How my mother defied the Nazis

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New film The Monuments Men depicts the story of how priceless works of art were recovered after World War II. Writer Virginia Nicholson speaks to Anna Hart about one woman’s part in it: her 97-year-old mother…

Like most girls, I grew up begging my parents to tell me stories from their childhood. Mum would talk about her time as an air raid warden during the Blitz, running around north London in a tin hat. She told me about her student years at the Courtauld Institute, studying art history in the footsteps of her father, then the keeper of prints and drawings at the

British Museum. She’d even tell me about the heartbreak of losing her first boyfriend, an artistturned- RAF pilot called Graham, who was killed during a training flight in 1943. Nothing was strictly off limits. It wasn’t until I got older, however, that I realised how utterly extraordinary the era my mother lived through really was. In 1996, my father, Quentin Bell, an eminent art historian, asked me if I would help him complete his book about his family home, Charleston, the country meeting place of the intellectuals (including his aunt, Virginia Woolf) known as the Bloomsbury Group. He was 85 and in hospital and so we had to face the fact that he wouldn’t finish it himself.

For the last three weeks of his life, I sat by his bedside, listening to his stories. After he died, I threw myself into the oddly therapeutic task of completing the book, and realised that from beyond the grave, my father had given me a new direction in life.

Today, as a writer of social history books, the stories that interest me are still within living memory; I track down and talk to people who can remember how things were. And when I decided to write a book about the role of women in the Second World War, the natural starting point was my own mother, Anne. So she showed me the love letters to and from her first love, Graham.

I asked daft, inadequate questions about Graham’s death, but really, there are no questions that can get to the root of something like this. ‘I can’t tell you what it was like to read that telegram,’ she told me. ‘I think I’ve blocked out how it really felt.’ Heartbroken and unable to conceive of a future without Graham, in 1945 my mother was asked by a fellow art historian if she would lend her expertise to the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives branch of the Allied army (dubbed the Monuments Men), which aimed to restore artworks of cultural importance to their rightful owners. Many people aren’t aware that in the early years of the Second World War, the Nazis moved through Poland, Austria, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, France and Italy, seizing art for the private collections of Nazi top-rankers like Hermann Goering, or to stash in commandeered castles and monasteries, in preparation for the great museum that Hitler had planned to erect, post-victory, in his hometown of Linz.

My mother felt she could help, so she signed up. She was appointed the rank of major and posted to Bünde in northwest Germany to set about this mammoth task. It’s this painstaking recovery work of my mother’s – as one of the so-called Monuments Men – that is the subject of a new George Clooney film. And it was this work that gradually mended her broken heart. Most of her role was office-based and highly frustrating – phone lines were down, cars seized up, the autobahn was ravaged. She spent 18 months, with catalogues and sales receipts, matching up recovered artworks – reclaimed or discovered by the Allied armies after VE Day – and sending letters to previous owners, working with officers who were out there in the field. It was valuable work. The team were restoring artworks to galleries and museums, as well as bringing in supplies to repair castles and museums – wood, stone, plaster. My mother didn’t have much contact with the art owners on the whole – it was the officers’ job to recover and transport the artwork.

Most of the glamorous work took place in American occupied south eastern Germany. That’s where they got a tip off that the Nazis had been hoarding artwork deep in caverns in salt mines, right on the border of Austria. It had been stashed there initially in preparation for Hitler’s museum, but when it looked like the Nazis were about to be defeated, the plan was to blow it all up – if they couldn’t have it, nobody would. Thankfully the Americans got there just in time.

Of course, before and during the war a lot of the Jewish community and refugees had voluntarily sold their work to dealers, to raise money so they could escape to Britain. Others simply had it commandeered. Often it was not possible to return the artworks to their previous owners because many of them had been killed in the Holocaust. The cultural and social impact of the Monuments Men’s work in a devastated Germany cannot be overstated. All the church bells in Germany had been ripped from their towers and transported by the Nazis to a depot, with the intention of melting them down for ammunition. The Nazis were fastidiously organised, and all the bells were clearly labelled, so my mother set about contacting all the village pastors in the region, returning the bells to the tiny village churches.

My mother was full of compassion for the German population, unlike many of her fellow workers, who still lived by the mantra that ‘the only good German is a dead German’. One evening she invited the eminent art historian Franz Wolff- Metternich, an avowed anti-Nazi and professor at Bonn University, to her officer’s mess, to discuss how best to return looted artworks. Half the British officers present stood up and demanded, ‘What are you doing, bringing a German in here?’ Mum thought this was simply ridiculous, and was furious. ‘He’s a cultured man, and an art lover, and we’ve got serious work to do,’ she replied.

She told me about the time she was responsible for transporting a large number of valuable paintings, including Rubens and Renoirs, on a cattle train from Munich to Hamburg. Along with her fellow officers, they stowed these huge, priceless canvases, wrapped in brown paper, and set off. They drank a lot of beer – as everyone did – and one by one, all her fellow officers fell asleep. It was then she realised she needed to go to the toilet, but there wasn’t one on-board.

Every time the train ground to a halt, she considered jumping out and taking her khakis off, but she couldn’t quite bear the thought of being left behind, and losing sight of the precious canvases. So she held on, heroically, for the entire 14-hour journey, rather than leaving the Rubens unattended for a second.

My mother worked tirelessly for 18 months in a ravaged country. The winter of 1947 was brutally cold, and people were shelterless and starving. She visited the concentration camp of Belsen shortly after the liberation. It was seeing how utterly shattered Germany was that finally made her accept that ‘my tragedy [Graham] is just one tragedy among thousands of tragedies’. I think her work really increased my mother’s confidence. She was restoring cultural pride to a devastated community for whom she felt great compassion. And she’d discovered something she was very good at doing. She told me, ‘Before the war I used to believe that other people knew better than I. But in Germany, I started to realise that actually, I knew rather a lot, I was good at this, and my way of doing things might be the best way!’

Extraordinary as my mother’s life is – her family connections to Virginia Woolf, her work with the Monuments Men – it was the universality of her experience that I wanted to preserve in my book. I hope people will read the story of her tragic affair with Graham and think, ‘this happened to my mother, my aunt, my grandmother’. Because this is what happened to women in the war. They lost people they loved, and had to find a way of getting on with it. Yes, my mother is chuffed to bits about the film, but it’s the ordinariness of her story, the experience of millions of women during the Second World War, that is really helping keep history alive.”

Millions Like Us: Women’s Lives During The Second World War is published by Penguin, £9.99. For more information about the Charleston Trust, founded by Anne Olivier Bell, visit


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