How cool is it that one of my relatives helped save some of Europe’s most valuable art pieces from Adolf Hitler? But this individual isn’t the only human treasure in my family…
Major Robert Kelley Posey, my third cousin three times removed, was one of the famous Monuments Men who helped discover priceless art objects the Nazis had stolen and return them to their country of origin. In the movie Monuments Men, my kinsman (or a composite of him and a colleague) is played by Bill Murray. Murray’s character is named Richard Campbell, a Harvard-educated architect, but my cousin’s educational background is decidedly less highbrow. A graduate of Alabama Polytechnic Institute (now known as Auburn University, my own alma mater), Posey was born in Morris, Alabama, just north of Birmingham, and attended college on an ROTC scholarship. He graduated with a B.S. in Architectural Engineering in 1926 and a B.S. in Architecture in 1927.
After college, he found employment at an architectural firm in Birmingham but lost his job after the stock market crashed in 1929. Undaunted, he moved to New York and enrolled in the Beaux-Arts Institute, where he received a certificate in architectural design in 1932.
Posey was married and serving in the Army Reserves when Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941. Later, he would be assigned as a Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFA&A) officer in Patton’s Third Army. Arriving in Normandy in July of 1944, he set to work trying to preserve what was left of the bombed cathedrals and other important structures in towns like St. Lô, Coutances, St. Malo, Les Iffs, and Rennes. By December of 1944, he gained an assistant, Private First Class Lincoln Kirstein, a Harvard-educated soldier who would later co-found the New York City Ballet with George Balanchine.
As the American army closed in on Germany, Posey’s and Kirstein’s work got even more intense. One day in March of 1945, Posey was having a terrible toothache. The nearest army dentist was hundreds of miles away, so Kirstein found a German dentist in the village of Trier willing to see Posey. Once he learned that Posey and Kirstein were tasked to save important art and architecture, the dentist told them that his son-in-law was involved in similar work. The two Americans then visited the son-in-law, a former employee of Herman Göring. The son-in-law revealed he had helped his boss confiscate private French art collections and send them to Germany. Perhaps feeling a professional affinity with Posey and Kirstein, the son-in-law told them where the Nazis had hidden vast collections of stolen art. Most notably, Posey and Kirstein learned of a salt mine in the Austrian village Alt Aussee, where some of the most valuable art pieces in Europe were concealed.
Once they arrived in Alt Aussee and hired local miners to blast open the entrance, Posey was the first into the mine. Inside, they found more than 6,500 priceless works of art, including Michelangelo’s Bruges Madonna. He also oversaw the removal of works by Vermeer, Raphael, Brueghel, Titian, Rembrandt, and many others. Most significantly, Posey personally escorted Jan Van Eyck’s The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (also called the Ghent Altarpiece, pictured above) back to Belgium. For his efforts, Posey was honored with the Order of Leopold from the Belgian government and named a Chevalier in the French Legion of Honor.
After the war, Posey went on to a distinguished career as a New York architect. He and his family lived in Scarsdale, New York, where he resided until his death in 1977.
I might never have known about my kinship to Major Posey if not for a couple of my first cousins, whose interest in family history provided me with the genealogical background information to connect our family tree to his. My cousins, Diane Bryant and Lisa Tolbert, traced the Posey family history back to the Revolutionary War period and an ancestor named Hezekiah Posey, a member of the South Carolina militia wounded when British loyalists burned his house and confiscated his property during the violent southern campaign. Diane and Lisa completed their research more than ten years ago. Back then, my parents told me about their work, which sounded intriguing, but I was too preoccupied with my own concerns to pay much attention. A few more years would pass before the information they found would have any meaning for me.
I spent most of the summer of 2013 down in Alabama caring for my parents, who were in failing health. My mother suffered a stroke that April, and by June my father had been re-diagnosed with the lung cancer he thought he had beaten seven years before. He was dead by the end of July, and by mid-August, Mother was living full-time in a custodial care facility.
That summer was stressful, certainly, but dull and monotonous in other ways, too, thanks to the number of hours I spent in doctors’ offices, rehabilitation facilities, nursing homes, and oncology clinics. Still, if there was one silver lining, it was re-connecting with my family on my father’s side, people I hadn’t communicated with for more than 25 years.
My Posey kin embody the principles of selflessness and Christian charity. They are always the first people to help others in need, and I relied on them enormously during that time. Unfortunately, their compassionate genes seem to have eluded me. Doing community service never really occurs to me unless I need some charitable activity to write down for a promotion or professional development. I hate to sound so self-absorbed, but there it is. Still, I was grateful for their moral support during what was the most difficult time of my life.
Particularly, I think my cousin Lisa, who had lost her own mother to cancer, sensed I needed something to get my mind off my parents’ health, so she sent me more than fifty e-mails of photographs and family history documents that she and Diane had compiled. I was glad for the distraction and pored over the materials, even reading Daddy the information about Hezekiah Posey. For a little while, these materials even seemed to help him forget about his own pain, but he soon became too ill to listen anymore.
After Daddy died and Mother adjusted to her life in the nursing home, I came back to Colorado Springs and reflected on that difficult summer. My parents had gone from fiercely independent people to invalids in a matter of days. Having to care for one sick parent is hard enough, but when two are ill at the same time, the situation can quickly become overwhelming. I’m not sure how I managed. Perhaps I’m made of sturdier stuff than I knew. As my sister said, we didn’t really even get the chance to grieve my father’s death because we were so busy managing Mother’s care. I was relieved to get back to a normal life, but I knew things were drastically different. This may sound like hyperbole, but looking back on that time, I guess I was the human equivalent of one of those bomb-blasted structures Major Posey and the other Monuments officers were trying to save. My husband and my Alabama family helped me survive those sad days.
The Monuments Men movie was released a year later in 2014. I watched it but felt no particular attachment to the film then. Certainly, the story was inspirational, but it wasn’t something that really resonated with me. After all, Bill Murray’s character wasn’t even named after my kinsman, so I did not know the family connection at the time. Then in 2016, Alabama Heritage, a glossy history magazine published by the University of Alabama, featured an article entitled “Alabama’s Monuments Man” and profiled Major Robert Kelley Posey’s efforts to save Europe’s art. I happened to be thumbing through last summer’s issue and saw the article. Given that his hometown was just a short distance from where I grew up, I knew we must be related to each other. So I went back to those e-mails my cousin Lisa had sent me during the summer of 2013 and tried to connect that information to what I could find out about Robert Kelley from the internet. Sure enough, I learned that we are both descendants of Hezekiah Posey, the South Carolina patriot who survived the southern campaign of the Revolutionary War.
I needed Lisa to explain how we were kin, though—all that once removed, twice removed stuff makes my brain hurt. Just in time for the publication of this article, her e-mail showed up clarifying our actual kinship—third cousins, three times removed.
It’s very rewarding to know that my family is related to such a heroic man. Although none of us ever met Robert Kelley Posey or any of his family, we would love to connect with our New York kinfolk someday. Robert Kelley was born in 1904, the same year as my Papaw Posey, so he may have grand-children the age of Diane, Lisa, and me.
But even if we never meet our Yankee relatives, I still have my own very special Monuments Kin, those cousins like Diane and Lisa who value our family past enough to want to preserve it. Just as Robert Kelley Posey, they know priceless treasure when they see it.
Follow Dana Zimbleman’s blog at The Academic Redneck