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‘Monuments Men’ based on WWII crimes

When movies based on actual events hit the public market we expect them to accurately include facts as well as entertain us. “The Monuments Men” opened this past weekend with favorable reviews. Veterans of the Second World War may find the movie has some discrepancies, but the main story line follows the Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter book of the same name.

Directed by actor George Clooney (who also wrote the screenplay and stars in the film), it focuses on a WWII platoon that is “asked to rescue art masterpieces from Nazi thieves and return (them) to (their) owners, “according to a trailer released last week.

Actors include Matt Damon as James Granger, Bill Murray as Richard Campbell, Cate Blanchett as Claire Simone, John Goodman as Walter Garfield, Jean DuJardin as Jean Claude Clermont and Clooney as Frank Stokes. Since the film travels through presidents Roosevelt and Truman, they are included and are played by Michael Dalton and Christopher Rodska, respectively.

The quest for locating and returning art pieces seized 70 years ago continues today. In a related story, the Atlantic magazine, Sophie Hardach wrote of a recent cache of 1,400 art works that surfaced in Germany. In the story, she tells how for “five years David Toren, 88, and his 92-year-old brother (both Holocaust survivors) had been trying to locate a painting their great-uncle David Friedmann lost due to Nazi persecution.”

German Impressionist Max Liebermann’s long-lost painting, “Two riders on the beach,” was spotted by the brothers’ lawyer as it was presented for auction. Another of Friedmann’s paintings was located recently in a Munich apartment. Works of collectors such as the Rothchild banking families were considered valuable treasures. Theirs and other collections are still missing.

At the Sotheby’s auction last week, four major works were sold. Some of the Palais Rothchild’s paintings were located by the inventory numbers on the backs of the paintings at sites not connected with the Austrian-Belgium families. Works were located and retrieved from castles, warehouses, private homes and galleries and salt-mines. Had the Nazis not kept such accurate records, even more would be lost.

Initially, Jewish dealers were forced to sell their precious collections at bargain prices before fleeing abroad. Later, according to Hardach, Jewish-owned collections — such as those of Friedmann, who by then had died, were confiscated. Later, when owners were sent to concentration camps, their collections were looted. Some works (modern or “subversive” works) considered “degenerate” were seized and destroyed or stored away.

After the war, an allied force of some 345 men and women nicknamed the Monument Men hunted for the lost pieces. Eventually more than 5 million objects were found. But the massive Nazi art grab from 1933-1945 is still open. No one knows how many lost works are yet to be found, because the Jews had no way to record what was being stolen from them. Many have no living relatives and there are even fewer records kept by the thieves unless the regime took control of and listed the loot.

Markus Stoetzel, a German lawyer representing heirs to Jewish art dealer Alfred Flechtheim, said “it’s already a political disaster.” He explained in Hardach’s story that the art dealer “died penniless and an emotionally broken man.”

The film delves into the war, the seizures and recoveries. It is worth seeing just to view the art pieces.

If anyone has an item for this column, please send to Sharon Cox, PO Box 1559, Jamestown, ND 58402-1559.