Hidden Treasures from World War II

A close up of the Peasant Wedding

We had written previously about slipping a mooring during our stay on the Aegean island of Leros.  That was a bad night.  There were some wonderful aspects to the island, however, that deserve equal attention.

On the night we arrived on Leros, there was a Finnish girls’ choir singing from the hotel veranda near the boat.  Their collective voices were beautiful.  On another night, a score of locals gathered at a shore-side restaurant and sang songs as they ate and drank.  Not the quality of the girls’ choir, certainly, but it filled the small harbor with a festive air.  At the end of each day, we could always hear the clanging bells of goats coming down from the surrounding hills.  It was a musical place.

It was also, we discovered, a place of hidden treasure.

We had been told that there were old soldiers’ barracks high on “Diapori,” a hill overlooking Xerocampos, where we stayed for several days.  They had been used in World War II, first by the occupying Italians and later by the Germans.  The Italians had taken to painting frescoes on the walls, we were further told, some of which were worth seeing.  (In light of what we later found, it was strange that we were told, again and again, that they were “Italian” paintings.)

We packed up Alexander, got final directions to the place, and started up a sometimes steep, winding road to the top of Diapori.  It was late in the day, so we had a spring to our step.

A little over an hour later, we found what we thought to be the place.  White, one storied and low to the ground, it had no doors or window panes in the open frames.  A sturdy structure, to be sure, but it was not in good shape.  The doorway was blocked by some chicken wire and a crude fence.  We were told that we could move this aside and go in, and we did.

The inside was like a barn.  Local farmers had for years been using the place to shelter animals, and the floor was covered with hay and manure.  We stepped gingerly around it, and began to look for the paintings.  In light of the building’s poor condition, not to mention the smell, we didn’t expect much.

Boy were we surprised.

We discovered four different types of paintings.  The first we came upon were in the biggest room, which appeared to be the sleeping quarters.  These were both crudely drawn, crude in subject matter, and not well preserved.  If this were it, we wondered what the fuss had been about.

In the great room, the paintings were eastern in nature and not big on tact.

But we moved on, and found a second collection of two paintings that were worth the hike.  They were beautiful works and, we later determined, copies of “The Peasant Dance” and “Peasant Wedding,” done as a pair in the 16th century by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

The copy of “Peasant Dance.”
The Original “Peasant Dance,” by Pieter Bruegel The Elder.

The paintings are supposedly full of imagery and “[g]luttony, lust, and anger” are represented in the wedding scene:

The man seated next to the  bagpipe player wears a peacock feather in his hat, a symbol of vanity and pride. The occasion for the peasants’ revelry is a saint’s day [isn’t it a wedding?!], but dancers turn their backs on the church and pay no attention whatsoever to the image of the Virgin which hangs on the tree. The prominence of the tavern makes it clear that they are preoccupied with material rather than spiritual matters.

The copy of “Peasant Wedding.” As you can see from the damage to the wall below, the paintings have survived despite very adverse
The original “Peasant Wedding.” One can more clearly see the bride, in front of the tapestry, and the bagpipers on the left. The fare being served is a kind of wheat porridge.

Another source identified the artist as one Hauptfeldwebel (“Sergeant”) Herbert Freund, who had been stationed here with his artillery unit.  We couldn’t find out much about him.  One wonders about his motives in doing the painting.  Did he mean to be commenting himself about the vices supposedly depicted in the paintings?  Or maybe he was already familiar with the works, and painted what he knew.  Or maybe these were in the pages of the only book that he could get his hands on.  We have no answers.

As skilled as the Bruegel copies were, the remaining works that we came upon won our hearts.  There was a series, painted on several different walls, of a pint sized dog chasing a fox fur stole that is draped about a woman’s neck.

With a quizzical half turn of the head, he spots his prey. The setting sun is coming in, which tints some of the photos orange, and half-lights others.
He leaps from his perch to give chase!
He engages his quarry . . .
Attack and . . .
Success! (The bars are caused by the setting sun on the window opposite.)

The final two sketches were the most simply drawn, almost cartoon-like.

The first showed a fellow cooking dinner with several shapely-drawn women about them.

“Wehrmacht [Government] Soup!”

The last painting was our favorite, perhaps because of its simplicity.  Just a handful of lines to suggest a telephone, a blissful soldier’s face, the female form.

Our favorite.
This one, our favorite, is worth a close up. The lines are so simple and clean, but speak so. A bit like a Patrick Nagel lithograph. A simple line, but look at his bliss! And the feminine forms, with such few lines, must have kept the men thinking. It’s obvious, of course, that these were painted by the Germans. The calendar at back right reads “Kreigsmarine Feldpost Einheit 18696 F,” meaning “Navy Postal Services Unit 18696,” which, a little Internet research reveals, was the postal designation for the Marine Artillery Battalion stationed on Leros. Above it reads “Good Morning Herr Hauptfelwebel,” or “Mr. Sergeant Major.” The non-commissioned officer rank is confirmed by the two braids on his sleeves, called “piston rings.” His eyes are closed. What are we to make of all this? He’s dreaming, of course! No non-com would have had a female secretary at a field post, let alone four leggy assistants! This would not appear to be the same artist that did the kitchen scene, as the lines are much more simple and free.
Most importantly, these young ladies are not just there for show. In our Sergeant’s dream, they are also busy getting his work done!
Look at the hair on her head. Six lines! Wonderful!

We went back to have a second look at the peasant paintings, and thought some more about them.  They were more elaborate than the caricatures, but yet seemed to say less.

We hiked home in the twilight, the goats and sheep clanging about in the increasing dark of the surrounding hills.  We continued to talk about what we’d seen.

Was there a lesson here?  Wasn’t it OK to be so drawn to such an uncomplicated sketch?  Simple lines and light touches, impressionistically conveyed more meaning and feeling than something that took many more hours to complete.  Maybe we could find ways in our own lives where simpler could be more meaningful.

5 responses to “Hidden Treasures from World War II

  1. Anyone else interpret the shadow lines on the dog with the fur as jail bars? Love the dog sketches. All of the art is definitely a hidden treasure.


  2. Wow. I wonder about the fact that this is not being preserved – makes it a lot more interesting to go and see when it’s not behind plexiglass and a line of ticket-holders – but sad to think it will continue to fade. When we were in Aruba, we visited a cave with “prehistoric” drawings (I have no idea if they were really that old) – and there was no preservation at all. Makes you feel like Tom Sawyer exploring the old caves…


    • When we were in Turkey, it was similar, with guides running their fingers over cave paintings that were more than a thousand years old. Wonderful to be so close, sad that they might not be there later. — Paul


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