Thursday, October 20, 2016

Austria 2016 - Unsung Heroes - Saving Precious Works of Art, Salzkammergut 1945

ISSUE DATE: 12 October 2016

Not only Austria, but the whole world says thank you: in the last days of the war in the spring of 1945, a dramatic operation to save valuable works of art which were being stored in the tunnels of the Altaussee salt mine from destruction was undertaken by courageous civilians. 

Austrian Post is saying thank you to the miners and all those who risked their lives in this operation with a commemorative stamp showing the rescue of Michelangelo’s Madonna of Bruges. 

Between 1943 and the end of the Second World War, Adolf Hitler had paintings, sculptures and other works of art that the National Socialist regime had acquired through various means stored in the secure and hidden tunnels of the mine. Some of the precious works of art were destined for the Führermuseum, which Hitler intended to establish in Linz. The works emanated not only from Austria, but from many other European countries, many of them from confiscated Jewish collections or from forced sales, others were simply acquired during raids on occupied areas. World-famous paintings by artists such as Vermeer, Rembrandt, Titian, Raffael, da Vinci, Rubens and Brueghel were stored on rudimentary shelves in empty tunnels, often meagrely wrapped in sheets since packing materials were in short supply. One of the most valuable pieces was the Madonna of Bruges by Michelangelo, a marble sculpture that the Nazi troops had taken from the Church of Our Lady in Bruges – it was also intended for the Führermuseum. The 15th century Gent altar by Jan van Eyck was another famous work of art that was stolen and stored in the mine’s tunnels. After the First World War, Germany had been forced to return some panels from this altar which it had acquired legally to Brussels in restitution, something Hitler wanted to put right by “reclaiming” it. 

In the final phase of the war, in April 1945, when defeat was inevitable, the Gauleiter of Oberdonau (Upper Danube), August Eigruber, decided to ensure that the works of art did not, under any circumstances, fall into the hands of the victors. To this end he had eight 500 kg bombs brought to the tunnels so that he could destroy the works of art by blowing them up. This plan caused an outcry among both art experts and the miners, who feared for their mine and their way of life. Aided by SS officer Kaltenbrunner, the miners succeeded in removing the bombs from the tunnels and sealing the tunnel entrances by blowing them up. The US American “Monument Men”, a special unit tasked with recovering art looted by the Nazis, was subsequently able to rescue the works of art and to return them to their owners, a historic event which has recently been immortalised by George Clooney in a Hollywood movie. Even if we are no longer able to say with certainty exactly whom we have to thank for this rescue operation, the brave miners and their helpers who saved these valuable works of art from certain destruction are being commemorated in a special event in Altaussee.

There is a sensational book about fascinating stories of the priceless treasures from Polish collections looted by the Nazis and the Red Army.

I have read it this summer and if it will be available in english - You must read it!

"Uprowadzenie Madonny Sztuka zagrabiona" (Polish) Paperback – 2014
Monika Kuhnke and Włodzimierz Kalicki 

Stamp images and description thanks to Austrian Post - Österreichische Post
La Poste