The movie “The Monuments Men” opens Friday, Feb. 7. It’s the story of an unlikely platoon of soldiers sent to Europe toward the end of World War II to rescue art masterpieces. It’s based on a true story, and some of the real Monuments Men had ties to Nebraska.
Monuments Men Foundation, the real "'Monuments Men' were a group of approximately 345 men and women from 13 nations, most of whom volunteered for service in the newly created Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives (MFAA) section during World War II. Many had expertise as museum directors, curators, art historians, artists, architects, and educators. Their job description was simple: to protect cultural treasures so far as war allowed. In the last year of the war, they tracked, located, and in the years that followed, returned more than five million artistic and cultural items stolen by Hitler and the Nazis. Their role in preserving cultural treasures was without precedent. The Monuments Men remained in Europe for up to six years following the conclusion of fighting to oversee the complicated restitution of stolen works of art.”
The Monuments Men with Nebraska connections were Jesse Boell and Gilbert Doane (neither of whom are featured in the movie).
Boell was born in 1899 in Hickman, Neb., and went on to earn a bachelor’s degree from Nebraska Wesleyan University and master’s degree from the University of Nebraska, both in American history. He moved to Wisconsin for further graduate studies at the University of Wisconsin, and stayed to serve as state director of the Wisconsin Historical Records Survey. According to an article published by the University of Wisconsin-Madison News, Boell’s role in the Monuments Men involved “working under the archivist of the United States in Washington, D.C.,” where he “spent much of the war in the National Archives as assistant director of the War Records Office, directing the preservation and security of highly classified State Department records.”
Boell, in a letter he wrote to a colleague, also described having “the job of coping with Nazi records in salt mines in northern Germany.” Boell told his colleague that “at first they tried to bring the records ‘as is’ to the surface, but the humid air coming in contact with the salt dust on the documents caused the papers to shrivel and they had to clean the documents down in the mine.”
According to the University of Wisconsin-Madison News article, “at the end of the war, Boell accepted his position as an archives officer with the MFAA in Germany. He served in the German military government, participating in the Nuremberg Trials. The type of work Boell undertook not only assisted Allied forces but helped the new German government piece itself together out of fragmented records.”
Originally from Vermont, Doane lived in Lincoln, Neb., and worked at the University of Nebraska as a librarian and professor from 1925 to 1937, leaving to serve as director of libraries at the University of Wisconsin. The University of Wisconsin-Madison News story noted Doane took a leave of absence from his job in 1943 “and left to serve as a captain. A January 1944 letter to his good friend 'Dyk' outlined some of the intensive training undertaken by Doane and his colleagues: seven lectures on military organization, four weeks on the administration of occupied territory and significant attention to the history of military government. Doane much preferred the last, given its ‘decidedly academic flavor’ by a Professor Gabriel from Yale. When Doane retired as a major in 1945, he eagerly returned to the university.”