AN UNWILLING HOST
Sophie froze. “He can’t do that,” she replied. “This art doesn’t belong to him. It doesn’t belong to us. The ERR is safeguarding the paintings, but they still belong to the families they were taken from.”
Rose’s expression was almost pitying. “Not anymore.”
During World War II, German forces plundered hundreds of thousands of works of art – an estimated 20 percent of all artworks in Europe – from people opposed to Nazi ideology, including Communists, Freemasons and, most prominently, Jewish families.
In Paris, most of this artwork ended up in the Musée Jeu de Paume – a small museum located within the Jardin des Tuileries. During its four-year tenure as an unwilling repository for the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR), the Nazi commission responsible for the theft and seizure of artwork, an estimated 22,000 stolen works of art passed through the museum, where they were either transferred into the Reich, exchanged with other dealers or destroyed.
A TWISTED IDEOLOGY
Hitler’s goal was to create a thousand-year Reich, crystallized in amber. What need was there for innovation, when the Nazi party had already created perfection?
The notion of Entartete Kunst—”Degenerate Art”—was developed in the 1920s by the Nazi party as a response to the perceived decadence and experimentalism that flourished throughout Germany during the Weimar Republic. Upon gaining power in 1933, the Nazis, led by Joseph Goebbels and Hitler (himself a failed artist), vowed to supposedly cleanse Germany of degenerate art -- and thus, of degeneracy itself.
This vow resulted in the destruction of thousands of publicly-owned works of art in Germany following the 1937 Entartete Kunst exhibition – an exhibition intended to “educate” the German people on the causes of the Weimar Republic’s moral decline.
THE ROOM OF MARTYRS
Rose Valland had separated the modern artworks from the rest of the collection, concealing them from Göring’s prying eyes and grasping fingers, hoping that Göring’s greed would blind him to the presence of sedition in his midst. She had hidden away the works too dangerous for those from whom the Nazi party demanded blind loyalty, blind faith, unquestioning devotion—paintings that questioned stasis, demanded change. Art that challenged established norms, took aim at dogma and skewered it at its heart.
The ERR used the smallest gallery in the museum to house plundered “degenerate” works of art, separate from the artworks that the ERR deemed ideologically “pure”. While their counterparts in the rest of the museum were transported into Germany to be hung on high-ranking Nazis’ walls, the works in the “degenerate” collection were used as bargaining chips, exchanged with unscrupulous art dealers for highly desired classical paintings – until the collection got too large to manage through exchange alone.
In July 1942, the artwork kept in the storeroom was burned in the Jeu de Paume’s courtyard in a shocking act of vandalism that mirrored the fate of the works in Germany’s Entartete Kunst exhibition only a few years earlier. One brave undercover Resistance agent witnessed the destruction of the artworks in the Jeu de Paume and thereafter referred to the storeroom at the back of the gallery as the Room of Martyrs—a sobriquet Sophie borrows in The Paris Deception.
A HIDDEN HEROINE
Behind her round glasses, Rose's gray eyes shone with cold, bright indignation. “Do you honestly believe that I would risk any harm befalling pieces from this collection? Might I remind you, Colonel, that I have repeatedly brought the welfare of this collection—a collection for which you take full credit—to your attention in order to keep it safe from mishandling and rank incompetence.” She looked down her nose at Bohn, her dowdy skirt suit shining like a suit of armor. “You really haven’t the first clue about me, have you?”
When the ERR moved into the Jeu de Paume, Rose Valland was the sole member of the museum’s existing staff to stay on payroll: and while many suspected her of collaborating with the Germans, Rose risked her life to safeguard the artwork within the museum. Under the direction of Jacques Jaujard, director of the Musées Nationaux de France, Rose served as an operative for the French Resistance and despite the constant threat of being discovered, Valland secretly recorded every movement of the ERR within the Jeu de Paume, concealing her ability to speak German in order to monitor and pass information about the ERR’s looting on to the Resistance.
Following the war, Valland worked with the Monuments Men, sharing her records about the ERR’s looting with James Rorimer to help locate and return stolen art and artifacts to their rightful owners. In recognition for her wartime heroism, Valland was awarded the Légion d’honneur, was appointed a Commandeur of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, and was awarded France’s Médaille de la Résistance, along with the United States’s Medal of Freedom, for her bravery. She died in 1980 and was buried alongside the love of her life, Joyce Helen Heer.
RECOVERING WHAT WAS STOLEN
Today, there is still an ongoing effort by the families of the victims to recover masterpieces stolen from them, not only from private collections but also from public institutions which, knowingly or unknowingly, acquired artwork of dubious provenance. Many organizations, including the World Jewish Restitution Organization, the Jewish Digital Cultural Recovery Project, the ERR Project, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Claims Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, and the Monuments Men and Women Foundation work tirelessly to identify stolen artworks and return them to their rightful owners.
To this day, the fate of an estimated 100,000 works of art looted by the Nazis from Jewish families remains unknown.
Rave Reviews for Turnbull's Latest Novel
"The Paris Deception is a moving and intimate look at two sisters-in-law whose friendship has fractured as the Second World War exacts its catastrophic moral, physical and emotional toll. In devising a way to save modern masterpieces of art stolen from Jewish owners, Sophie and Fabienne must overcome the pain of the past and combine their strengths as restorer and painter to deceive the Nazis and pull off an impressive heist of their own. Another thought-provoking, impressively researched and richly realized work from one of Canada's best historical fiction authors."
New York Times bestselling author of The Jane Austen Society