Book Review of Saving Mona Lisa: The Battle to Protect the Louvre and Its Treasures from the Nazis by Gerri Chanel

I’m not usually a fan of World War Two, although I know many others are, so this book was an unusual choice for me. I really brought it as I have visited the Louvre many times and didn’t know the story of how the museum had dealt with keeping the priceless treasures safe during a time of war. After reading this book, which describes the dangerous situations, often at the threat of the lives of museum staff, as well as the many times the art was nearly taken by the Nazis, has made me realise just how much we take these amazing institutions for granted. It does try and focus on a good mixture of the fate of the curators and other museum staff, as well as their families. There is a keen focus on Jacques Jaujard, the Director of the Musee Nationaux, who was instrumental to the evacuation process and dealing with the Nazis once they occupied France. This gives the book a very personal feel and at some points, makes the reader feel very connected with those involved.

Whilst the book doesn’t instantly talk about the evacuation, I thought the background on how the Louvre became a museum, as well as explanations as to why the staff had learnt from previous threats to the museum, all contribute to a greater understanding of the challenges and logistics required to organise such a venture.

Despite the title, the book does cover all the art evacuated from the Louvre, and other French museums in preparation for the Second World War, which had to be spread across many different chateaus for safety reasons. I do like though that it covers all the art works, with mentions of the Mona Lisa sprinkled throughout. Personally I liked this as I felt a bit disappointed at easing the Mona Lisa, as I much preferred other paintings in the museum. This also helps to demonstrate the enormous challenges the staff faced in such an evacuation, especially with the larger paintings and sculptures. Whilst I enjoyed this part, I feel others would find this hard to get into as it is more background context than specifically focuses on the World War Two topic promised. However, if this isn’t to your taste, once you get a few chapters in, you won’t be disappointed.

There are some graphic description of violence and war, which is to be expected considering the topic, but I must admit these parts were hard to read. Although these are important to the narrative and explain the genuine dangers the museum staff had to contend with. I would be prepared for these as I had to take a break from reading at this point. These, alongside mentions of wider war issues, such as food shortages, the difference between Occupied and Vichy France, could have used with better context, but I understand this wasn’t necessarily the scope of this book. However, it could easily be used as a platform for further learning about the period.

I do especially like the epilogue, which mentions what happened to the main people after the end of the war, including the awards given in recognition for the courage, bravery and can do attitude that all museum staff had in the face of great adversity. This was a touching tribute and I must admit I was quite emotional to see the recognition the staff had received. It was a very fitting way to end what is a very fascinating and easy read. Thank you to Gerri Chanel for writing this book in acknowledgment for the achievements of the staff.

I would definitely recommend this book as the easy writing style made it very hard to put down. Whilst it’s a nonfiction book, it very much reads like a novel in its easy style, reading much like an adventure story. This has definitely been one of my favourite books that I’ve read this year. Whenever I am finally able to go back to Paris, especially the Louvre, I will now look on it in a new and grateful light for the sacrifice the staff and their families made at the time to keep the art protected for the world, not just for France.

Irena Sendler: The Polish Woman who helped save Jewish Children during World War Two

In June of this year, a statue was unveiled in Newark in Nottinghamshire to a Polish woman who played a hugely important role during World War Two. The woman was Irena Sendler, who helped to rescue an estimated 2,500 children from the Jewish Ghetto in Warsaw. It may sound a little odd that Newark was chosen for the site of the statue, but Newark has had many Polish connections. The statue itself is in a park close to the Polish cemetery in the town, where the bodies of many Polish airmen who were stationed in Newark during the Second World War.[1] I had never heard of the brave and heroic efforts of Irena and her colleagues, but after looking more into her story, I feel it should be shared more. The statue in Newark also aims to share her amazing story.

Irena was born as Irena Krzyzanowska on the 15th of February 1910 to Dr Stanislaw Krzyzanowski and his wife, Helen. Stanislaw died of typhus when Irena was 7, after contracting it from patients he was treating. He had decided to treat the patients, many of them Jews, as other doctors had refused to treat them for fear of catching typhus.[2] In recognition for the treatment offered, Jewish community leaders offered to pay for Irena’s education.[3] This was politely turned down, but Irena did go on to study Literature at Warsaw University. Whilst at university, she became opposed to the Jewish segregation policy that existed in some pre-war Polish universities. In protest, she defaced her grade card and was suspended for three years.[4]

Irena Sendler in 1942, Wikimedia Commons

Following her suspension, she tried to apply for teaching roles, but was always rejected due to Warsaw University warning of her previous behaviour.[5] Instead, she chose to become a social worker and wanted to improve people’s standards of living. When the Germans invaded Poland in 1939, she began offering food and shelter to Jews at risk. This was only able to continue until 1940, when the Jewish Ghetto in Warsaw was erected, which completely segregated the Jewish community. As she couldn’t openly assist the Jewish community as she had done previously, she decided to help orphaned Jewish children, which was a common occurrence with disease rife in the Ghetto. As a social worker, she was able to get papers to enter the Ghetto, with much assistance from a worker within the Contagious Disease Department.[6]

She became a member of the Zegota, a code name for the Council to Aid Jews, a secret organisation set up by the exiled Polish Government to help Jews in Poland find safety.[7] The organisation was the most consistently organised resistance group in operation throughout the Second World War, and encouraged Christians and Jews alike to offer whatever aid they could to Jews at risk of their lives.[8] Irena quickly became the person in charge of the children’s division of the Zegota. Her and her network devised many different methods to smuggle the children out of the Ghetto, including hiding children in ambulances and in trunks or sacks, or through sewers and other secret passageways.[9] One of the main ones used was a church that was next to the Ghetto. It was known as a ‘sealed’ entrance, or a sort of barrier, as it had two gates, one that led to the Ghetto, and another that led to other parts of Warsaw. Children would be smuggled in if they had good enough Polish and could recite some Christian prayers.[10]

The children who were smuggled out of the Ghetto were handed over by their families with the hopes of saving them from death. Irena ensured that all the families the Jewish children lived with during the war knew their birth families had been promised the children would be returned to them when the war ended.[11] Children who could not be found a family were housed in orphanages run by nuns, which was the next safest place for them.[12] The children were given a new identity with Christian names to hide them from the Germans and Irena had kept coded information on their birth identities and families buried in jars and bottles underneath a neighbours’ apple tree to hide them from discovery.[13] The hiding place was only just across the road from a German barracks.[14]

Irena Sendler in 2005, Wikimedia Commons

Irena’s life was just as in danger as the families who had taken the Jewish children in. In October 1943, she was arrested by the Gestapo. She was constantly questioned and tortured in order to give up information on the Zegota network. Despite having her legs and feet broken, she only ever gave up false information her and her associates had agreed upon if they were ever captured.[15] Once she had given this information, she was told she would be shot to death. On the day of her execution, she was taken into a room by her execution on the basis of last minute questioning, but in reality he let her go as he had been bribed by the Zegota.[16] The next day, posters were put up all over Warsaw saying she had been killed, so the man who helped her escape must have convinced the Germans that he had done his duty. I hope he was able to survive as he would have been killed for what he had done.

For the rest of the war, Irena had to live in hiding, just has the children she had saved had had to do. When the war ended, she dug up the bottles with the children’s identities and tried to trace their a living parent. Unfortunately, the vast majority of them had been killed at Treblinka death camp, but the amount of children she had saved had been great.[17] Her compassionate nature continued with her career as a social worker. She continued to help set up and run care homes and orphanages.[18]

Tree honouring Irena in The Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations, Yad Vashem, in Jerusalem, Wikimedia Commons

Her work rescuing Jewish children had been largely forgotten, other than the immediate recognition from the Polish government straight after the war, and a tree planted in The Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations, Yad Vashem, in Jerusalem, in 1965, which honours individuals who helped the Jews during the Holocaust.[19] It wasn’t until 4 students from America contacted Irena in 2001 about her story that the truth in its entirety was discovered. Irena’s response was emotion, but she admitted it had been overshadowed by the fact she was one of the only ones among her colleagues left who was left to receive the recognition and honour given to their life saving work.[20] Irena died in 2008 at the age of 98, but I hope this, alongside other attempts, such as the statue in Newark, raise the profile of the importance and heroism of Irena and her network of colleagues and most significantly, the amount of gratitude they should be given for the lives they saved by risking their own.


[1] ‘Polish humanitarian hero Irena Sendler had her statue officially unveiled at Newark’s Fountain Gardens on London Road after a small COVID-secure ceremony this Saturday’, Radio Newark, 28 June 2021, https://www.radionewark.co.uk/news/local-news/polish-humanitarian-hero-irena-sendler-had-her-statue-officially-unveiled-at-newarks-fountain-gardens-on-london-road-after-a-small-covid-secure-ceremony-this-saturday-26-june-2021/

[2] Life in a Jar: the Irena Sendler Project, https://irenasendler.org/

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid

[5] ‘Irena Sendler was born 111 years ago’, The International Roul Wallenburg Foundation, 15 Feb 2021, https://www.raoulwallenberg.net/general/irena-sendler-was-born-111-years-ago/

[6] Life in a Jar: the Irena Sendler Project, https://irenasendler.org/

[7] ‘Jewish Resistance: Konrad Żegota Committee’, Jewish Virtual Library, https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/the-379-egota

[8] Ibid

[9] Life in a Jar: the Irena Sendler Project, https://irenasendler.org/

[10] Ibid

[11] Ibid

[12] ‘Irena Sendler was born 111 years ago’, The International Roul Wallenburg Foundation, 15 Feb 2021, https://www.raoulwallenberg.net/general/irena-sendler-was-born-111-years-ago/

[13] Ibid

[14] ‘Irena Sendler was born 111 years ago’, The International Roul Wallenburg Foundation, 15 Feb 2021, https://www.raoulwallenberg.net/general/irena-sendler-was-born-111-years-ago/

[15] Life in a Jar: the Irena Sendler Project, https://irenasendler.org/

[16] Ibid

[17] Ibid

[18] ‘Irena Sendler was born 111 years ago’, The International Roul Wallenburg Foundation, 15 Feb 2021, https://www.raoulwallenberg.net/general/irena-sendler-was-born-111-years-ago/

[19] ‘Polish humanitarian hero Irena Sendler had her statue officially unveiled at Newark’s Fountain Gardens on London Road after a small COVID-secure ceremony this Saturday’, Radio Newark, 28 June 2021, https://www.radionewark.co.uk/news/local-news/polish-humanitarian-hero-irena-sendler-had-her-statue-officially-unveiled-at-newarks-fountain-gardens-on-london-road-after-a-small-covid-secure-ceremony-this-saturday-26-june-2021/

[20] Life in a Jar: the Irena Sendler Project, https://irenasendler.org/

Audley End- Aristocrats, Avenues and Espionage: a Guest Post by Laura Adkins

This guest post has kindly been written by Laura Adkins, the creator of the For The Love of History Blog, which I have been able to do a few guests posts for myself. She has worked at many historical sites and mainly posts about ones found in Essex, her home county. Do check her blog out if you can, I promise you it’s a very enjoyable read.

One of the grandest houses in England, Audley End stands proudly in the countryside of Saffron Walden. Its origins date back to the 10th Century, where it began life as Walden Abbey, given to Thomas, Lord Audley, by Henry VIII, who converted the monastery into a house. 

The rooms are high and hung with beautiful tapestries: the beds amply decorated with golden velvet and silk bed hangings and covers.’

From the account of the visit of Johann Ernst, Duke of Saxe-Weimar, to Audley End, September 1613

In this post, I will be exploring three parts of Audley’s history, those who lived there – the Howards, its beautiful gardens designed by the one and only Capability Brown and its role in WW2 and the polish resistance.

Aristocrats:

The creator of the current structure of Audley End was Thomas Howard, part of the infamous Howard family. He inherited the House in 1605 and set about transforming the site into a country estate fit enough for royalty as he wanted to show off his wealth. Unfortunately, not much survives of his transformations and what we know from his estate comes from archives and documentary evidence. We know work began in 1605 and completed around 1614. Along with his uncle Henry Howard and Bernard Janssen, a Flemish mason, the three set about creating one of the greatest houses in Jacobean England.[1] Audley End had all the parts one expects in a Jacobean Mansion including symmetrical inner court, lodgings for his guests, including one for both the King and a separate one for the Queen for when they would stay. Today the house is only half the size of what it once was.

Thomas Howard, 1st Earl of Suffolk by Unknown Artist, National Portrait Gallery

The Howard family’s rise to power began in 1483, when King Richard III created John Howard the Duke of Norfolk. This was the third time that the Title of Duke of Norfolk had been used, and John had blood links to the first ever Duke of Norfolk – Thomas Mowbray (made 1st Duke of Norfolk in 1397). The head of the Howards would not only hold the title of Duke of Norfolk, but that of Earl of Arundel, Earl of Surrey, and Earl of Norfolk in addition to holding six baronies. They were a powerful family, who in the reign of the Tudors were ones to watch out for. Thomas Howard, son of John would be successful in defeating the Scots at the Battle of Flodden with two of his nieces – Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard being married to King Henry VIII. Charles Howard, 1st Earl of Nottingham, would hold the title of Lord Admiral and lead the English against the invasion of the Spanish Armada in 1588. For more on this infamous family, I suggest reading House of Treason by Robert Hutchinson.

In 1751, after the 10th Earl’s death, Elizabeth, Countess of Portsmouth brought Audley End which in turn would be inherited by her nephew, Sir John Griffin Whitwell, on the agreement that he took the surname of Griffin. John was a retired soldier and MP for Andover. He had fought and was wounded at the Battle of Kloster Kampen in 1760 during the Seven Years War.

Sir John, who became Lord Howard, would make more transformations to Audley End, most of which is what we can see today. He hired the architect Robert Adam to transform the house and Capability Brown the landscape. Adam’s work can be seen in the ground floor reception rooms on the south front today. Over time, Sir John started to pick up the architectural bug and his second wife, Katherine the decor. They both, respectively, became amateur architect and decorator and thus set about making many of their own changes to the house. The central range was rebuilt to reconnect the two wings of the house, along with a unique service gallery and detached service wing, all under the eye of Sir John.

Audley End would be one of the first houses to have a flushing water closet (installed in 1775) along with a bell system for the family of the house to call their domestic staff. Today, much of what can be seen at Audley End is a result of Richard Neville, who in the 1820s remodelled the house taking it back to its Jacobean roots.

Audley End, Wikimedia Commons

Avenues:

The beginnings of formal gardens at Audley End were started during the conversion of the monastery into house. It would be Elizabeth, Countess of Portsmouth, who would begin the transformation of the gardens into a more formal landscape. However, the landscape that we see today was mostly the result of one Capability Brown.

I mentioned above that in 1763, Griffin hired John Adam to assist with the interior development, he had Capability Brown do the same with the estate. Brown’s brief was to widen the river running through the estate, building a ha-ha and transforming the overall look of the gardens into Brown’s ‘naturalistic style’. He would create new roads towards the house, including one with a bridge, which was designed by Adam’s and is a Grade I listed structure. Brown was to be paid £660 (around £1,150,000 today) for his work in three payments, the last being on completion.

The two would eventually fall out with the result being Griffin dismissing Brown and getting the unknown Joseph Hicks to finish the work. However, the elements of Brown’s work are there for all to see and appreciate, including sweeps of grass, water flowing towards the house, long curving drives with stunning views for visitors and wooded areas to hide service buildings.

Espionage:

When I visited Audley End many years ago, I did not really pay much attention to a monument within the estate, remembering fallen soldiers from WW2. It was not until planning this post that Danielle mentioned the Polish secret missions that made me go back and re look at Audley End’s history in the 20th Century.

In 1941, like a number of other country estates, Audley End was requisitioned by the Army to be used as a training facility. By 1943, those who trained there was exclusively Polish Soldiers. They were undergoing training to assist them when they were secretly returned to German occupied Poland and assist the Polish resistance.

WWII Reenactment at Audley End

Code named station 43 (overseen by the Special Operations Executive), the Polish agents, under the command of Captain Alfons Mackowiak (Alan Mack). They would undergo various training in guerrilla warfare which included close combat, assignation, forgery, planting booby traps and of course learning how to parachute out of a plane. In total 527 soldiers passed the training and were sent into Poland. Sadly, 108 of these were either killed in action or at concentration camps and are remembered on the memorial I mentioned above. The soldiers would be known as the Cichociemni (the silent and Unseen). They would be involved in many missions, including recovering a German V2 rocket and smuggling into England.

‘Between 1942 and 1944 Polish members of the Special Operations Executive trained in this house for missions in their homeland. This memorial commemorates those who parachuted into enemy occupied Poland and gave their lives for the freedom of this and their own country.’ Listed Grade II © Historic England Archive PLB/K030323

In 1948, the house was handed over to the nation. Today it is managed by English Heritage, and accessible to the public, for more information on visiting times, exhibitions and events head to https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/audley-end-house-and-gardens/

[1] Drury, P (…) English Heritage Guidebooks – Audley End

Sources:

Borger, J (2016) Honouring ‘silent and unseen’ fighters who led Polish resistance. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jun/10/honouring-poland-silent-unseen-fighters-resistance-nazi-british [Accessed 04.08/20]

English Heritage (2020) Audley End House and Gardens. Available from:  www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/audley-end-house-and-gardens/ [Accessed 25/07/20]

Historic England (2020) Audley End. Available from: historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1000312 [Accessed 25/07/20]

Historic England (2019) The Secret War: Resistance in Britain During the Second World War. Avalbne from: https://heritagecalling.com/2019/11/05/the-secret-war-resistance-in-britain-during-the-second-world-war/ [Accessed 05/08/20] Landscape Institute(2016) About Capability Brown. Available from:  http://www.capabilitybrown.org/  [Accessed 4/8/20]

Lady Baillie’s Grand Parties at Leeds Castle

I haven’t visited Leeds Castle in Kent for around 10 years now, but it still has left an impression in me. It has often been described as the loveliest castle in England. I can easily see why with its impressive moat and medieval style architecture. It is even more appealing when you consider the women who were once in possession of this castle in its long history. From Eleanor of Castille, wife of Edward I, to Catherine of Aragon, wife of Henry VIII, many royal women saw the castle as their home. However, not is all as it seems. Much of what we can see today was mostly reconstructed by Olive Wilson, later to become Lady Baillie after marrying her 3rd husband, the last owner of the castle. When she had brought it in 1927 for £180,000 (just over £9 million today), it was in a neglected state for the last person to live inside the castle had died in 1870.[1]

Leeds Castle (2010), Herry Lawford, Wikimedia Commons

As someone with dual American and English nationalities, Olive was looking for an English retreat away from London. She certainly found it in Leeds Castle as she is said to have fell in love with it instantly, despite the sorry state it was then in. For the rebuild, she hired Armand-Albert Rateau and other French craftsman, for she believed the French would be able to restore a sense of history to the site.[2] Other local men were hired too, but the French ones were needed to source French materials, such as chimneypieces and oak doors. For all the historical items added, including replica eighteenth century furniture, modern living was also a priority. Underfloor heating and en-suite bathrooms made of onyx were added.[3] As if that wasn’t luxurious enough, in 1939 an open air and heated swimming pool was added to the grounds, complete with a wave machine and nearby cocktail bar.[4] The bar was decorated with a mural depicting Neville Chamberlain, the then Prime Minister, skating on a frozen pond surrounded by statues of women and children representing Adolf Hitler, Winston Churchill, Hermann Goering and Duff Cooper.[5] These additions reflected the use of Leeds Castle as a prominent place of entertainment for the great and the good during the 1920s and 1930s.

 

Lady Baillie playing croquet

The types of people invited to the weekend parties at the castle ranged from film stars such as Cary Grant, Errol Flynn and Charlie Chaplain, to royals such as Edward, Prince of Wales and his mistress Wallace Simpson, to ambassadors, ministers and MPS.[6] The one I find the most intriguing is the Russian Grand Duke Dimitri Pavolovich, one of the conspirators suspected of being involved in the assassination of Rasputin in 1916. During these parties, activities such as golf, tennis, squash, croquet, boating or skating on the moat or picnicking in the vast parkland, all before a lavish dinner and merrymaking with music to gramophones or watching the latest film releases.[7] Despite all these wonderful images created by such events, its curious to think that Lady Baillie herself often didn’t see the guests following their arrival on Friday night, until sometime on the Sunday. In truth, she was described as more of a listener than a talker, and much preferred to leave people to their own devices. Her friend, the Duchess of Argyle described her as an eccentric, yet shy person, often taking up to 3 days, or even a week, before she felt able to show herself in the company of new guests.[8]

Despite all this, her parties were full of the rich and famous, who were able to seek privacy at Leeds, as Lady Baillie refused to allow the press near. The guests were allowed to wander around freely other than at night, when the unmarried male guests were placed in the Maiden’s Tower away from the rest of the castle to prevent bed hopping.[9] For this reason, some guests described her hospitality style as “relatively restrained in behaviour compared with many of her much more notorious contempories”.[10] Perhaps that is why guests often were able to have a candid experience, as seen in the case of actor, David Niven. He often left the party to play cards with the servants in the servants’ hall instead.[11]

David Niven in Enchantment (1948), Photograph in possession of SchroCat, Wikimedia Commons

The parties continued even during World War Two, although in a different form. Most of the castle was taken over as part of a war hospital for injured soldiers. They were moved into smaller parts of the castle and often included some of the soldiers being rehabilitated there. Many of these were sent home following their repatriation from Dunkirk and included severely burned pilots.[12] They were never again seen on the same large scale as before the war, especially as Lady Baillie’s health was on the decline.

Similar small-scale parties were also occasionally held for the castle staff at Christmas time. On Christmas Eve, a large party was held for the local children, whereas on New Year’s Eve, one was held for the castle servants. During these events, Lady Baillie was known to dance with the butler, and her husband danced with the housekeeper.[13] These events showed kindness to her staff and ensured her legacy was one of a ‘lovely lady’ by them following her death in 1974, before the castle was handed over to the nation in the form of a charitable trust. The care Olive put into restoring the castle was certainly a legacy to remember in terms of the architecture and interiors but showcasing these to large numbers of famous people is perhaps what she will be remembered for most.


[1] Bignell, A., Lady Baillie at Leeds Castle (Leeds Castle: Leeds Castle Enterprises, 2007), p. 7.

[2] Bignell, A., Lady Baillie at Leeds Castle, p. 18.

[3] Leeds Castle Blog, ‘The Real Gatsby was a Woman: Lady Baillie and the Glamourous 1920s’, http://leeds-castle.blogspot.com/2013/05/the-real-gatsby-was-woman-lady-baillie.html

[4] Bignell, A., Lady Baillie at Leeds Castle, p. 54.

[5] Bignell, A., Lady Baillie at Leeds Castle, p. 54.

[6] Bignell, A., Lady Baillie at Leeds Castle, p. 34.

[7] Bignell, A., Lady Baillie at Leeds Castle, p. 35.

[8] Bignell, A., Lady Baillie at Leeds Castle, p. 54.

[9] Bignell, A., Lady Baillie at Leeds Castle, p. 36.

[10] Bignell, A., Lady Baillie at Leeds Castle, p. 36.

[11] Bignell, A., Lady Baillie at Leeds Castle, p. 53.

[12] Leeds Castle, ‘The Baillie Years’, https://www.leeds-castle.com/Visit/History/The+Lady+Baillie+Years

[13] Kent Online, ‘The Real Downton’, https://www.kentonline.co.uk/kent/news/the-real-downton-a64777/