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Norfolk vet helped shape legacy of Monuments Men

In April 1946, Capt. Bill Lesley accompanied a train with at least 27 cars tightly packed with art and artifacts heading home to Krakow, Poland.

Among its treasures, the train carried a beloved altarpiece and a Leonardo da Vinci painting of a lady holding an ermine, both dating from the late 1400s.

Lesley was one of the so-called Monuments Men, a group of Western Allied soldiers who were given the assignment of finding, cataloging, restoring and, in many cases, returning thousands of artworks that the Nazis had stolen during World War II.

Nearly 70 years after the war ended, the Monuments Men are once again on the minds of Americans with the recent release of a George Clooney film. "The Monuments Men" was based on a 2009 book by Robert Edsel, who will speak tonight at Old Dominion University.

Though Lesley isn't a character in the movie, his actions and legacy helped shape the big-screen story.

By the late 1950s, Everett Parker "Bill" Lesley Jr. had settled in Norfolk, where he taught art history for about two decades at the Norfolk division of the College of William & Mary, which became ODU.

Later still, he would reflect on his time as a soldier dealing with looted art as "the most vivid, strenuous and enterprising years of my life," as he wrote to a friend.

The 1946 train trip from Nuremberg, Germany, to Krakow was a highlight of those years.

"The welcome we received by the Poles was equivalent to the return to the U.S. one would get after the liberation of the Liberty Bell, Constitution and the Declaration of Independence," he told a Norfolk reporter in 1959.

What happened was more complicated than that.

Another book about the Monuments Men, Lynn Nicholas' 1994 "The Rape of Europa," quoted a report from Lesley:

"No more inept time of year for the return could possibly have been chosen. The arrival of Poland's supreme treasures, brought by the U.S. Army as a gesture of democratic friendliness, happened to coincide with the workers' celebration on the First of May and the Polish National Independence Day" on May 3.

The coming home of the great altarpiece, elaborately carved by Bavarian artist Veit Stoss, prompted "demonstrations of solidarity and resistance" toward the current government, which was dominated by Soviet-backed Communists.

It all began nicely enough, with greetings from city officials, performing choirs and bands, decorations and flags. But at some point, an American soldier was accused of shooting two members of the Polish Communist militia; the soldier was held by the Poles and later released.

The incident was "exquisitely embarrassing," Lesley reported.

Like most of the Monuments Men, Lesley already was in the Army, had an art background, and volunteered for the post.

After about two years his service ended and Lesley ventured into the art world. He was a curator at museums in New York and Chicago.

He first came to Norfolk in the summer of 1958 as acting director of the Norfolk Museum of Arts and Sciences, now the Chrysler Museum. The following year he accepted the ODU job.

Lesley impressed students and colleagues with tales from the war. Seated in the back of the art history classroom, cigarette smoke curled around him as he paused at the slides of Chartres Cathedral, a famous French Gothic structure about 50 miles southwest of Paris.

The way Lesley told it, he and another soldier from the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives (MFAA) Service traveled by jeep in late 1944 to survey the French landscape as the war wound down. "He would tell the students that when they went into Chartres it was very light because the (stained glass) windows had been removed," said Linda McGreevy, who began teaching art history at ODU in 1978, and spoke with Lesley about his MFAA days.

The cathedral was open and "they could see all of the structural ribs and support systems," she said. "Probably that had not been seen since the windows originally were put in in the 1200s."

Later that year, he was the first Monuments Man to follow behind the Battle of the Bulge into Belgium.

As a Monuments officer, he ended up cataloging incoming artworks at a collecting station in Wiesbaden, the capital of the German state Hesse. His title was chief of the restitution branch in the office of military government for Greater Hesse, Edsel said by phone on Wednesday.

There, another controversy arose.

The art experts who made up the Monuments Men were opposed to a new direction. American officials wanted to bring legitimately German-owned artworks to Washington, D.C., for safekeeping during the postwar transition.

In protest, Lesley penned the Wiesbaden manifesto. He pointed out the irony, that the Allied nations were about to prosecute Nazis for holding the cultural treasures of German-occupied countries. Though the Nazis were ordered to do so, the reasoning was that a higher law should have prompted them to refuse the order.

In the end, the protests did not work. Some of the German art came to Washington and was even exhibited at the National Gallery of Art, but it was returned to Berlin in the 1960s, said McGreevy, who was inspired by Lesley to incorporate the Monuments Men stories in her 20th century art history courses.

By the MFAA's end in 1951, about 350 men and women from 13 Allied nations had rescued millions of cultural treasures, Edsel said.

Lesley died in 1982 at age 68. For his work as a Monuments Man, he received a Bronze Star and other honors. He also escorted the Dutch royal archives back to The Netherlands and was given a medal in 1947 for that by Queen Wilhelmina.

Lesley's Monuments Men experiences influenced his decision to spend so much of his life teaching. "What this has demonstrated to me is that art is never really important, and is taken for granted, until it is lost. Then it becomes the most important thing in life," he said in 1959.

"I think it is a good idea for everyone to know what it is and why it is so valuable."

teresa.annas@pilotonline.com

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