Buried Treasure

Peace is our gift to each other.
-Elie Wiesel

It is the dead of night and men begin to arrive in the middle of a dark, wild wood in trucks, their engines muffled. A swiftly moving covering of clouds shroud the moon so that, like a ghost, it repeatedly appears and disappears above them, giving the clearing a spooky feeling. The men jump from their trucks and move quickly to form a line. From hand to hand paintings pass. Pulled from the beds of the trucks, each is covered with a rough burlap cloth, held in place with sturdy twine.  "Careful!" Careful!" Each man whispers to the next so that a faint echo murmurs into the darkness.

The line ends at a ladder descending into a large cavern dug from the earth. Paintings then pass downward into the outstretched hands of men in the pit. Lined with layers of oilcloth the hole is just large enough for the paintings to be stacked carefully atop each other, then wedged to hold each stack secure. When the last painting is placed, more oilcloths are pulled out and stretched on top and tucked into the sides. Finally, a shower of dirt begins to rain down as the men pick up shovels and literally bury the treasure.

All of the art could not be hidden. After all, the total collection had some 11,500 art objects -- paintings, sculpture, drawings, antique earthenware, delftware and more. Yet, most of the Vincent van Gogh collection, 90 paintings and 180 drawings, were now safe from the Nazis. So, too, was artwork by other Impressionists like Georges Seurat and Claude Monet. 

The collection was Helene's lifework.  She may be German but that didn't mean theFührer could get his hands on her paintings. Rumors of Nazi soldiers' plundering in Europe had begun in 1933. Along with gold and silver, the Third Reich took paintings too, especially favoring classical art by Old Masters. So-called "Modern Art," like Picasso's cubistic paintings, were denounced and then destroyed.  Helene (and her husband Anton) were taking a dangerous gamble by hiding the collection from Nazi occupiers in the Netherlands.

"My dad told me this story," said Jan. "It was Helene who hid the art." 

I introduced Jan (pronounced Joong) a few blogs ago. He is the driver who gave us a ride to the Kroller-Muller Museum about 90 miles outside of Amsterdam when we were there in late July. In doing research for my book I'd wanted to explore the museum, which holds the second largest collection of Van Gogh paintings (the largest is in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam). We could have taken a train, two buses and then bicycled to get to the museum. It occupies a corner of the 15,000-acre De Hoge Veluwe National Park (yes, there really were multiple rows of gray bicycles at the park entrance) but that itinerary meant a few too many schedules to juggle. Jan promised a direct ride. 

Besides being a comfortable driver -- one hand on the wheel while the other gestured to various landmarks  -- Jan liked to talk. Now well past retirement age and a cheerful grandfather, Jan still takes up occasional work as a tour guide for local tour agencies. He'd made a living as a driver, traveling frequently across Europe and into Scandinavia and Russia for decades. Now he prefers staying closer to home and our destination, Hoge Veluwe, held childhood memories for him of picking blueberries with his sister as well as taking his own young family for picnics. He knew the history of the park well.

"Helene Kroller was born in Essen, Germany. Her father was rich because he ran a shipping company," Jan said. "Helene married a Dutchman, Anton Muller, who took over the business when her father died." I scribbled notes as Jan talked and then later read more about her. At the time Helene was one of the wealthiest women in the Netherlands. 

Around 1906 Helene began studying art under art dealer Henk Bremmer who introduced the idea that she begin a collection. On a trip to Florence, in 1910, the idea came to her that she could be "Medici-like," applying the wealth from their business enterprises toward the cultural enrichment of others, and so began to purchase art in earnest. She dreamed of the idea of establishing a "museum-house" in order to display her growing collection to the public.  Under Bremmer's encouragement, at the heart of her acquisitions were van Goghs, which she sought out with frenetic focus:

"Helene and Bremmer tracked Van Gogh's work like hunters on safari. 'Yesterday evening we all went in search of our singular goal: the paintings of Van Gogh,' wrote Helene. They sighted Van Gogh's La Berceuse (Portrait of Madame Roulin) at Galeris Bernheim-Jeune and brought it down quickly, one of the seven works by him they would bag before the day's art safari was over....That month alone Helene Kroller-Muller purchased 15 Van Goghs, and by the time the year ended, she had acquired 13 more."

What compelled her to be so focused van Goghs, who so recently had been virtually unknown? I wonder whether it was the 1905 show Johanna van Gogh (Vincent's sister-in-law) had finally organized, after years of effort, at the acclaimed Stedelikjk Museum in Amsterdam. More than 470 of his paintings were displayed.

This major recognition likely caught the attention of Bremmer. Captivated by Van Gogh's work, Bremmer introduced Helene to the painter and his style of exalted feeling. Imagine the word-of-mouth buzz created by Helene's zeal as she hunted down works by the painter. No doubt her eagerness --  and quantity of purchasing -- fanned a flame of interest around Van Gogh's works.

In 1928, Helene and Anton formed the Kroller-Mueller Foundation to protect her collection. The same year they decided to use their 75-acre country estate for the location of an art museum to showcase it.  In 1935, the couple donated the collection and estate to the Dutch government under the condition that the art collection would be preserved and put on display for the public. After a few fits and starts, the museum finally opened its doors in 1938, one year before Helene's death in 1939. Anton passed on two years later in 1941.

Our driver Jan didn't have all of these details in our conversation but he shared a personal connection to it. "When I was a little boy, my father refused to come here since Helene was German." Jan explained that his father had been a member of the Dutch resistance in WWII. Caught by the Gestapo, he was held captive in a Nazi prison ship. For four years Jan's father lived below deck in crowded conditions, often on one meal a day, kept from going above deck for weeks on end. After being liberated by the Allies in 1945, Jan's father carried bitterness of the experience for years.

"It was when I was a child that my dad changed his mind," Jan told us, "He told us the story of Helene hiding the artwork and it was then that we began to visit the park. 

"I used to take my children here and now my grandchildren."

"Can you show us the pit where the art was hidden?" I ask. 

"Oh, no. No one knows for sure." Jan shakes his head. "It was well-hidden indeed."

I accepted Jan's answer but thought it odd. Wouldn't someone have pointed out the location later, say, after the war?

I found another disconnect. As I was doing research around this story the dates didn't add up. The museum was opened in 1938 and Helene died in 1939. The Nazis invaded Holland in 1940, Anton died in 1941 and Hitler sent a Gestapo chief to head the Dutch government in 1942. It was years after both Helene and Anton's deaths when the occupation took its deadly turn of complete control of the country. Could Helene have had her art hidden as a precaution?

Perhaps. Yet, I can find no record of Helene, or anyone, burying her collection. So, where did Jan's father hear this story? 

Did he make it up?

Jan left us one clue. 

Our driver told us a story that took place in the early '70s, when he was to drive a group to Germany. His father had objected to his trips in the past. For years, he wouldn't speak of, or visit, Germany after the war. Yet, this time he changed his mind. "It's not their fault, you know," Jan told us his father said.

Today the De Hoge Veluwe is a national treasure, the largest park in the Netherlands with an area of about 21 square miles and renowned for its impressive museum. In addition to Helene's collection, 150 (and counting) outdoor sculptures grace the grounds around the museum. And the park is used for hiking and cycling -- we noticed most of the gray bicycle rentals were missing as we left the park. 

Could the buried artwork story been a way for Jan's father to accept the contribution of a German woman? Could he accept her humanity more easily by imagining she was a heroine against the Nazis?  

Or could the story be true? 

Steps I’m taking to explore writing a book
Research: As mentioned last week I've begun to transcribe my notes into a digital format. Researching a book is all new to me and even though I don't know what I'll use it will probably save future time by putting some organization in place.  You know, I haven't yet found any record that Helene Kroller ever met Johanna van Gogh. Johanna died in 1925 so she would have been alive during Helene's peak years of collecting. Perhaps that's a scene for the book?

Mastermind virtual class:  I'm about midway through a virtual class I'm taking on the professional life of a creative. This past week our coach talked about consistency and the regular habits that support a creative life. "You are what you do," he said. Though I continue to work at my job, there are two regular "writer" practices I've established at home: Each morning I write in a journal; each week I publish this blog. Stepping stones, for sure.

Do you have a routine you're establishing to support your creativity?

One final note:  I picked Elie Wiesel for the opening quotation because of his enduring example as a Holocaust survivor. In light of Helene's buried artwork story here's a last thought from Elie:

Some stories are true that never happened. 

God bless,