Le Train: The Rescuing of the German-Looted French Art Train (1944). Fact vs. Fiction.




Memorial plaque to Rose Valland
on 
Galerie nationale
du Jeu de Paume wall.

Wikipedia Commons
This documentary, in the form of a Google Map, recollects one of the greatest mysteries of all time, the efforts of museum curator Rose Valland, railroad yard master Paul  Labiche, and the other members of the French Resistance in an attempt to save France's art masterpieces from being looted and taken to Germany, by train, as the German army is in retreat of the Allied advance in August of 1944. This is one of those pieces of history with gaps and semi-recorded information that was kept secret by all the parties involved because there was artwork involved that had great monetary value on the black market to which ever side captured it. So, come with me as we try to piece together the facts as best we can.

Click here to speed up viewing this map, it will take you to the original Google Map, complete with legend.

Portrait of Dr. Gachet, one of the
recovered Van Gogh masterpieces
looted by the Germans.

Wikipedia Commons
According to Wikipedia, through the ERR "the Germans began the systematic looting of artworks from museums and private art collections throughout France. They used the Jeu de Paume Museum as their central storage and sorting depot pending distribution to various persons and places in Germany." The looted art included the works of CézanneGauguinModiglianiRenoir, Dufy, Braue, Van Gogh, Foujita, MatisseDegasToulouse-Lautrec and Picasso. The artwork shown in these links are samples of the artist's work, they may, or may not, be the actual art that was looted by the Germans. This historic event was also the subject of the John Frankenheimer, Burt Lancaster film "The Train" which mixes both historically-correct and fictional scenes. (See the film trailer at the bottom of the page.)

Separating Fact from Fiction. 

There is little information about the actual train route since Rose Villand's book "Le front I'art: Défense des collections française, 1939-1945," is reported to have only three and a quarter pages covering the rail event. The book is available on Amazon.com for $2,474 (US). Unfortunately, I can neither afford the book or read French. However, the book "A Little Solitaire: John Frankenheimer and American Film," edited by Murray Pomerance, R. Burton, provides several of the locations by name. Many of the locations named in Frankenheimer's film "The Train" are the actual train stations and rail yards. According to the book, “Virtually all the scenes in The Train—except the opening Musée du Jue Paume and the scene in the Nazis’ Partisian headquarters—were shot using actual locations.” It is unclear whether that means real rail locations vs. movie sets, or the actual event-historic locations, or both.  However, being a film director, Frankenheimer could not resist adding some fiction to the movie to spice it up. Thus, the town of Rive-Reine is fictional. The other town names mentioned in the movie are real rail stations or rail yards that I was able to match up with Allied troop movements, and the U.S. Airforce bombings of rail facilities in Vaires and Metz. But, the point at which  Frankenheimer begins his fictional loop story is one of mystery, because it becomes the last scene in the movie were the Resistance stops the train, a long way from the previous scene, and the point at which the Allied forces suddenly stop their rapid advancement two weeks later.

Therefore, this map attempts to separate the facts from the movie fiction. To obtain a route you can follow, I took the known rail locations, plotted them on the tracks in Road Map mode, and filled in many of the stations in between so that you can recognize and easily follow the track path. You can see the track and switching necessary, in Road Map mode, that make the route of travel happen. Particularly at the Chalon rail yard, where it would have been necessary to move the engine to the other end of the train in order to change direction to go to Sainte-Menehould. 

Neuschwanstein Castle.
Wikipedia Commons
What I found interesting is how the Allied troop movements, who were searching for the train as of 27 August 1944, followed the fictional looping train route through Vitry, Commercy, Pont-à-Mousson and Meurthe-et-Moselle and the book claims Leclerc’s French troops were credited as recovering some of the art. Meurthe-et-Moselle (near Arnaville) just happens to match the last scene in the movie. When the map is put in Terrain Mode, this location matches where Labiche destroys a section of track along a river, climbs over a mountain and loosens track on the other side that is along a road and another river. It also happens to the battle site of the allied Moselle River crossing that would occur only a few days later. Yet, the battle report makes no mention of a missing German art train full of valuable paintings. While Leclerc’s French troops were credited as recovering some of the art, other artworks were later found by the U.S. Army's MFAA group at Neuschwanstein Castle, in Germany, in May of 1945.

Post War Art Recovery Efforts.

According to Wikipedia's page on Nazi Plunder, "Although most of the stolen artworks and antiques were documented, found or recovered "by the victorious Allied armies...principally hidden away in salt mines, tunnels and secluded castles", many artworks have never been returned to their rightful owners. Art dealers, galleries and museums world-wide have never been compelled to research their collection's provenance in order to investigate claims that some of the work was acquired after it had been stolen from its original owners. Already in 1985, years before American museums recognized the issue and before the international conference on Nazi-looted assets of Holocaust victims, European countries released inventory lists of works of art, coins and medals "that were confiscated from Jews by the Nazi during World War II, and announced the details of a process for returning the works to their owners and rightful heirs." In 1998 an Austrian advisory panel recommended the return of 6,292 objets d'art to their legal owners (most of whom were Jews), under terms of a 1990 restitution law."


For more information on the recovery of the artworks, and the fraud in how much simply disappeared into the black market, see "Looted Art Treasures Go Back to France." and "Leave No Stone Unturned: The Search for Art Stolen by the Nazis and the Legal Rules Governing Restitution of Stolen Art."

To help you understand what I believe is the actual train route from the movie fiction, I color-coded the map as follows:
  • Red = Train route.
  • Red with Dot = Locations 1) where I suspect some art was recovered (Meurthe-et-Moselle), and 2) where art was actually recovered (Neuschwansteine Castle).
  • Yellow = That portion of train route the Germans may, or may not, have been traveled by the train.
  • ? = Fictional route in movie "The Train" that routes back to the fictional town of Rive-Reine.
  • Green Walking Men = Allied troop advancement, check the dates to see how they were moving in on the train as the German's tried to escape capture.


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