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Archivist Monuments Man: Lester K. Born

by on April 8, 2014


Today’s post, written by  Dr. Greg Bradsher, is the next installment in an ongoing series of posts on real-life Monuments Men.

The movie, The Monuments Men, has focused great attention on the Monuments Men (and women) and their work during and after World War II.  Of course the movie cannot tell the story of the over 300 individuals involved in Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFA&A) work, so it focuses on three: George Stout, James Rorimer, and Rose Valland, played by George Clooney, Matt Damon, and Cate Blanchett respectively.  Beginning in December 2013, Dr. Greg Bradsher and Dr. Sylvia Naylor thought it would be illustrative to discuss some of the lesser known individuals, and thus started a series of blog posts. This blog post on Lester K. Born is the thirteenth in this series.

In 1950, Lester Kruger Born wrote about the first day he went to work as a Monuments Man in 1945:

The rain was pouring down. The hour was 0630. The day was Monday, 12 June 1945. The place was Hoechst, Germany, headquarters of the US Group Control Council. A lone figure, bundled up in hooded officers’ fieldcoat, with musette bag slung over should, and with pistol and extra clip of ammunition fastened at the waist sloshed down the street. This was the only Archivist then on the regular Table of Organization (T/O) of US Gp CC. At the appointed rendezvous bedraggled figures appeared. Trucks arrived. The Archivist and other officers climbed up beside drivers of 2 ½ ton trucks, and the little convoy started up the Autobahn from Frankfurt to Kassel. This was the Advance Party sent to open the Ministerial Collecting Center….

The story of Born joining the Monuments Men began during the fall of 1944 when there were several attempts to get Army Captain Born, then serving with the First Army in Belgium, assigned to work with the Monuments Men.  At the end of October, Fred W. Shipman, Adviser to War Department on Archives, then in Europe, wrote Brig. Gen. Frank J. McSherry, Chief, Operations Branch, G-5, Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF), recommending Born for a Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives (MFA&A) position.  Shipman pointed out that Born read, spoke, and understood French and German fluently.  Shipman added that he also read Dutch and Italian and understood the latter.  Born, he wrote, traveled widely in Europe before the war, including to England, France, Germany, Poland, Austria, and Italy.  He noted that Born was a special student of medieval Latin and medieval manuscripts and paleography and that his fields of interest professionally had been the history of political theory as well as the history of archival theory and practice.  Shipman added that Born had published a number of articles in professional journals and translated Erasmus’ Education of a Christian Prince [1516], with a scholarly introduction, and for several years published systematic abstracts of archival publications in Western Europe (France, Belgium, Holland, and Germany) quarterly in The American Archivist .  He noted that Born “is a thorough scholar, and an energetic and conscientious worker.”  Although he had never been on the staff of the National Archives, Shipman added, he had many contacts with staff members of the institution, and was highly recommended by all who know him well. Unfortunately, there was no vacancy that Born could fill.

Lester Kruger Born was born in Alameda, California on January 23, 1903.  He studied Classical Philology at the University of California, Berkeley, where he received his bachelor’s degree in 1925 and master’s degree in 1926.  In 1928 he received a master’s degree from Princeton University where he studied Classics and in 1929 received his Ph. D. from the University of Chicago.  From 1929 until 1938 Born taught at Ohio State University (Classical Languages), Western Reserve University (Classics), and George Washington University (Classical Languages ​​and Literature). In the latter years he became Assistant Archivist of the Works Progress Administration’s Historic Records Survey, a position he held until 1941 when he joined the Office of Price Administration.  In 1942 he entered the Army.  From 1928 to 1941 he authored articles in Political Science Quarterly, Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, Journal of Modern History, and, American Journal of Philology.  He also wrote “Baldassarre Bonifacio and his essay ‘De Archivis’ [1631],” in The American Archivist 4 (1941).  His most important work was the translation of Erasmus’ Education of a Christian Prince [1516], with a scholarly introduction on ancient and medieval political thought (1936).

On January 20, 1945, SHAEF MFA&A requested the services of Born (then with V Corps of First U.S. Army, as archivist at 12th Army Group area).  In making the request, Capt. Marvin C. Ross, United States Marine Corps Reserve, MFA&A, G-5 Operations Branch, indicated that Born was highly recommended for this work by the Archivist of the United States and by Fred Shipman, and that Born had worked in German archives and was fluent in German.  But SHAEF was not to be Born’s initial Monuments Men assignment.  On May 29, he joined the MFA&A Branch of U.S. Group Control Council (USGCC) (Germany), as Archivist Specialist Officer, joining civilian archivist Sergeant B. Child, who served as Adviser on Archives and Libraries.  Both Born and Child were soon assigned to temporary duty with SHAEF.  In mid-June Born began a new assignment, noted above.

On June 12 the advance party of six officers, including Born, and fifteen enlisted men arrived at Fuerstenhagen, some 12 miles southeast of Kassel, to get the Ministerial Collecting Center (MCC) going.  The actual site was in the area of the munitions factory known as Fabrik Hessisch Lichtenau.  The primary mission of the MCC was to accession and take archival control of German ministerial records.  It was Born’s job to get archival operations up and running at the MCC.  Born expected his assignment would last a week.  But he was still at the MCC on July 4, when the USGCC, placed staff supervision of operational activities at MCC in the Office of the Director of Intelligence.  The scope and activities of the MCC expanded, and so did the work and the necessity for having an archivist, i.e., Born, on site.

During the fall of 1945 the volume of documents was increased at Ministerial Collecting Center by the acquisition of the Foreign Office (FO) and other records. At the end of 1945 there were over 1,420 tons of records and 40 tons of film and equipment, with over 1,500 Germans (mainly former Ministry civil servants) working with the records and assisting the Military Government to ascertain the workings of the German ministries.   It would be a challenging assignment; and there was continual push to get records accessioned and processed, ready to move to Berlin by February 1, 1946.  Before the end of the year Born would be assigned to Berlin with the MFA&A Section of the Office of Military Government (US) for Germany [OMGUS], but he would continue to work at Kassel on temporary duty.

In mid-December, Monuments Man Seymour Pomrenze visited the MCC and Born.  After this visit he wrote Oliver W. Holmes at the National Archives that:

I was greatly impressed with the manner in which this place operates and the important position Born as archivist occupies on the operational and technical staff. Born himself is a person of unusual ability, a scholar, and one of the finest officers I have met in the last 40,000 miles of my travels. He is all work and lets nothing deter him from his objective. Having a background in classics and medieval history (he had written a book on Erasmus and many other articles) he appreciates the problems connected with gathering and storing properly documents and books. His addition the staff of The National Archives at some future date would be a most valuable gain for our institution.

By the end of December 1945 a rough screening of the essential part of documents was completed with the exception of those received in December.  Most of the ministerial records were moved during January 1946, to MCC Berlin. The MCC was officially closed on February 1, and the 6689th Berlin Document Center (BDC) became fully responsible for its operation.  The former MCC would be renamed the Ministerial Documents Branch of the Berlin Document Center.   Appreciative of Born’s work Colonel Henry C. Newton, Director, Ministerial Collecting Center, Berlin, on February 12, wrote General Lucius D. Clay, Deputy Military Governor (Office of Military Government, US), that through Born’s work at the MCC, that organization had been efficiently and smoothly operated.  He indicated that Born showed initiative, imagination and determination and should be promoted.  Born would be promoted to major.

During the 1946-1949 period Born played an important role in the reconstruction of German archival operations and in the restitution and return of archival materials.  After his return to the United States in 1950, Born coordinated the microfilming of important holdings of the Library of Congress.  He also authored two important works in 1950: “The Archives and Libraries of Postwar Germany,” American Historical Review, Vol. 56, No. 1 (October 1950) and “The Ministerial Collecting Center near Kassel, Germany,” The American Archivist, Vol. 13, No. 3 (July 1950). Born served as a cultural affairs officer at the American Embassy in Manila from 1956 to 1959.  He returned to the United States in 1959 to head the manuscripts section of the Descriptive Cataloging Division of the Library of Congress.  In 1963 he became head of the European Exchange Section of the Library of Congress.  Lester Born died October 7, 1969 in Washington, D.C.

Information about Born’s activities in Germany from 1945 to 1949 can be found in numerous series of records within Records of the Office of Military Government (U.S.) OMGUS (RG 260), and within numerous documents contained in Material Accumulated for a Conference on Captured German and Related Records at the National Archives, 1968 (NAID 6922180), RG 242.


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