A spectacular UNESCO World Heritage Benedictine abbey that was once plundered by the Gestapo has received back a long-lost collection of Mollusc shells 80 years after they were stolen from its natural history collection.
The Gottweig Abbey which is a Benedictine monastery located near the town of Krems in the state of Lower Austria has become a tourist magnet ever since it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site as part of the Wachau valley in December 2000.
The monastery was formed by Altmann the then Bishop of the German city of Passau in 1803 and has been a spiritual and academic center in the heart of the state of Lower Austria ever since, and even served as an inspiration and location for Italian novelist Umberto Eco’s 1980 debut novel called “The Name of the Rose”.
It has now welcomed the long thought lost collection of mollusc shells that were initially kept in the abbey’s library, which holds a collection of over 150,000 books and manuscripts, religious engravings, valuable coin collections, antiquities, musical manuscripts and natural history.
The monastery, which is run by a community of about 45 monks, received the collection of mollusc shells which were stolen by Nazis 80 years ago and given to the Natural History Museum (NHM) in the city of Vienna in Austria.
The shells, which first evolved on Earth over 500 million years ago, were taken away by the Gestapo and brought to the Museum of Reichsgau Lower Danube in the city of Vienna in 1941.
The Gottweig Abbey was taken under Nazi administration and the shells were taken by the Secret State Police (Gestapo) on 15th September 1939. They had been gathered by the monks as part of the natural history research.
Gottweig Abbey’s library eventually survived the Second World War and its aftermath almost untouched.
But the shells and several other items including paintings and some furniture had been lost after they were distributed to other institutions.
Their trace remained unknown until provenance researcher Dr Thomas Mayer discovered the shells in the Natural History Museum in Austria.
According to Dr Thomas Mayer the Natural History Museum in Vienna received the box of mollusc shells from the Krems Museum in the spring of 1941.
As a part of a small commemoration NHM General and Scientific Managing Director Dr Katrin Vohland surprised Father Franz Shuster from Gottweig Abbey after she gave him a box containing the long-lost shells on 31st May 2021.
She said: “Strengthening provenance research is an important concern to me. The return of the collection stolen during the Nazi era is a legal obligation not only to the NHM Vienna but also another important step towards the scientific and ethical reappraisal of certain injustices that have occurred.”
Curator of Gottweig’s collections Mag Bernhard Rameder was delighted that a small natural history collection was returning home and emphasized: “Natural history collections have been kept in Gottweig since the 18th century. After most of these were lost during the Second World War we are particularly pleased that part of the mollusc collection has returned.”
Gottweig Abbey which is often referred to as Austria’s Monte Cassino because of its fantastic location is open every day for the millions of visitors that want to visit the library and other exhibits now joined by the newly added mollusc shell collection.