The Man Who Saved the 'Mona Lisa' From the Nazis

On the eve of World War II, 4,000 works of art were secretly taken from walls of The Louvre and hidden away in various locales around France. A new documentary tells the story of an extraordinary rescue mission.

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
The Mona Lisa is rehung at The Louvre, Paris, prior to the museum's postwar reopening on October 6, 1947.
The Mona Lisa is rehung at The Louvre, Paris, prior to the museum's postwar reopening on October 6, 1947.Credit: AFP
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

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.

Mostly empty

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.

The rescue mission lasted throughout the war years, even after the artworks were safely hidden. It also included works that were in private collections, outside The Louvre. Jaujard had to move the "Mona Lisa" several times, in order to keep it out of the hands of the Nazis and the Vichy government. He even sent climate-control equipment to some of the secret sites to protect the works, which included centuries-old Greek and Roman statues.

“These works belong to the nation. It is your duty to preserve them for coming generations,” Jaujard told his accomplices in 1942. That same year, he began to cooperate with the Allies, physically marking the sites where works were hidden so that combat planes would not bomb them by mistake.

A Hollywood twist

The story of Jaujard’s heroic rescue act, which is presented in the documentary with a mixture of stunning archival footage and animation sequences, experienced a Hollywood-style twist. In 1944, the French Resistance made contact with Jaujard and sent him a liaison officer whose underground nom de guerre was “Mozart.” Jaujard was surprised to discover that Mozart was none other than the beautiful actress Jeanne Boitel, who had starred in some well-known films in the 1930s and joined the Resistance during the war. The two instantly fell in love; Jaujard divorced his wife, had a child with Boitel and married her afterward.

“My happiness, my love ... without you everything is empty, devoid of interest without you there is nothing,” he wrote her. “You have become the center of everything. You have become my soul. When you are not at my side, life is nothing but waiting.”

After Paris was liberated in August 1944, all the works Jaujard had hidden were eventually returned to their old spaces. It is estimated that the Nazis, who were obsessed with seeking out works of art for a museum Hitler planned to establish, looted some 600,000 works. Most of them have never been returned to their owners, some of whom were murdered in the Nazi death camps, or to their heirs. To this day, lawsuits for the return of these works are being conducted around the world.

Last month, one of the largest of these suits was filed in a court in the United States. The defendants are the government of Germany and a Berlin museum. The plaintiffs are heirs of Jewish art dealers who sold their collection to the Nazis in 1935. The heirs are claiming a series of medieval works – called Welfenschatz, or Guelph Treasure – were sold at a loss, and that the sale was forced upon them. Germany is claiming that the sellers had in fact been happy with the deal, and received a suitable sum of money.

“Illustrious Yet Unknown” tells a great story and has a happy ending. It has an admirable hero who operated against all odds and succeeded in preserving humanity’s best artwork from under the noses of the Nazis, saving it for future generations.

However, on second viewing, there is also a bitter sense of something not covered: 76,000 French Jews, among them 11,000 children, were deported on trains to Eastern Europe. Most of them lived in Paris, where the art rescue was conducted under Jaujard’s lead. Most of the Jews were murdered at Auschwitz. It is hard not to wonder why another Jaujard did not arise in France, one who harnessed his energy, wealth and ability to rescue thousands of human beings – not only paintings and sculptures, as valuable and important as they were.

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