In the final months of the Second World War, in an underground cavern close to the German front, Dutch art curator Willy Auping would, by lamplight, unveil priceless works of art to a rapt audience of doctors and nurses who were enduring the bitter, final days of the war together.
The underground bunker where the paintings were hidden was in the Netherlands on the grounds of the Kröller-Müller Museum. The museum had been turned into a Red Cross hospital after the nearby city of Arnhem fell and the Germans drove its 100,000 citizens out.
Auping was the curator of the museum, which housed an important collection of early Vincent van Gogh as well as masterpieces by Picasso, Seurat, Gauguin, Braque and Mondrian.
In 1939, Auping had hidden the collection from the Nazis in a man-made cave on the museum grounds, in the De Hoge Veluwe National Park. He created a temperature-controlled environment under mounds of dirt 30 feet deep, by lining the bunkers with pots of lime to soak up moisture and create warmth.
The paintings were professionally wrapped by a restoration expert and transported to the bunker. A door was added so the unnatural mounds of earth would look more like a storage room for the nearby hunting lodge or the entryway to a cellar.
The collection, the second-largest collection of Van Gogh’s work in the world, was the passion of museum founder, Helene Kröller-Müller. Kröller-Müller, who was of German descent, had survived the First World War and was deeply distressed by the growth of Nazism.
“She knew this could get out of hand,” said Isabelle Bisseling, a researcher with the museum. Kröller-Müller, anticipating that Holland could fall, ordered the construction of the bunker to protect the work, but died in 1939 before it was completed.
Auping made sure it was finished, an act that could be seen as a quiet but important act of resistance—it kept the artwork safe during the German occupation. The collection would be unearthed intact after the liberation with the help of Colonel Gerald Levenston, a young Canadian officer who loved art as much as Auping did.
Some 70 years later, Auping’s daughter, Saskia Bergmans, and Levenston’s son Michael, met for the first time in Vancouver to marvel over the winding road that brought their fathers and those priceless works of art together 72 years ago.
For Saskia, the meeting had another significance. Auping died unexpectedly after minor surgery in 1947, several months before her birth. She has met him only through the recollections of those who knew him, through a history her daughter Emilia Bergmans researched, and by walking on the grounds of the museum that still houses the collection.
In the living room of a Kitsilano apartment, a gold-framed painting of a vase of flowers by Dutch artist Jan Adam Zandleven, is a reminder of the friendship, and love of art, their fathers shared. The painting, a gift from Auping to Levenston, was a thank you for the contributions he made in bringing the Kröller-Müller collection out of hiding and returning it to the light.
Saskia Bergmans and Michael Levenston might never have met, but Michael had painstakingly researched and documented his father’s life after the former Colonel died in 2010. His father had recounted the tale of the artwork, and his remarkable friendship with Willy Auping, and even helped bring the work for a showing in Toronto in 1961. So Levenston reached out to the museum earlier this year in the hopes of finding out more about Auping, and the rescue of the Kröller-Müller artwork.
The museum forwarded his email to Saskia, who quickly responded. By coincidence she and her husband would be travelling to Canada in a matter of months. They began to exchange their stories, and patch together recollections.
“The Germans were very keen on artwork,” said Saskia, during a sunny summer evening in Levenston’s Kitsilano home, “but many of these were older paintings, and the Germans didn’t like them so much.”
Hitler famously said that “anything painted later than the 18th Century is rubbish.” That the paintings might not have been up to Hitler’s personal taste would have offered little comfort to Helene Kröller-Müller and Auping. Evading theft and plunder by the occupying forces was one problem. Surviving the damage of bombings, fire, smoke and shrapnel was another.
The collection included 60 early Van Gogh paintings and hundreds of his drawings. Auping knew their value was more than paint or canvas. Kröller-Müller’s life was driven by her core belief, the motto she discovered reading Spinoza: spiritus et materia unum, or “spirit and matter are one.” Perhaps she understood that the survival of the Dutch spirit was inextricably tied to the survival of its culture, and its artwork.
So Auping finished construction of the underground bunker, and with the help of an expert in art restoration wrapped and buried the paintings. The museum would be empty, and the paintings safe, until the Battle of Arnhem in September of 1944 brought the front line perilously close.
The Battle of Arnhem, subject of the famous Cornelius Ryan book and film A Bridge Too Far, was one of the worst Allied losses of the Second World War. Ten thousand English and Polish air troops landed near Arnhem, hoping to secure the Arnhem Road Bridge. They expected an easy victory but were quickly overwhelmed by the Germans. Less than 2,400 would escape, thousands were captured and killed.
“The English lost that battle,” said Saskia “and the Germans took revenge.”
Their revenge included an order to immediately evacuate the entire town of Arnhem. One hundred thousand souls would be displaced. Of particular concern to the Red Cross were three hospitals housing about 400 patients.
One of the Red Cross doctors knew the museum 20 km north of Arnhem was empty. According to personal interviews with survivors conducted by Saskia’s daughter, when the Red Cross showed up at Auping’s door with an order to use the empty museum as a temporary hospital, a stunned Auping said, “Are you nuts?”
In the following days the patients were transported in cold and rain, by horse and cart, along with doctors, nurses and support staff to the property. About 30 young men also went into hiding at the hospital, avoiding the German orders that would send them to work camps. If the Germans came by the boys would jump into the hospital beds and feign illness.
In addition, some 2500 evacuees, most of them families of the ill and wounded, sought refuge in the nearby village of Otterlo.
To accommodate the patients who would be housed in the museum, Auping threw himself into organizing.
Latrines were dug, kitchens set up, sleeping quarters, sick wards and treatment rooms were devised, and a graveyard was prepared — all while the artwork remained untouched underground in the nearby bunker.
Under the Geneva Conventions, a Red Cross hospital is neutral territory, something that afforded the artwork another layer of protection. For nine months, the grounds of the museum, now a hospital, existed as a place of tenuous calm between the German and Allied fronts.
Bisseling said the physical conditions the patients were facing, including sleeping on the floor, some without mattresses was distressing to Auping, who worked hard to ameliorate the situation.
Although it is impossible to know whether Auping felt compelled to fulfill Kröller-Müller’s motto, Spiritus et materia unum, he also addressed the spiritual comfort of those who endured those cold months together.
“Auping and Helene shared the same feeling about the spiritual effect of art, that it could give peace, give comfort and I think it gave him strength in the hard times,” said Bisseling.
Auping rallied one of the boys in hiding, Herman Krebbers, a 19-year-old musician, to help keep up the spirits of patients and staff by playing his violin for them during that long, difficult winter when food was scarce and the future unknown.
As much as he could, Auping made the hospital an oasis of camaraderie, culture and hope. He had Krebbers play for patients on Christmas, for those who lay dying, and for the staff. And once or twice a week, Auping would invite staff into the bunkers, unearth a Van Gogh or another piece of artwork and give an impromptu seminar.
Krebbers, who would go on to great acclaim, later wrote in his biography that “to be confronted by art in this way” was an important formative experience.
In interviews recorded by Saskia’s daughter Emilia, those who attended the secret nights of art and music in the bunker would recall how meaningful it was “just to see something beautiful,” and joke about how appetizing a painting of a rooster looked when they had so little food.
Marinus Flipse, another musician who played for patients on the museum grounds would recall the experience of music, art and community flourishing in this underground space as “friendship by sound and colour.”
One of the doctors would write to Auping after the war, saying that his stay at the museum, sharing joys and sorrows, was “an episode of my life I wouldn’t have liked to miss.”
By all accounts, Auping did far more than secure the artworks, and open the museum to hundreds of patients and evacuees. He created a community that, with art at its centre, not only kept the evacuees alive physically, it kept them alive spiritually. He fed their souls.
During those long cold months, the war came perilously close to destroying it all.
On April 15, 1945, Canadian, English and Scottish soldiers battled their way toward the Germans in nearby Ottorlo. A convoy of 70 tanks rumbled through the museum grounds toward the front. The battle was bloody: some 400 German soldiers were slaughtered, but the Germans succeeded in turning the Allies back.
The tanks retreated to the museum grounds. At one point the enormous Canadian tanks rolled on top of the man-made hills that hid the bunker filled with artwork. Unaware of what was inside, soldiers tried to force the bunker open. Auping had to hurry out and intervene. Once he showed them the treasures hidden within, commanding officers quickly ordered the tanks off the bunkers. They posted a sign declaring the location a historic monument — it would be protected.
During the war, Canadian Colonel Gerald Levenston didn’t know Auping, but shared a similar enthusiasm and sensitivity for art and culture. Like Auping, he worked hard to raise the morale of those around him.
Levenston wrote hundreds of letters home to his widowed mother, vividly chronicling the war years that took him from Canada to Britain, North Africa, France, Germany and, finally, the Netherlands. Although he had to maintain discretion about anything strategically sensitive, including his exact location, the letters brim with details about everything from the meals he ate, the flowers he picked, the adventures he had, the cruelties he witnessed, to his longing for home.
Among tales of Allied soldiers killing German soldiers with their bare hands, he recounted more lighthearted exploits. In the Netherlands, determined to keep spirits up, Levenston built a burger joint in Nijmegen for troops of the First Canadian Army, who had been stuck south of Arnhem for a long, miserable winter. Levenston called it the Blue Diamond, serving up to 8,000 burgers, doughnuts and slices of pie a day — something that was documented in a wartime newsreel. At one point, Levenston even “purloined” a Gypsy caravan to make a mobile burger stand for the fighting regiments.
When the war ended, Levenston was assigned to Hoenderloo, the Netherlands, not far from the museum.
There he met Willy Auping, who showed him around the grounds of the museum. “With a mutual interest in painting, we became great friends,” he explained later.
Levenston wrote to his mother, marvelling over the discovery that nearly 300 of Van Gogh’s paintings and drawings had survived the war in an underground bunker.
“He was stunned to see this work there, underground,” said Michael.
On Sept. 17, 1945 — once the patients had been moved out — Auping was determined to restore the museum. But as the country struggled to recover from the occupation, the few working vehicles, gas and other supplies were only available for urgent and life-saving reconstruction efforts.
So Auping sent a formal letter to Levenston, requesting his help in liberating the artworks from the bunker, and returning them to the museum. “Because I have no tires and petrol I cannot use my old car … I remember that you told me once that you would consider the possibility to help me.”
“My father was obviously sick of the war by then, and here was a chance to help Saskia’s father, restore some of the culture,” said Michael. “He’d been in the army since ’39, he’d fought all the way through northern Europe into Germany, he’d even taken some surrenders from Germans.”
Levenston asked his men, and a volunteer brigade set to work — soldiers who, according to Levenston’s letters home, had recently been involved in the pitched, bloody battles of the liberation. “They had been breaking soldier’s necks with their bare hands,” said Michael Levenston, “and were now being given the opportunity to handle these precious works of art,” work that required care and tenderness.
Years later, when Levenston senior helped to facilitate a 1961 showing of the museum’s collection at the Art Gallery of Ontario, he would muse, “It is interesting to think that it was Canadian troops … who carried this collection out of the caves and painstakingly transported it to the museum where it could once more be hung for people the world over to see.”
“The Canadian soldiers not only helped move the collection from the bunker back to the museum, they also helped painting the walls, laying carpet and a multitude of other tasks in and around the museum,” said Bisseling.
Levenston would be decorated as an Officer of the Order of Orange Nassau, by Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands, in recognition of his efforts in moving the Dutch artwork.
When the museum reopened 0n Oct. 6, 1945, an emotional Auping would muse on the feelings of longing he felt in “those dark years” — and how the work underground, though hidden, held an almost mystical power: “the eyes of a tiger and a cat were glowing in the dark, where heaps of flowers were stacked; where the culinary still lives of oysters and fruit lost their shine and vibrance,” he said.
Auping said the National Park housing the museum, although just a small piece of the “precious Netherlands,” was in need of rebirth and healing after those “tough and dark” years.
“Reopening this museum is a big part of that healing process,” said Auping.
In that same speech, he formally thanked “the valiant Canadian Armies,” and especially “dear Colonel Levenston” for their help.
“It’s such a beautiful story, such a special story. It gives so much more depth to every painting when you know the history of it, where it has been,” said Bisseling, in a phone interview from the Netherlands. “We are so grateful to the Canadians who fought the final battle at the gates of the museum’s park, who not only freed the people, but who stayed afterward and helped us put everything back together instead of going home to their own families.”
Saskia credits her daughter Emilia for helping to uncover the history of the hospital years, and having the foresight to interview survivors who had been eyewitnesses and record their stories. Never having known her father, Saskia says, the story, and the meeting with Levenston, has helped her understand more of who he was. “I was looking for pieces of the puzzle.”
“For my father, and her father, having the relief and the uplifting of their spirits through art, after such a horrible time, was huge,” says Levenston.
“Isn’t it amazing,” says Saskia.
The conversation quiets for a moment as they consider what it might have meant to their fathers so many years before to unearth the Kröller-Müller treasures, and the story of their fathers that, like those works of art, they have managed to save and bring out in the open.
They look for a moment to the painting by Dutch artist Jan Adam Zandleven that Auping gifted to Levenston. A bit of oil on canvas, but a picture that means so much more.
Source : http://vancouversun.com/news/local-news/children-of-two-war-weary-men-who-saved-a-priceless-dutch-art-collection-from-nazis-meet-in-vancouver