Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Remembrance Day Recommendations

One of my picks this Fall is Monuments Men by Robert M. Edsel & Brett Witter. A great choice for Rememberance Day, this book recounts the fascinating yet little known contributions of a division of the Allied Forces in WWII- the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archive Section.
This group of 315 men and women from thirteen nations risked their lives in the final year of the war and beyond to track, locate and recover artwork and items of cultural significance that had been stolen by the Nazis during the war on the orders of Hitler. They also assessed damage and protected buildings of architectural or historic significance. Faced with so many stories he could tell, Edsel focuses strictly on the stories of one group of Monuments Men- the eight men assigned to cover France, the Netherlands, and Germany in the 11-month period from D-Day to VE Day. With no supplies, vehicles or radios, they had to use their wits in order to get the job done. The book is based on field journals, war reports, dispatches and orders from command, diaries and letters home as well as interviews with some of the survivors. Also included are the contributions of two French civilians, one of whom was Rose Valland, art historian, member of the French Resistance and one of the most decorated women in French history. Fiction readers might recognize her story too- the character of Rose Clément in Sara Houghteling's book Pictures at the Museum was based on Valland. A volunteer at a museum adjacent the Louvre, she spied on the Nazis throughout the occupation and her detailed notes were instrumental in the recovery and tracking of numerous works of art.

The book is very accessibly written and packed with incredible stories. Anyone interested in art or WWII history will find this of interest. The stories in here make your heart ache for all that was lost, but also profoundly grateful for the actions of these men and women, who risked (and some gave) their lives to save what they could of these important cultural artifacts for future generations to enjoy. It was just reviewed in the Toronto Star last weekend. Click here to read what they had to say.

Robert M. Edsel is also the co-producer of the related documentary film, The Rape of Europa, which was inspired by the book of the same name by Lynn H. Nicholas. He also wrote a mainly photographic companion book called Rescuing Da Vinci. Those in Ontario can watch the first part of the documentary on TVO Thursday November 12th at 10:00 pm, which is airing as part of their Masterworks series.

Also airing on TVO November 11th at 9 pm is the documentary Paris 1919, inspired by the book from Margaret MacMillan. We were lucky to see a screening of the film while up in Ottawa last week. Despite some technical difficulties, I found the film was absolutely fascinating. The visuals (archival footage from the time as well as dramatic recreations of the events) are fantastic.

1 comment:

Brian Busby said...

May I also recommend We Wasn't Pals: Canadian Poetry and Prose of the First World War (Exile Editions, 2001), edited by Barry Callaghan and Bruce Meyer? A fine book, it collects a good deal of the best writing on the conflict - much of it otherwise quite difficult to find.