Just a quick note to recommend a great documentary - The Rape of Europa - which was shown here in Chicago last night on PBS.
On the short list of documentaries for the Academy Award® and narrated by Joan Allen, the movie which is based upon the book The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe's Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War by Lynn Nicholas explores the various art works looted from Jewish families and museums by the Nazis during World War II.
As I sat there riveted to the screen for two hours, I was amazed at stories of several individuals and tried to put them in the context of genealogy and family history:
- the story of Rose Valland who bravely catalogued almost all the works of art stored by the Nazis at the Jeu de Paume Museum in Paris. Unaware that Rose spoke and understood German fluently, the Nazis never expected this bookish, unassuming wall flower to go home each night and - from memory - write down the names of each item, from whom they were stolen, and their status. Valland produced a valuable index used after the war to return items to their rightful owners.
- the story of a Parisian Jew who was forced to clean and package everyday possessions confiscated once families were sent off to the concentration camps. One day he came across his own family's silver and china and photographs. Knowing the fate of his four brothers and parents, he was able to remove his parent's wedding pictures and other items without notice only to lose them later when evacuating the city.
How often do we wish we had a Rose Valland in our family? Someone who left behind a "rosetta stone" to help decipher names on the backs of photographs, or even identify people in those pictures which have no information? And how many of us have come across items such as medals, pins, photos, or everyday possessions and wondered what happened to the people who owned them?
And there are many other heartbreaking stories of how the Nazis attempted, but were unsuccessful, in wiping out entire cultures such as the Poles and the Russians. I found the stories of the Warsaw Royal Castle and the Veit Stoss Altarpiece in Cracow amazing and how despite having their most prized cultural symbols either stolen or destroyed, the Poles were not demoralized and made it through the war.
If you haven't yet seen The Rape of Europa on PBS think about renting the DVD. Not only does it help explain the systematic way in which the Nazis tried not only to enrich themselves, but also tried to obliterate entire cultures and histories by destroying cherished landmarks and works of art.