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Documentary highlights work of Monuments Men

By : Rachel Coker

Kenneth Lindsay, professor emeritus of art history, will participate in a panel discussion and attend a special screening of a documentary in which he appears. The photo at left shows Lindsay examining a School of Botticelli painting in 1945.
A new documentary highlights the work of a special U.S. Army group charged with preserving European art treasures during World War II. Kenneth Lindsay, a Binghamton University professor emeritus of art history and one of about a dozen living “Monuments Men,” is among those interviewed in the film.

The Rape of Europa, which will be screened on campus this month, tells the story of the systematic theft, deliberate destruction and miraculous survival of millions of works of art. It also acknowledges the heroic work of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Section of the U.S. Army, which saved tens of thousands of artworks and monuments from Hitler and the Nazis and helped to return them to their rightful owners.

The group, mostly art historians and museum curators who had been drafted into military service, got the nickname “Monuments Men” from American GIs.

Lindsay, who later became a respected expert on the work of Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky, said a series of fortunate accidents allowed him to join the Monuments Men.

Lindsay grew up in a staunchly Republican family in Milwaukee and began his studies at the University of Wisconsin at Madison as a chemistry and math major. He discovered a passion for art history as a junior and fought with his businessman father to pursue it.

After graduation, he took a job as a chemist at Pabst in Milwaukee. No one, he said, knew what an art historian was or how one might be employed.

He signed up for the Army’s Signal Corps in part because he hoped the war would end before his nine months of training. However, 1942 found Lindsay in Missouri, preparing to go overseas.

After scoring well on a battery of tests, Lindsay was invited to undergo further training as a cryptographer outside Washington, D.C. He studied German as well as coding systems with a group of 800 enlisted men and 125 officers.

“That is where Lady Fortune played her role,” Lindsay said.

During a weekend leave in Washington about eight days before he was to be deployed, Lindsay helped care for a Marine who appeared ill. Soon, Lindsay contracted scarlet fever and was too sick to go overseas.

After he recovered, Lindsay was sent to London as a technical corporal. His job was to decode messages sent by U.S. forces in the field.

He still recalls the morning of June 6, 1944. “I was walking to work and I remember seeing the skies full of planes, and that was our bombers,” he said. “I got a feeling that, ‘You know we’re going to win this bloody war.’”

It was D-Day, and Lindsay translated a message about a landing craft that had been hit. In it, he saw the names of some men from his original group of 800.

Lindsay landed at Omaha Beach about a week after D-Day and became separated from his group. He eventually was assigned to a Paris office, where he mostly served on guard duty. Lindsay twice fought plans that might have redeployed him to the China-Burma-India Theater of Operations.

Following V-E Day in 1945, Lindsay was assigned to the Monuments Men’s collection point in Wiesbaden, Germany, where he participated in their remarkable undertaking.

“Security was very important,” he said. “We would open these boxes and out would jump three Rembrandts. We had to sign everybody in and out, and they had to have captain’s orders.”

Among his singular finds was a famous statue of the Egyptian queen Nefertiti, which had been taken from Egypt by German archaeologists in 1912. The bust was inside one of the numerous boxes containing art and gold recovered from a salt mine. Lindsay recalls pulling back a sheet of black tar paper and pushing aside white spun glass in the crate.

“It was so heavy. I almost broke my back lifting her out,” he said, his voice dropping to a near-whisper. “And there was that face, staring up at me. What a woman. She is so elegant.”

By that fall, Lindsay had enough points to go home. He felt compelled to stay and recalls many fellow Monuments Men being motivated by the same dedication.

“There’s this big job and we haven’t finished it yet,” he said. “We have a whole treasure room full of art from Catholic churches and all 14 Berlin museums. How can you leave that? This was history.”

Lindsay, who left the Army as a sergeant, returned to the United States in March 1946 and wrote his master’s thesis in six months, focusing on the Hungarian Crown. “It was the most beautiful and substantial crown of the Middle Ages,” Lindsay said. It was also among the masterpieces he had become familiar with during the war.

By 1950, he was teaching at Williams College and wrapping up work on his dissertation on Kandinsky.

Lindsay joined the faculty of what was then Harpur College in 1951 at the urging of his cousin Ralph Digman, a geology professor for whom Digman Hall was later named.

“I went home to my wife and I said, ‘Look, about 60 or 70 percent of the student body here are sons and daughters of E-J workers,’” Lindsay recalled. “‘Isn’t that more of a challenge than staying at Williams and teaching rich men’s sons?’ And she said, ‘Let’s go for it.’ It was a gamble.”

That gamble rewarded Lindsay with a long career at Binghamton. He chaired the art history department for more than 17 years and helped to build its slide and gallery collection.

Lindsay’s enthusiasm for teaching still shines through when he speaks about former students, including Susan Stein, a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and William M. Voelkle, a curator at The Morgan Library & Museum in New York.

Lindsay and his wife, Christine, also raised two children in a house they designed near the University in Vestal.

“What a place this has been,” he said. “I can’t tell you what luck it was, coming here.”

If You Go

March 19:
A dialogue panel will feature Kenneth Lindsay, professor emeritus of art history; Owen Pell ’80, partner, White & Case LLP; Jonathan Karp, assistant professor of Judaic studies; and Ingeborg Majer O’Sickey, associate professor, German, Russian and East Asian Languages. The event will run from 7-8:30 p.m. in FA-Watters Theater.

March 26: A screening of The Rape of Europa will be followed by a question-and-answer session with Kenneth Lindsay and Richard Berge. To honor his work as a Monuments Man, President Lois B. DeFleur will present Lindsay with the University Medal before the screening. The event begins at 6:45 p.m. in FA-Watters Theater.

About the Film

The Rape of Europa, a 117-minute documentary from Actual Films, was written, produced and directed by Richard Berge, Bonni Cohen and Nicole Newnham. It’s based on Lynn H. Nicholas’ 1995 book of the same title.
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Last Updated: 10/14/08