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‘The Monuments Men’ Shows How America Saved Paintings While Letting Jews Die

Audiences may not feel quite so good about the new George Clooney film once they learn the full story behind WWII art rescue efforts

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Left to right: Dimitri Leonidas, John Goodman, George Clooney, Matt Damon, and Bob Balaban in The Monument Men. (Claudette Barius/Sony Pictures)
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The story behind the creation of the “monuments men” team, depicted in George Clooney’s new feature film by the same name, begins in the spring of 1943, after the Allies had confirmed that Hitler was carrying out what they called “his oft-repeated intention to exterminate the Jewish people in Europe”—while looting priceless works of art from their victims. Jewish leaders and members of Congress asked Allied leaders to take steps to aid the refugees. Roosevelt Administration officials replied that they could not divert military resources for nonmilitary purposes; the only way to rescue the Jews, they claimed, was to win the war. But to head off growing calls for rescue, the U.S. and British governments announced they would hold a conference in Bermuda to discuss the refugee problem. The talks had been “shunted off to an inaccessible corner so that the world would not be able to listen in,” American Zionist leader Abba Hillel Silver charged.

Assembling the American delegation to Bermuda proved to be no simple task. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first two choices to chair the U.S. delegation, veteran diplomat Myron Taylor and Yale President Charles Seymour, turned him down.

So did Supreme Court Justice Owen Roberts, who said “the business of the court is in such shape” that he could not spare the time for the refugee conference. FDR expressed disappointment that Roberts would not be able to enjoy the lush beauty of the island, “especially at the time of the Easter lillies!” In any event, the president joshed, “You can tell the Chief Justice that while I yield this time, I will issue a subpoena for you the very next time you are needed!” And as it turned out, that next time was coming soon.

The conference was doomed before it started—because, as Synagogue Council of America President Dr. Israel Goldstein pointed out, its real purpose was “not to rescue victims of Nazi terror, but rescue our State Department and the British foreign office from possible embarrassment.” The American delegates (led by last-minute choice Harold W. Dodds, president of Princeton University) arrived with strict instructions: no focus on Jews as the primary victims of the Nazis; no increase in the number of refugees admitted to the United States, even though immigration quotas were not even close to full; and no use of American ships to transport refugees—not even troop supply ships that were returning from Europe empty.

The conferees also rejected the idea of food shipments to starving European Jews. That would violate the Allied blockade of Axis Europe, and no exceptions could be made, they declared. (Just a year earlier, however, the Allied leaders had yielded to public pressure and made an exception for the starving population of Nazi-occupied Greece.) Closing off the last remaining options, the British delegates at Bermuda refused to discuss opening Palestine to refugees and scotched the idea of negotiating with the Nazis for the release of Jews. The release of large numbers of Jews “would be relieving Hitler of an obligation to take care of these useless people,” one British official asserted.

When the Bermuda conference ended, the two governments kept the proceedings secret rather than acknowledge how little had been accomplished. But the meager results were obvious. As Congressman Andrew Somers (D-NY) put it in a radio broadcast, Bermuda proved that “the Jews have not only faced the unbelievable cruelty of the distorted minds bent upon annihilating them, but they have to face the betrayal of those whom they called ‘friends’.”

It was becoming painfully obvious that when it came to saving European Jews, nobody had much interest. When it came to saving European paintings, however, the response was very different. Which is where the story behind Clooney’s The Monuments Men came in.

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Shortly after the Bermuda meetings ended, the New York Times published an editorial titled “Europe’s Imperiled Art.” The newspaper, which showed little interest in the fate of Europe’s imperiled Jews, urged strong government action to rescue “cultural treasures” from the battle zones. The White House agreed: Here was something that did merit the diversion of American military resources. In June 1943, the Roosevelt Administration announced the establishment of a U.S. government commission “for the protection and salvage of artistic and historic monuments in Europe.”

Finding a chairman for the new rescue agency was not too difficult: FDR turned to Justice Roberts, who may not have had time for the task of rescuing Jews but quickly found the time to chair a commission to rescue paintings and statues. The Roberts Commission set to work planning the mission that was to be carried out by the team that would come to be known as the Monuments Men.

Some refugee advocates openly questioned the administration’s priorities. In full-page advertisements in the New York Times and elsewhere, the activists known as the Bergson Group said the establishment of the monuments group was “commendable. … It shows the deep concern of the [Allies] toward the problems of culture and civilization. But should [they] not at least show equal concern for an old and ancient people who gave to the world the fundamentals of its Christian civilization, the Magna Carta of Justice—the Bible—and to every generation some of its most outstanding thinkers, writers, scholars and artists? A governmental agency with the task of … saving the Jewish people of Europe is the least the [Allies] can do.”

In the autumn of 1943, the Bergson Group’s allies in Congress introduced a resolution urging the president to create a commission to rescue Jews. At a hearing on the resolution, New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia pointed to the creation of the monuments commission: “This very important problem … is not like the destruction of buildings or monuments, as terrible as that may be, because, after all, they may be rebuilt or even reproduced; but when a life is snuffed out, it is gone; it is gone forever.”

The Roosevelt Administration dispatched Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long to Capitol Hill to testify against Bergson’s rescue resolution. Long declared that the United States was deeply concerned about the Jewish refugees, but after all, “you cannot send a regiment in there to pull people out.” Paintings presented no such difficulties, apparently.

Historians have noted that the work of the Monuments Men was not the only instance in which the Roosevelt Administration diverted military resources, or altered military plans, because of nonmilitary considerations. A U.S. Air Force plan to bomb the Japanese city of Kyoto was blocked by Secretary of War Henry Stimson because of the city’s artistic treasures. Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy intervened to divert U.S. bombers from striking the German city of Rothenburg because he feared for the safety of its famous medieval architecture: That was the same McCloy who rebuffed requests to bomb Auschwitz, on the grounds that such air strikes would require “diverting” planes from battle zones. In fact, throughout mid- and late 1944, U.S. bombers—including one piloted by future U.S. Sen. George McGovern—repeatedly struck German oil factories adjacent to Auschwitz, some of them less than five miles from the gas chambers.

No doubt part of the problem was human psychology. When tens of thousands, then hundreds of thousands, then millions of people are murdered, they become a kind of faceless blur, a numbing statistic in the public’s mind. By contrast, the specific images of famous Rembrandt or Picasso paintings were personally familiar to many Americans—and that familiarity engendered the sympathy needed to bring about intervention.

Perhaps there is also something to be learned from the mass outpouring of sympathy for endangered animals. In a biting essay at the peak of the Darfur genocide, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof complained that Americans would care more about Darfur if the victims were puppies. He recalled that the public contributed $45,000 to rescue a terrier stranded on a burned-out oil tanker in the Pacific in 2002. And the eviction of a red-tailed hawk from its nest atop a Manhattan apartment building in 2004 sparked an international outcry, with actress Mary Tyler Moore and others rising up in passionate defense of the bird’s rights. “A single homeless hawk aroused more indignation than 2 million homeless Sudanese,” Kristof commented.

During the 1940s, some refugee advocates noted the same phenomenon. Meeting with a U.S. senator in 1943, Rabbi Meyer Berlin (namesake of the future Bar-Ilan University) remarked: “If horses were being slaughtered as are the Jews of Poland, there would by now be a loud demand for organized action against such cruelty to animals. Somehow, when it concerns Jews, everybody remains silent, including the intellectuals and humanitarians of free and enlightened America.” Two years later, in a sad fulfillment of Rabbi Berlin’s dire prediction, U.S. Gen. George Patton diverted U.S. troops to rescue 150 prized Lipizzaner dancing horses, which were caught between Allied and Axis forces along the German-Czech border.

None of this detracts from what the Monuments Men accomplished, of course. Their rescue of precious artwork and other historical treasures is deserving of praise. “The story of the Monuments Men is one that has to be told,” Texas Congresswoman Kay Granger said recently, explaining her proposal to give the surviving Monuments Men a Congressional Gold Medal. But it’s also story that has to be told within its historical context: the failure of the Roosevelt Administration to accord the rescue of human beings the same level of concern it accorded the rescue of cultural treasures.

As an outspoken advocate of international intervention against the genocide in Darfur, George Clooney should understand this equation better than most people: He even got himself arrested two years ago by chaining himself to the front of the Sudanese embassy in Washington. Now imagine for a moment that the U.S. had sent military personnel into Darfur to rescue ancient African cultural heirlooms while refusing to lift a finger to aid victims of mass murder. Would Clooney make a movie about that rescue effort? Or would he be among the first to bemoan the U.S. government’s misplaced priorities? The contrast between America’s rescue of paintings from the Nazis and the American refusal to rescue Jews from the Nazis deserves the same consideration.

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‘The Monuments Men’ Shows How America Saved Paintings While Letting Jews Die

Audiences may not feel quite so good about the new George Clooney film once they learn the full story behind WWII art rescue efforts

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