Monumental Mission

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

(Cheryl Carlin)
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"The Nazis did a great job of preserving the things they wanted to destroy—they didn't throw anything out," says Pomrenze. In fact, he jokes, they might have won the war if they had spent less time looting and more time fighting.

He found a bewildered staff of six German workers wandering among the piles of archival material at Offenbach. "Nobody knew what to do. First we needed to get bodies in there to move this stuff," recalls Pomrenze, who boosted the staff by 167 workers in his first month. Then, leafing through the major collections, he copied all identifying bookmarks and library stamps, which pointed to a country of origin. From these he produced a thick reference guide that allowed workers to identify the collections by origin.

Pomrenze then divided the building into rooms organized by country, which cleared the way for national representatives to identify their material. The chief archivist of the Netherlands collected 329,000 items, including books stolen from the University of Amsterdam and a huge cache relating to the Order of Masons, considered anti-Nazi by the Germans. French archivists claimed 328,000 items for restitution; the Soviets went home with 232,000 items; Italy took 225,000; smaller restitutions were made to Belgium, Hungary, Poland and elsewhere.

No sooner had Pomrenze started to make a dent in the Offenbach inventory than newly discovered materials poured into the depot; the paper tide continued through 1947 and 1948. "We had things pretty well organized by then," says Pomrenze. Yet even after some two million books and other items had been dispersed, about a million objects remained. Pomrenze's successor described how it felt to comb through the unclaimed material, such as personal letters and boxes of books. "There was something sad and mournful about these volumes, as if they were whispering a tale of...hope, since obliterated," wrote Capt. Isaac Bencowitz. "I would find myself straightening out these books and arranging them in the boxes with a personal sense of tenderness, as if they had belonged to someone dear to me."

Pomrenze eventually helped to find homes for many of the orphaned materials, which went to 48 libraries in the United States and Europe and the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York City.

"As far as I am concerned," says Pomrenze, "that was the highlight of the assignments I had in the Army, where I served for a total of 34 years." Pomrenze, who retired as a colonel and chief archivist of the Army, suggests that one must not lose sight of the written word's role in the story of civilization. "Paintings are beautiful and, of course, culturally valuable, but without archives we'd have no history, no way to know exactly what happened."

The lessons of the past are especially important to Pomrenze, a native of Kiev who immigrated to the United States at age 2, after his father was killed in the Ukrainian pograms of 1919. "The Ukrainians killed 70,000 Jews that year," says Pomrenze, who took quiet pride in helping to right the balance by his wartime service.

The Nazis recorded their thefts in detailed ledgers that eventually fell into the hands of officers like Lt. Bernard Taper, who joined the Monuments squad in 1946. "The Nazis made our job easier," says Taper. "They said where they got the stuff. They would describe the painting and give its measurements, and they would often say where they had sent the collection. So we had some very good clues."

Indeed, the clues were so good that Taper's colleagues had secured most of the high-value paintings—prime Vermeers, da Vincis, Rembrandts—by the time Taper arrived on the scene. That left him to investigate widespread looting by German citizens who pilfered from the Nazi hoard in the time between Germany's collapse and the Allies' arrival.

"There were probably thousands of pieces in this second wave, the looting of the looted," says Taper. "Not the most famous objects but many valuable ones. We looked for stuff on the black market, made regular checks among the art dealers and went out into the countryside to follow up promising leads."


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