Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Rape of Europa

This week, PBS airs The Rape of Europa, a very powerful documentary on Adolph Hitler's systematic plundering of the world's art. The story is absolutely epic in proportion.

Most people find Hitler incongruous. He loved animals, and abhorred the killing of them. He became a vegetarian for that very reason. He loved art, and fancied himself an artist. He possessed only a mediocre talent, however, and failed to get into Vienna art school. As he later wrote in Mein Kampf:

"That gentleman [the rector] assured me that the drawings I had submitted incontrovertibly showed my unfitness for painting."

It was how he responded to that rejection that showed a glimpse of a man who would become the most evil dictator of all time -- a man who went from creator to destroyer in a short lifetime. His friend August Kubizek, wrote that when Hitler received the news of his art school rejection "his face was livid, the mouth quite small, the lips almost white. But the eyes glittered. There was something sinister about them. As if all the hate of which he was capable lay in those glowing eyes . . . Hitler never ceased to feel ashamed of what his dream of being a painter had become."

So, how does a children's writer tell a story of such overwhelming proportions? It's an important story to tell -- with both its villains and its heroes. If I were going to tackle this one, I think I might tell Rose Valland's story.

Rose was an art historian, a member of the French Resistance, and a captain in the French military. She was a Parisienne hired by the Nazis to help catalog the art they plundered. Rose had a prodigious memory, and when she returned home at night, she'd write in her journal the names of the art she cataloged that day, its provenance, and where it was going. She spoke German, but never let on that she did -- so much better for her spying activities. She'd pass her information on to the French Resistance, which kept the allies from bombing the trains on which some of the greatest works of art were being transported to Germany. In the end, this information helped recover 20,000 works of art.

I might tell the story of the Monument Men who were dispatched by the allies to help preserve the great art and architecture of Europe even as the allies moved in. These men and women were museum curators, artists, and architects. They did their work with very little resources, and much controversy. What is more important? Art or the soldiers who fight? Two of the Monument Men were killed in action, but the group managed to return over five million cultural items after the war. Their work continues today.

I can find no mention of this story for children. If you don't write it, perhaps I will . . .

If you'd like to watch The Rape of Europa, check your local listings for Nova on PBS.


Anonymous said...

Check pbs.org/therapeofeuropa for future screenings or buy the DVD at


Sally said...

Wow, Janet. Just Wow