the newly established Offenbach Archival Depot near Frankfurt, where more than three million printed items and important religious materials would be gathered from Wiesbaden, Munich and other collecting points. The Offenbach facility, located in a five-story factory owned by the I.G. Farben company, opened in July 1945. Several months later, when Capt. Seymour J. Pomrenze, a career Army officer and archives specialist, arrived to supervise the facility, he found the depot stacked to the ceilings with books, archival records and religious objects in disarray.

"It was the biggest mess I've ever seen," recalls Pomrenze, 91, and now living in Riverdale, New York. Libraries stolen from France—including the invaluable collections and papers of the Rothschild family—were mingled with those from Russia and Italy, family correspondence was scattered among Masonic records and Torah scrolls were strewn in heaps.


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