Monumental Mission

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

(Cheryl Carlin)
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Taper scoured the hills around Berchtesgaden, near the Austrian border, to recover the remains of Goering's vast art collection, thought to contain more than 1,500 looted paintings and sculptures. As Soviet troops pressed toward eastern Germany in the last days of war, Goering had feverishly loaded art from his Carinhall hunting lodge into several trains and dispatched them to air raid shelters near Berchtesgaden for safekeeping. "Goering managed to unload two of the cars, but not the third one, which was left on a siding when his entourage fled into the arms of the Seventh Army," he says.

The rumor quickly spread that the reichsmarshal's unguarded car was loaded with schnapps and other good things, and it was not long before thirsty Bavarians were swarming over it. "The lucky first ones did get schnapps," says Taper. "Those who came later had to be satisfied with 15th-century paintings and Gothic church sculptures and French tapestries and whatever else they could lay their hands on—including glasses and silver flatware with the famous H.G. monogram."

The loot disappeared into the green hills. "That country was so beautiful—it looked like something out of Heidi," Taper, 90, recalls while flipping through his official investigative reports from those days. He often traveled with Lt. Edgar Breitenbach, a Monuments Man who made the rounds disguised as a peasant, in lederhosen and a tiny pipe that kept him wreathed in a corona of smoke. They recovered much of the loot—a school of Rogier van der Weyden painting, a 13th-century Limoges reliquary and Gothic statues they tracked to the home of a woodcutter named Roth. "Herr Roth said he wasn't a thief," Taper recalls. "He said these statues were lying on the ground in the rain with people stepping on them. He said he took pity on them and took them home." Taper reclaimed them.

Not all of the cargo from Goering's schnapps train remained intact. During the melee by the rail siding, local women tussled over a 15th-century Aubusson tapestry until a local official suggested a Solomon-like solution: "Cut it up and divide it," he urged. And so they did, taking the tapestry away in four pieces. Taper and Breitenbach found its remains in 1947, by which time the hanging had been divided again. "One of the pieces was being used for curtains, one for a kid's bed," says Taper. The rest had vanished.

This was also the fate of one of the most important objects of Nazi looting, Raphael's Portrait of a Young Man, an early-16th-century painting that disappeared in the final days of the war. Over many months, Taper searched for the painting, which had been the pride of the Czartoryski Museum in Krakow until 1939, when one of Hitler's art agents snapped it up for the Führer, along with Leonardo's Lady With an Ermine and Rembrandt's Landscape With the Good Samaritan.

As far as Taper could determine, all three paintings had been rushed out of Poland in the winter of 1945 with Hans Frank, the country's Nazi governor general, as the Soviets bore down from the east. Arrested by Allies near Munich in May of that year, Frank surrendered the Leonardo and the Rembrandt, but the Raphael was gone. "It may have been destroyed in the fighting," says Taper. "Or it may have gone home with the Soviets. Or it may have been left on the road from Krakow to Munich. We just don't know." Unlike the other paintings, it was on panel, not canvas, so it would have been harder to transport and conceal. More than 60 years later, the Raphael remains missing.

Taper became a staff writer for The New Yorker and a professor of journalism at the University of California at Berkeley after the war. He still dreams about the Raphael. "It's always in color, even though all I ever had was a little black-and-white photograph." He pauses a long time. "I still think I should have found that damn thing."

Taper is one of a diminishing fraternity. Of the original 350 Monuments Men (including a score of Monuments Women) no more than 12 are known to be alive—just one reason a retired Texas oilman and philanthropist named Robert M. Edsel has made it his mission to call attention to their wartime deeds. "Theirs was a feat that must be characterized as miraculous," says Edsel, who has written about Taper, Ettlinger and their colleagues in a recent book, Rescuing Da Vinci; co-produced a documentary, The Rape of Europa; and persuaded Congress to pass resolutions recognizing their service. He has also established the Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art to safeguard artistic treasures during armed conflict.

"This group is an inspiration for our times," he adds. "We know they returned around five million cultural items between 1945 and 1951. I would speculate that 90 to 95 percent of the high-value cultural objects were found and returned. They deserve the recognition they never got."

Meanwhile, their story continues. Hundreds of thousands of cultural items remain missing from the war. Russia has confirmed that it holds many of the treasures, including the so-called Trojan gold of King Priam. Long-missing works are reappearing in Europe as one generation dies and old paintings and drawings emerge from attics. And hardly a month seems to pass without reports of new restitution claims from the descendants of those most brutalized by World War II, who lost not only their lives but also their inheritance.


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