One Day in August
The spark of the idea for The Roses Underneath came to me from the documentary, The Rape of Europa, which was my first introduction to the work of the Monuments Men. Because so many of the Monuments Men were architects and I work with architects every day, I had the germ of an idea about a theoretical novel I have always wanted to write about the end of World War II.
Reading about the events of August 20 1945 gave me an “in” to the story, where I could imagine my characters witnessing 52 truckloads of art being delivered to the Collecting Point in Wiesbaden, A building that only weeks earlier had all its windows broken and was filled with displaced persons who had taken refuge in every available space. Now it was to be home to more than $50 million worth of art. I tried to imagine what that would have looked like to the beaten-down population of the city, who had little food or shelter, nor any capacity for notions of beauty in their lives. The security situation alone was enough to turn anyone’s hair gray.
The workers at the Collecting Point worked to keep the art safe with tanks and extra guards, and the humidity in the galleries was maintained by putting wet blankets in the air ducts and placing bowls of water in the rooms. The Roses Underneath Anna can’t believe what she is seeing, that she is able to witness this moment in history. It’s the moment when her work shifts from the theoretical and abstract into the concrete; when it becomes real and meaningful.
There were thousands of masterpieces in the shipment, noted as Inshipment 1 on the custody cards, ranging from tapestries to antiquities, sculpture, and paintings. I chose the Rembrandt painting The Money Changer (also sometimes called The Parable of the Rich Fool) as the one that Anna and Cooper look at together in the story, because I wanted it to be a painting that was unquestionably valuable. The subject of the painting also makes a connection to the work the Monuments Men are doing: examining and account for things of value, as well touching on the ideas of greed and commerce.
In real life the Rembrandt, and all the pieces in Inshipment 1, were part of the collection of the National Gallery in Berlin, which Himmler had hidden in a salt mine in Merkers in March of 1945 in order to safeguard it from Allied bombing. The advancing Third Army came across it by early April of that year, before the Nazis could move it away from the Allied advance. The Monuments Men opened their own art gallery at the Collecting Point to the public in early 1946 with some of the most important and famous pieces, including the head of Nefertiti. on display to the public. My mother, who was five years old at the time, recalls going to Wiesbaden on the train with my grandmother to see the art on display. Given their straightforward provenance, the Monuments Men eventually returned all the pieces back to the Berlin National Collection, where The Money Changer still hangs today.