In August 1939, 10 days before the outbreak of World War II, a secret and extraordinary rescue
mission began in Paris, one that was conducted just like a military operation. Hundreds of workers and volunteers took part, all commanded by one man who was acting on his own initiative, without orders from his superiors.
This man, Jacques Jaujard, is the hero of the new French documentary “Illustrious Yet Unknown” (Illustre et Inconnu), directed by Jean-Pierre Devillers and Pierre Pochart. It will be screened on Friday morning (February 13) during the Epos International Art Film Festival at Tel Aviv Museum of Art.
Jaujard was deputy director of The Louvre museum, and foresaw the potential dangers for the art treasures there. On August 25, a few days before the Germans invaded Poland, Jaujard ordered the closure of the museum for three days, officially for repair work. On the first night, 800 of the most important works of art were removed from the walls, among them Leonardo da Vinci’s iconic "Mona Lisa." In the following days, some 4,000 works were packed up and loaded onto a fleet of vehicles, including hundreds of trucks, ambulances, private cars and taxis.
The stored works were marked according to their importance: in yellow, green and red. The "Mona Lisa," for example, was awarded three red circles. Not all the works could be packed in crates because of their dimensions: “The Raft of the Medusa” – an 1818 oil painting by French Romantic painter Théodore Géricault – had to be carried to a truck covered in a gigantic blanket.
When the order was given, a convoy of 203 vehicles set out, bearing 1,862 wooden crates with the priceless works of art. The destinations: castles throughout France, where the works would be kept safe until the troubles passed. The vehicles traveled at a speed of 40 kilometers per hour (25 mph). Electricity and telephone wires that would have impeded their passage were removed in advance, and the largest art rescue operation of World War II went without a hitch.
The Nazis entered Paris in June 1940, and soon afterward Jaujard was asked to conduct a tour of the museum for Adolf Hitler’s emissary, Count Franz Wolff-Metternich, who was tasked with inspecting France’s art collection and overseeing the Kunstschutz (German appropriation of art).
As archival film in the documentary shows, few items remained in the museum by this point and it was mostly empty, albeit still open to visitors.
Jaujard wrote in his diary – extracts from which are quoted in the film – that Wolff-Metternich, who was not a member of the Nazi Party, felt relieved when he saw the empty museum. Jaujard sensed that, like other members of the German nobility, Wolff-Metternich did not feel much affection for the Nazi regime and intentionally “cheated” at his assignment, allowing Jaujard freedom of movement and protecting him from other elements in the regime. After the war, at Jaujard’s initiative, France awarded Wolff-Metternich the Légion d’honneur.
The Louvre was subordinated to the education minister of the Vichy government, which collaborated with the Nazis. Jaujard had to play a double diplomatic-political game – satisfying the regime, on the one hand, and protecting the art treasures on the other. In a circuitous way, he succeeded in doing this. However, his relations with the collaborative regime reached boiling point when Hermann Göring, Hitler’s deputy and an art collector in his own right, stole works of art that belonged to France. Jaujard wanted to submit a complaint to the authorities, but was advised to keep quiet lest something bad happen to him. read more: www.haaretz.com