Karl Kress: Photographer for the ERR and the Third U.S. Army MFA&A Special Evacuation Team

Today’s post is written by Dr. Greg Bradsher, Senior Archivist at the National Archives in College Park, MD.

On June 14, 1945 1st Lt. Stephen Kovalyak, a Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives (MFA&A) officer, came to Alt Aussee, Austria with Lt. George Stout, USNR, another MFA&A officer, with the 12th Army Group, to evacuate the looted art works stored in the mine at Alt Aussee.  Very early on Kovalyak met a German prisoner of war, Karl Kress, who had worked with the Nazi art looting unit, the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR), photographing looted art works.  Kovalyak, an amateur photographer, was interested in what he could learn about photography from Kress and soon made him his personal prisoner of war.  Shortly thereafter, Kress would be working for U.S. Army as a photographer of recovered looted art.

Kress was born February 6, 1900 at Dotzheim, Kreis Wiesbaden. He served in the German Army from the end of World War I until June 1930, when he became technical assistant to the State Art Collections at Kassel. There his primary duty was that of a photographer.  In 1939 Kress was called to active duty with the Luftwaffe as photographer, and assigned to a photographic unit, with the rank of Feldwebel (Staff Sergeant). The unit was transferred to Saint-Germain-en-Laye, in the western suburbs of Paris, in June 1940.

In November 1940 Kress was ordered by his commanding officer to proceed to Paris with three assistants for the purpose of photographing art objects.  These art objects he learned had been confiscated by the ERR and were stored near the Louvre at the Jeu de Paume a museum in the Jardins des Tuileries. The ERR, formed under the direction of Alfred Rosenberg, had originally as its primary function the collection of political material in the occupied countries, for exploitation in the “struggle against Jewry and Freemasonry.”  The Western Office (Amt Westen) of the Rosenberg-headed Ministry for Occupied Eastern Territories became operational in July 1940, with headquarters in Paris.  Amt Westen was directed at the outset by Stabsfuehrer Dr. Georg Ebert, assisted by Baron Kurt von Behr.

Starting in October 1940, on Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering’s instigation, the ERR began taking over almost all of the seized art in France—not only paintings and works on paper, but also antique furniture, carpets, tapestries, objects d’art, and antiquities.  Goering was anxious to enrich his own collections, and could offer Luftwaffe and other assistance for seizure, processing arrangements, and transport, while he manipulated further ERR art-looting operations in France. The initial collections brought to the German Embassy in Paris were moved first to several rooms in the Louvre, but space there was too limited.  By the end of October, the ERR set up shop for processing at the Jeu de Paume.  On November 5, a Goering order issued in Paris extended formally the authority of the ERR to include the confiscation of “ownerless” Jewish art collections, and, thereby altered the emphasis of the ERR mission so as to make such activity its primary function.

When Kress reported to the Jeu de Paume the museum was already full of art objects.  There he met Drs. Gunther Schiedlausky, Hans Ulrich Wirth, and Heinrich Jerchel.  They worked for the Paris Dienststelle of Amt Westen.  This office, in addition to a staff of photographers, consisted of a small group of professional art historians who worked as a unit designated as the Arbeitsgruppe Louvre. The function of this unit was the methodical preparation for transport to Germany of all works of art received through confiscation, and a comprehensive inventory thereof.  At the outset, this group comprised Drs. Schiedlausky, Hans Ulrich Wirth, W. Esser, Heinrich Jerchel, Friedrich Franz Kuntze, and several research assistants.  Schiedlausky, was a leading member of the ERR art staff from November 1940 to December 1941, and chief custodian of the German deposits of the ERR from July 1942 until April 1945.  Wirth, joined the Paris art staff of the ERR in November 1940 as one of the assistants to Schiedlausky. He was responsible for preparing inventories of important collections which had just been confiscated.  Jerchel, who originally served with the Kunstschutz (the Wehrmacht’s Art Protection Office), was transferred to the ERR in November 1940 with duties similar to that of Wirth.  Once situated at the Jeu de Paume, Kress was assigned the task of photographing a large number of paintings that had been confiscated by the ERR.

Kress’ first photographic assignment was to take about forty photographs for Dr. Hermann Bunjes, who was not connected with the ERR.  Bunges, who wore several hats while in Paris, including being the  Director of the German Art Historical Institute, a member of the Kunstschutz, and an advisor to Goering, later told Kress the art works he had photographed had been flown to Germany and given to Adolf Hitler.

Von Behr quickly recognized Kress’ ability as a professional art photographer, and sought to have him transferred to the ERR.  Von Behr was the Deputy Director of Amt Westen, Director of the Paris ERR Kunststab, and subsequently Director of Dienststelle Westen and the confiscated furniture operation, the Möbel-Aktion (M-Action).  As part of the Kress transfer process, in 1941 he was ordered to the Cultural Photographic Unit in the Air Ministry, and then transferred to the ERR.  He was returned to Paris from Berlin, and put to work in the Jeu de Paume. At this time, Kress met and worked under Drs. Bruno Lohse and Friedrich Franz Kuntze.  Lohse was a member of the Paris art staff from February 1941, subsequently its Deputy Director, and special art representative of Goering in the ERR.  Kuntze, both a painter and art historian by profession, was assigned to duty with the ERR in Paris in February 1941. He arrived simultaneously with Lohse and occupied a position entailing research and the compiling of inventories, but appears to have been somewhat more independent than the other research assistants in that he occasionally proposed works of art for exchange and for acquisition by Goering.

In conformity with Adolf Hitler’s order of November 18, 1940, the greater part of the material confiscated by the ERR was sent to Germany for safekeeping and for Hitler’s ultimate disposition. The first shipment of ERR material from France to Germany took place in April 1941.  Between that date and July 1944, 29 shipments were sent into the Reich. The shipments comprised 138 freight carloads, containing 4,174 cases of work destined for six separate protected deposits. These deposits were: Schloss Neuschwanstein (Kreis Füssen); Schloss Chiemsee (Herreninsel, Kreis Traunstein); Cloister Buxheim (Kreis Memmingen); Schloss Kogl (St. Georgen/ Kreis Vöcklabruck); Schloss Seisenegg (Kreis Amstetten); and, Schloss Nickolsburg (Kreis Nickolsburg).

During the summer of 1941, just months after the German invasion and occupation of Greece, Kress was ordered to Salonika to accompany Professor Franz Dölger on an expedition to Mount Athos.  Dölger, a distinguished professor of Byzantine studies at the University of Munich since 1931, was to focus on historical and theological issues.  His expedition was officially sponsored by Alfred Rosenberg in his capacity as Reich Minister for the Occupied Eastern Territories, and was supported by the Wehrmacht.  Kress was to later recall that the purpose of the expedition from his perspective was to make cultural propaganda photographs.  Kress spent six months on the project and subsequently Dölger’s account of his visit to Mount Athos was printed in the book Mönchsland Athos (Munich: 1943).  After completing this mission, Kress returned to Paris in 1942 to resume work under Lohse.

When Kress returned to Paris he found that Luftwaffe corporal Heinz Simokat had been installed by Lohse as the ERR’s chief photographer.  Thus with little photographic work to do, Kress set himself the task of compiling an orderly set of negatives, inasmuch as he had found the files in a state of disorder on his return from Greece.  He also began spending more time in the photographic section of the Amt Rosenberg (Rosenberg’s headquarters) in Berlin than with the ERR in Paris.

At some point, in 1943 or 1944, Simokat, at his own request, was returned to active military duty, and Rudolf  Scholz became the leading ERR photographer, responsible to art historian Dr. Walter Borchers (Obergefreiter in the Luftwaffe) who had become head of the Arbeitsgruppe Louvre.  Rudolf was a nephew of Dr. Robert Scholz – Bereichsleiter (Divisional Director) of the Rosenberg Amt Bildende Kunst (Office for Pictorial Arts), Berlin; and, responsible for the professional conduct of the Paris art staff of the ERR.

Kress, at some point in 1943, was sent to Riga and Kiev on short photographic missions, and also worked in the ERR deposits at Neuchwanstein/Fussen and Chiemsee, in Bavaria.

Meanwhile, ERR shipments continued to be sent to the ERR deposits in Germany and Austria through February 1944, at which time the Reichschancellery (because of the increasing danger from air raids) ordered the major deposits evacuated and their contents brought to Alt Aussee, Austria, for storage in the salt mine there.

Shortly before the heavy air raids on Berlin began in 1944, Kress was given the responsibility of assembling the entire ERR file of photographic negatives and moving it to Neuchwanstein/Fussen for safekeeping.  Subsequently, he was ordered to move the entire file to the ERR center at Schloss Kogl/St. Georgen.  Shortly before the American entry into the area, the files were once again moved from Kogl to Fussen.  The final transfer of material was undertaken by Lohse, acting under Scholz’s orders.

During 1944 Kress made a number of short trips to Paris in order to bring photographic material from the Luftwaffe unit station to Germany.  In addition, he was given the assignment by Robert Scholz of bringing Baron von Behr’s Dienststelle Westen household effects (china, linen, silver, etc) confiscated in the M-Action, to Germany for the use by ERR personnel.

As late as the night of May 3-4, 1945 Scholz and Kress were at Schloss Kogl.  Scholz then sent Kress to the Alt Altssee deposit very shortly before U.S. troops occupied the area.  When the troops captured the mine at Alt Aussee on May 8, Kress, then a Stabsfeldwebel (Master Sergeant) was made a prisoner of war.  He was kept at Alt Aussee to provide information to the MFA&A specialists when they arrived.  They arrived in the persons of Third U.S. Army Monuments Men Capt. Robert K. Posey and Pfc Lincoln Kirstein on May 16.  In his semi-monthly report Posey noted that “All his negatives and equipment from Schloss Kogl also seized and held.”[1]

During the first week of June U.S. Army war crimes investigator Capt. W. A. Rembert, who was at Alt Aussee, had photographs taken by U.S. Army Signal Corps photographers of the mine, buildings, and personnel at Alt Aussee.  Among the photographs are two, taken on June 5, that include Kress:  One is captioned: “German technicians stationed at the mine at Alt Aussee, Austria, prior to American entry, in connection with processing and care and preservation of the art treasures therein. From left to right: Karl Kress, chief photograph for the Einsatzstab Rosenberg; Max Eder, Engineer; Dr. Hermann Michel, chemist; Hans Danner, surveyor; Karl Sieber, painting restorer.”  The other was captioned: “From left to right: Karl Kress, Einsatzstab Rosenberg photographer; Capt. Rembert, Investiogator; Karl Sieber, restorer; and Tec 5 Bauer, interpreter for Capt. Rembert – in Konig Josef Cavern of the mine at Alt Aussee, Austria, in which chamber most of the loot of the Einsatzstab Rosenberg was stored.”[2]

On June 14 Kovalyak came to Alt Aussee with Lt. George Stout, USNR, to help with the evacuation of the art treasures in the mine. This is where he met Kress.  MFA&A officers Lt. Thomas C. Howe, Jr., USNR and 2nd Lt. Lamont Moore arrived at Alt Aussee in July to assist in the evacuation.  They would also meet Kress. Howe would later write that Stephen Kovalyak had made Kress his personal prisoner of war since his arrival at Alt Aussee.[3]  He noted that “Steve was an enthusiastic amateur and had acquired all kinds of photographic equipment. Kress, we gathered, was showing him how to use it. Their ‘conversations’ were something of a mystery, because Steve knew no German, Kress no English.”  In response to a question about how he communicated with Kress, Kovalyak said he used his “High German.”  Howe wrote that:

We came to the conclusion that ‘High German’ was so called because it transcended all known rules of grammar and pronunciation. But, for the two of them, it worked. Steve-stocky, gruff and belligerent-and Kress-timid, beady-eyed and patient-would spend hours together. They were a comical pair. Steve was always in command and very much the captor. Kress was long-suffering and had a kind of doglike devotion to his master, whose alternating jocular and tyrannical moods he seemed to accept with equanimity and understand. But all this we learned later.

Just about the time that Howe, Moore, and Kovalyak were wrapping up their evacuation work at Alt Aussee and preparing to go on their next assignment, the evacuation of the Hermann Goering collection at Berchtesgaden, Office of Strategic Services (OSS) Art Looting Investigation Unit (ALIU) member Lt. Theodore Rousseau, USNR at Bad Aussee (3 miles south of Alt Aussee) telephoned Howe and inquired whether they were planning to take Kress with them to Berchtesgaden.  Howe told him they certainly were, later writing that “Steve would sooner have parted with his right eye.” Rousseau indicated that they wanted to interrogate Kress before they left and said it might take a few days.  Howe suggested that they start right away, as they would soon be needing Kress themselves.  “Steve,” Howe noted, “was wild when he heard about it. I agreed that it was a nuisance but that we’d have to oblige. The OSS boys came for Kress that afternoon. Steve watched them, balefully, as they drove off down the mountain.”

The ALIU interrogated Kress at Bad Aussee on July 20-21.  After the interrogation, the ALIU compiled Detailed Interrogation Report No. 10 regarding Kress.  In the report it was noted that Kress, since his capture, had continued to function as a photographer “under the supervision of G-5, Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Branch, Third U.S. Army.”   In the Summary section of the report ALIU director Lt. James Plaut, USNR, wrote that Kress affirmed that his activity with the ERR was confined wholly to the photographing of works of art in the Jeu de Paume and that he never accompanied ERR personnel to private dwellings, either prior to or in the course of confiscation operations.  Kress claimed, Plaut wrote, that he owned no works of art whatever, and that he engaged at no time in the traffic of objects of art. “Kress,” Plaut noted, “is a ‘little man’ with a weak personality. It is conceivable that he engaged in some petty thievery, but it is not likely that he was involved in any large-scale, illegal transfers of art objects.”  Concluding, Plaut wrote

No action is recommended; however, Kress was released prematurely from interrogation, in deference to G-5, MFA&A 3rd Army, to do urgent photographic work. In view of his close relationship to Utikal and other key E.R.R. personnel, he is wanted for further interrogation by this unit.

Utikal was Stabsfuehrer Gerhard Utikal, who in 1941, replaced Dr. Georg Ebert and was also given complete responsibility for ERR activities in all countries. Simultaneously, von Behr was made responsible for all ERR operations in France.

It appears that Kress was never questioned again by the ALIU.[4] He was, however, on July 25, at Bad Aussee, questioned by U.S. Army war crimes investigator Capt. Rembert.  Kress said that since he worked inside the Jeu de Paume, he did not know who carried out the confiscation of art objects, nor could he say who brought the art objects into the Jeu de Paume.  He did say they were received there by Schiedlausky.  He provided information about Utikal, Scholz, Lohse, and others.  As for von Behr, he observed he “has played a big part in the Einsatzstab and was very much feared.”  He also provided information regarding art dealers Walter Andreas Hofer and Gustav Rochlitz.[5]

While Kress was at Bad Aussee, Howe and Moore went to Berchtesgaden to start the evacuation of the Goering Collecting.  In anticipation of Kress’ arrival they assembled all the paintings that appeared to have suffered recent damage of any kind.  Kress’ first job would be to make a photographic record which they would include in their final report on the evacuation of the collection. They found thirty-four pictures in this category.  When Kovalyak joined them at Berchtesgaden he brought along in their car Kress, “looking more timid than ever” according to Howe.  Kovalyak told Howe and Moore that Kress had had a bad time after they left Alt Aussee:

the boys at House 71 [the house used by the ALIU team] had clapped him in jail and left him there for two days before interrogating him Steve had been ‘burned up’ about it and had given them a piece of his mind. He said contemptuously that he known all along they didn’t have anything on Kress. But he was content to let bygones be bygones. Steve had his man Friday back again.

Besides Kress, Kovalyak had also brought along a 2 ½-ton Army cargo truck that contained all of Kress’ photographic equipment. “There was,” according to Howe, “a tremendous lot of stuff: three large cameras, a metal table for drying prints, reflectors, a sink, pipes of various sizes, boxes of film and paper; and a couple of large cabinets.”  Very quickly Kress was put to work taking photographs.

In mid-August, with the Goering Collection safely deposited at the Munich Central Collecting Point, Howe, Moore, and Kovalyak moved on to their next evacuation mission, that of the ERR records and some art treasures stored at the castle at Neuschwanstein.  They brought Kress with them.  Not only could he photograph the artwork, he also knew the castle and its holdings very well, having worked there in 1943 and 1944.  In the castle they located the two rooms which had been used as a photographic laboratory and Kovalyak arranged to have Kress’ equipment installed there. The Neuschwanstein evacuation operation lasted eight days.

When the evacuation team returned to Munich with what they had collected at the castle, it is not clear whether they brought Kress with them.  Once back at Munich the team immediately became involved in restitution activities that would not have involved Kress.  The last reference to him I located was a note, that indicated as of September 1945, he was under house arrest.  There was no reference to location.  By the end of February 1946, Howe, Moore, and Kovalyak had returned to the United States.  As for Kress, I could not locate any record that explains what happened to him after his adventures with the MFA&A Special Evacuation Team.

[1] Robert K. Posey, Capt., Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives, G-5 Section, Headquarters, Third United States Army to MFA and A, G-5 Section, Headquarters, Twelfth Army Group, Subject: Semi-Monthly Report on Monuments, fine Arts and Archives for Period Ending 31 May 1945, File: Third U.S. Army Reports-January thru May 1945, Activity Reports, 1945, “Ardelia Hall Collection” (NAID 1561462), Record Group 260 (Roll 31 of National Archives Microfilm Publication M-1941).

[2] The photographs are Exhibits 24 and 30 to File 3JA187 of the War Crimes Office of the Judge Advocate General of the U.S. Third Army.  The report, captioned “Report of Information of Alleged War Crimes,” was prepared by the Office of the Commanding General of the U.S. Third Army and sent to the Deputy Theater Judge Advocate, War Crimes Branch, on September 4, 1945. United States Counsel for the Prosecution of Axis Criminality; Reference Documents Received from American and Foreign Sources, 1945-1946, file unit SEF-196 NAID: 6224248.

[3] All the Howe references to Kovalyak and Kress are from Thomas Carr Howe, Jr., Salt Mines and Castles: The Discovery and Restitution of Looted European Art (Indianapolis and New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Publishers, 1946).

[4] In the OSS ALIU Consolidated Interrogation Report No. 1 regarding the “Activity of the Einstatzstab Rosenberg in France,” there is only brief mention of Kress and his position as a photographer for the ERR. A copy of the report can be found here.

[5] Kress’ statement on July 25 at Bad Aussee to war crimes investigator Capt. W. A. Rembert is Exhibit 12 to File 3JA187 of the War Crimes Office of the Judge Advocate General of the U.S. Third Army.  The report, captioned “Report of Information of Alleged War Crimes,” was prepared by the Office of the Commanding General of the U.S. Third Army and sent to the Deputy Theater Judge Advocate, War Crimes Branch, on September 4, 1945. United States Counsel for the Prosecution of Axis Criminality; Reference Documents Received from American and Foreign Sources, 1945-1946 NAID 6106845.