Rose Valland, the spy at work
by Jennifer Lesieur, afterword by Emmanuelle Polack
Robert Laffont, 240 pages, €19.50
An “insignificant old maid”, this is how the formidable Reichsmarschall Göring saw her, who saw her dozens of times. By remaining almost invisible to the eyes of the Germans who looted works of art torn from Jewish families persecuted during the Occupation, Rose Valland accomplished the heroic mission she had set herself. In the cinema, Cate Blanchett lent her features in George Clooney’s Monuments Men. The only woman among these men who fought to find paintings stolen by the Nazis, Rose Valland (1898-1980) later gained recognition from the general public. He needed a book to match his romantic personality.
Jennifer Lesieur, Goncourt prize for biography for Jack London (Tallandier), has become attached to the life of this resistance fighter from the shadows. She recounts it in a captivating book, written like a suspense novel. With brilliance and realism, it portrays an incredibly daring woman, hidden behind a modest appearance, who risked her life for almost five years to save everything she could from the clutches of the Nazis.
Rose Valland was the only Frenchwoman present when Göring arrived in the Parisian museum in 1940 to help herself from the collections looted from the Jews and send everything to Berlin. This former assistant, now attached to the conservation of the Musée du Jeu de Paume, assists, powerless, in this first looting. The property belongs to the Rothschild, Wildenstein, Seligmann, Kann and many other families. “Nobody was paying attention to this thin shadow, to this face without coquetry behind its steel-rimmed glasses (…). So much the better: she shouldn’t be noticed, especially not. “The author describes the shock that occurs that day in this autodidact, provincial, from a modest background, moved to Paris by passion for art, who dreamed of being “boyish” by reading Victor Margueritte, then dared to confess his homosexuality. She follows this ordinary 42-year-old woman when she returns to her apartment and draws up a first list of stolen works that very evening. She also reveals a bit of her “forbidden” intimate life with another woman.
The story is full of historical details as well as empathy for this discreet heroine. We see her in 1939, packing with the help of the saleswomen of La Samaritaine the treasures of the Louvre leaving the capital. We find her again at the Liberation, named captain, leaving for Germany in April 1945 to repatriate 60,000 works of art in ten years. His tireless inventory work during the Occupation remains the most fascinating. With composure, method and determination, Rose Valland lists the looted works: titles, artists, provenance, owners, origins, destination. She rummages through garbage cans, eavesdrops, sneaks around, takes on menial tasks to get closer to treasures in peril. She is perfecting her German to better understand what is going on. She writes everything down and transmits her information to the Resistance. She knowingly risks her life to “save a little of the beauty of the world”.