Real Life ‘Monuments Man’ was Born Here in Alameda

Lester K. Born
Lester K. Born

Real Life ‘Monuments Man’ was Born Here in Alameda

The 2014 film Monuments Men featured an ensemble cast portraying the real life work of more than 300 members of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFA&A) program, established in 1943 by the Allied armies to help protect cultural property in war areas during and after World War II.

The movie couldn’t possibly tell the story of all of the personalities involved, so beginning in December 2013, Dr. Greg Bradsher and Dr. Sylvia Naylor of the National Archives began a series of blog posts to discuss some of the lesser-known individuals whose stories weren’t portrayed in the film.

The subject of one such blog post, Lester Kruger Born, was an Alameda native. The following text is largely a reproduction of Dr. Bradsher’s post.

Born in Alameda on Jan. 23, 1903, Born 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.

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).

In 1942 he entered the Army. Several attempts were made in 1944 to assign Army Captain Born — then serving with the First Army in Belgium — to work with the Monuments Men. In October, Fred W. Shipman, Adviser to War Department on Archives, then in Europe, wrote a letter recommending Born for an MFA&A position.

Shipman pointed out that Born read, spoke, and understood French and German fluently, adding 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... and for several years published systematic abstracts of archival publications in Western Europe 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 knew him well. Unfortunately, there was no vacancy that Born could fill.

On Jan. 20, 1945, MFA&A requested Born’s services. He was then serving with V Corps of First U.S. Army, as archivist at 12th Army Group area. On May 29, Born joined the MFA&A Branch of U.S. Group Control Council (Germany), as archivist specialist officer, joining civilian archivist Sergeant B. Child, who served as Adviser on Archives and Libraries. Dr. Bradsher shared Born’s personal reflections on his first day.

“The rain was pouring down. The hour was 0630. The day was Monday, 12 June 1945. The place was Hoechst, Germany, headquarters of the U.S. 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.

“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.”

On June 12 the advance party of six officers, including Born, and 15 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 to last a week. But he was still there on July 4, when staff supervision of operational activities at MCC was placed 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 the volume of documents increased by the acquisition of the Foreign Office and other records. At the end of 1945 they had more than 1,420 tons of records and 40 tons of film and equipment, with more than 1,500 Germans working with the records and assisting the Military Government to ascertain the workings of the German ministries.

There was continual push to get records accessioned and processed, ready to move to Berlin by Feb. 1, 1946. Before the end of the year Born would be assigned to Berlin with the MFA&A Section of the Office of U.S. Military Government for Germany, but he would continue to work at Kassel on temporary duty.

In mid-December, Monuments Man Seymour Pomrenze visited MCC. After, he wrote Oliver W. Holmes at the National Archives.

“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.”

By the end of 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 Feb. 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 Col. Henry C. Newton, Director, Ministerial Collecting Center, Berlin, on Feb. 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.

From 1946 to 1949 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 U.S. 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, in October and “The Ministerial Collecting Center near Kassel, Germany,” The American Archivist, in July.

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 Oct. 7, 1969, in Washington, D.C.

Eric J. Kos is a historian who has contributed to several titles including Lost San Francisco and Bay Farm Island: A Hidden History of Alameda.