The Monuments Men in June 1945: The Evacuation of Siegen Completed

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

The Monuments Men (the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives (MFA&A) Specialist Officers) were busy during June 1945 locating and overseeing some 600 emergency repositories containing cultural property and providing for the evacuation of some of that property to more suitable storage locations. As was seen in a previous post, the Siegen copper mine repository was partially emptied on May 26 and treasures were taken to the Cathedrals in Cologne and Aachen. The remainder of the repository would be emptied in June and taken to Marburg.

The Marburg Central Collecting Point, under Captain Walker Hancock, with Military Government Detachment F1C2, set up primary operations in the relatively vacant Staatsarchiv building and space in the Jubilaeumsbau, a mile away at the opposite end of town. Before the dissolution of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) in mid-July and the division of western Germany into zones, it served as a central collecting point for items recovered in repositories in the Rhineland, Westphalia, and the Hessen areas, as well as, occasionally, for objects from more remote places. It contained relatively few looted objects.

One of the first major collections brought to Marburg was that from Siegen. Once Hancock had time to deal with the contents of the mine at Siegen and had the Staatsarchiv in suitable condition, he, and MFA&A Lieutenants Lamont Moore and Stephen Kovalyak, decided to evacuate to the Staatsarchiv the remaining holdings at Siegen. There, on Saturday, June 2, twenty-three American army trucks arrived to carry the items to Marburg, some fifty miles from Siegen. This time, unlike their May 26 trips to Cologne and Aachen with four trucks, it was a much larger load, and one infinitely more difficult to handle, and it had to be put aboard the trucks on Sunday, June 3. There was one additional challenge, beyond civil laws and Military Government regulations, standing in Hancock’s way: Siegen was depopulated on Sundays. Everyone capable of walking went into the country in search of food. No men were in the streets for Kovalyak to commandeer. Kovalyak called for volunteers at a nearby Displaced Persons camp full of Russians and told them that he was about to move a large collection of stolen pictures back to Moscow, and added the offer of a K-ration apiece to every man who would help. He returned with a truck full of Russians. They did a willing and efficient job in moving the priceless works of art through the long slippery tunnels and into the trucks without damage. While Kovalyak supervised the move in the tunnel, Moore and Hancock remained in the trucks with the packing materials, padding and lashing into place the objects as they were lifted aboard, while Herr Etzkorn, the guardian of the Siegen repository, checked them off on the inventory. The load consisted of 44 cases from the Landesmuseum, Bonn; 13 cases of paintings from Suermondt Museum, Aachen; 1 case, Hoven Klosterkirche; 1 case, Haus Thyssen; 5 cases Metz Cathedral Treasure; 8 cases from Essen; 21 cases from Cologne; 6 cases from Siegburg; 517 unpacked paintings from Aachen, Essen, Munster, Cologne, and Wuppertal; 56 pieces of sculpture from Aachen, Cologne, and Essen; 8 stained glass panels; 2 choir books; 1 filing cabinet; 1 cabinet from Sinzenich; 2 frames; 2 suit cases; and 9 miscellaneous boxes and parcels. They were transported to Marburg on June 4.

When the trucks arrived from Siegen, Hancock found that civilian labor was almost unobtainable and they were not allowed to use military drivers for the purpose of unloading. So he appealed to the city jail for help. Under military guard, the work crew appeared to be young boys who had violated the curfew or stolen cigarettes, and a few middle-aged offenders.

Once the items were unloaded, the five cases containing treasures from the Cathedral of Metz were opened and the contents inventoried. Dampness in the mine had caused mold growth in all five cases. Thick mold on the vestments made immediate cleaning imperative. This was done by a German specialist in ancient textiles.   

Hancock also received assistance from MFA&A Specialist Officer 2nd Lt. Samuel L. Ratensky who had been assigned to him on June 1, and MFA&A Specialist Officer 2nd Lt. Sheldon W. Keck (formerly an art conservator from the Brooklyn Museum of Art), who was assigned to him in mid-July.

John Nicholas Brown, the Cultural Advisor to General Eisenhower for the MFA&A Program, accompanied by Mr. John Walker, Curator at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., representing The American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas, came to Marburg in mid-July to inspect the work of the MFA&A officers and the buildings taken over as collecting points. They held a long conference. Hancock, Keck, and Ratensky and Brown would subsequently report that many of the paintings from the mine at Siegen had been affected by mold and needed immediate attention. One of Keck’s first tasks was to remove the mold on some artwork that came from Siegen. He did so successfully.

In August when Lt. Moore, Lt. Kovalyak, and Lt. Thomas C. Howe, Jr., USNR, came to Marburg, Hancock showed them the Metz Cathedral treasure in Staatsarchiv. Howe would later write, “It was one of the greatest collections of its kind in the entire world. Its intrinsic value was enormous; its historic value incalculable.”

Hancock wrote the Assistant Chief of Staff, G-5, Seventh U.S. Army on August 13 that because of the condition of the Metz objects, it appeared inadvisable to repack them and allow them to remain for a long time in the cases. He suggested that steps be taken toward arranging for the return of the property to Metz. About the same time, General Dwight D. Eisenhower approved a proposal to return at once to each of the countries overrun by the Germans at least one outstanding work of art. This was to be done in his name, as a gesture of “token restitution,” symbolizing policy with regard to ultimate restitution of all stolen art treasure to the rightful owner nations; this would be an earnest display of American good will. They would be sent back from Germany at the expense of the US Government.

On August 24 the United States Forces European Theater alerted the Commanding General, Western Military District, that as a token of the first restitution of works of art to the French Government it was desired that the highest priority be set for the earliest possible return of the 73 cases of Strasbourg Cathedral stained glass (then in Heilbronn salt mine) and the Metz Cathedral treasures (then in Marburg) to their respective cities of origin. Five days later Eisenhower directed the Commanding General, Western Military District, to prepare the Strasbourg Cathedral glass and the Metz Cathedral treasure for immediate delivery against proper receipt to appropriate French Authorities, making all arrangements directly with them. Within two weeks the items were on their way. The Strasbourg glass was turned over to the French on September 17 and the Metz treasure a few days later.

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Army message, signed Eisenhower, notifying that Strasbourg Cathedral Glass and Metz Cathedral treasure are on their way.


Sources from the National Archives:

K Deposits (Collecting Points Repositories Collections [2 of 2], General Records, 1938-1948 (NAID 1560051) Property Division, Records of Central Collecting Points (“Ardelia Hall Collection”) OMGUS Headquarters Relating to the Central Collecting Points, Records of the Office of Military Government (U.S.) OMGUS, Records of United States Occupation Headquarters, World War II, Record Group 260 (Roll 3 of National Archives Microfilm Publication M-1941).

Miscellaneous Reports [1945-1946] [1 of 2], General Records, 1938-1948 (NAID 1560051) Property Division, Records of Central Collecting Points (“Ardelia Hall Collection”) OMGUS Headquarters Relating to the Central Collecting Points, Records of the Office of Military Government (U.S.) OMGUS, Records of United States Occupation Headquarters, World War II, Record Group 260 (Roll 16 of National Archives Microfilm Publication M-1941).

July 1945 (Greater Hesse) Monthly Report on Monuments Fine Arts and Archives Western Military District-Seventh United States Army, Activity Reports, 1945 (NAID 1561462) Property Division, Records of Central Collecting Points (“Ardelia Hall Collection”) OMGUS Headquarters Relating to the Central Collecting Points, Records of the Office of Military Government (U.S.) OMGUS, Records of United States Occupation Headquarters, World War II, Record Group 260 (Roll 32 of National Archives Microfilm Publication M-1941).

Public Archives: Siegen Depot, Records Relating to Status of Monuments, Museums, and Archives, 1945-1951 (NAID 2435815) Records of the Wiesbaden Central Collecting Point, Records of the Office of Military Government (U.S.) OMGUS, Records of United States Occupation Headquarters, World War II, Record Group 260 (Roll 62 of National Archives Microfilm Publication M-1947).

October 1945 (Greater Hesse) Monthly Report on Monuments Fine Arts and Archives Western Military District-Seventh United States Army, Activity Reports, 1945 (NAID 1561462) Property Division, Records of Central Collecting Points (“Ardelia Hall Collection”) OMGUS Headquarters Relating to the Central Collecting Points, Records of the Office of Military Government (U.S.) OMGUS, Records of United States Occupation Headquarters, World War II, Record Group 260 (Roll 32 of National Archives Microfilm Publication M-1941).

28.1 Collecting Points-Marburg, General Records, 1938-1948 (NAID 1560051) Property Division, Records of Central Collecting Points (“Ardelia Hall Collection”) OMGUS Headquarters Relating to the Central Collecting Points, Records of the Office of Military Government (U.S.) OMGUS, Records of United States Occupation Headquarters, World War II, Record Group 260 (Roll 21 of National Archives Microfilm Publication M-1941).

312.1 Miscellaneous Correspondence, RD&R Division USGCC 1945, General Correspondence (Central Files), 1944-1949 (NAID 6923852) Records of the Economic Division, Records of the Office of Military Government (U.S.) OMGUS, Records of United States Occupation Headquarters, World War II, Record Group 260.

SHAEF/G-5/751, Public Monuments-Fine Art, Numeric File, Aug 1943-Jul 1945 (NAID 610059) Secretariat, G-5 (Civil Affairs) Division, General Staff, Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces (SHAEF), Allied Operational and Occupation Headquarters, World War II, Record Group 331.

AMG 228 (CC) MFA&A Correspondence: US Group CC Br Element CC, Subject File, Aug 1943-1945 (NAID 612714) Monuments, Fine Arts & Archives Section, Operations Branch, G-5 Division, General Staff, Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces (SHAEF), Allied Operational and Occupation Headquarters, World War II, Record Group 331.

400C-Restitution Fine Arts, January-September 1945, Classified General Correspondence, 1945-1949 (NAID 1717994) Records of the U.S. Political Advisor for Germany, Records of the Foreign Service Posts of the United States, Record Group 84.

The following published sources were used:

Thomas C. Howe, Jr., Salt Mines and Castles, pp. 118-119, 232, 233, 243.

Walter Hancock, “Experiences of a Monuments Officer in Germany,” College Art Journal (vol. V. No. 4, May 1946), p. 306-308.

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