Eighty-two-year-old Harry Ettlinger is proud of the work he did as a "Monument Man" during World War II.
"It was unprecedented," he says of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section of the Allied armies, which tracked down — and ultimately returned — more than 5 million artistic and cultural items stolen by the Nazis.
Ettlinger, who will speak at the YM-YWHA of North Jersey in Wayne on April 28 about his experiences as a Monument Man, told The Jewish Standard that the elite group began operations in 1943 with just a small staff. By the time its work was complete in 1951, it had grown to include 350 men and women.
In this 2007 photo, Harry Ettlinger holds a photo taken in 1946 showing him, together with Lt. Dale Ford, viewing a self-portrait by Rembrandt in a German salt mine. A print of that painting now hangs in Ettlinger’s Rockaway home.
Now retired from his job as a department director at a Wayne corporation and living in Rockaway, Ettlinger described the sea voyage that first brought him from Germany to the United States as a child.
"It was in the wake of a hurricane," he said. "I was so seasick that I couldn’t hold food down for three days." But despite that, and despite the financial hardships his family endured when they arrived here, "it was nothing" compared to the plight of family members unable to leave Germany, he said.
After arriving in the United States, his family lived first in Manhattan and then in Newark, after his father was advised to "go west." Upon graduation from high school, he was immediately drafted into the army and sent overseas — back to the continent he had fled.
On Jan. 28, 1945, Ettlinger’s 19th birthday, his army career took a new turn. With the Battle of the Bulge coming to an end, the young private, part of a convoy of 2,500 soldiers, unexpectedly heard someone call his name. "A sergeant had stopped the truck and said three of us should get off," he said. " I was one of them."
At Schloss Neuschwanstein in southern Bavaria, Capt. James Rorimer, curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s medieval collections in civilian life, supervises the safeguarding of art stolen from French Jews and stored during the war at the castle, April-May, 1945. Photo from the National Archives and Records Administration.
Tapped to become an interpreter for the Nuremberg war trials because of his fluency in German, Ettlinger found his way instead into the group working to protect European monuments and other cultural treasures from destruction.
An article in the February Smithsonian magazine notes that these works included pieces of art, sculpture, books, jewelry, furniture, tapestries, and other cultural treasures looted, lost, or displaced by seven years of upheaval — among them paintings by Vermeer, van Gogh, Rembrandt, Raphael, Da Vinci, and Botticelli.
In addition, according to the article by Robert M. Poole, "[m]useums and homes throughout Europe had been stripped of paintings, furniture, ceramics, coins, and other objects, as were many of the continent’s churches, from which silver crosses, stained glass, bells and painted altarpieces disappeared; age-old Torahs vanished from synagogues; entire libraries were packed up and spirited away by the trainload."
Rather than winding down at the end of the war, said Ettlinger, the Monument Men actually expanded in number and extended their operations. The Rockaway resident said he is the youngest surviving member of the group.
"There are 12 of us still alive, 11 Americans and one British lady. They’re all in their late 80s or early 90s and only five can travel," he said.
While many of the Monument Men were art historians, museum curators, and educators, said Ettlinger, he had no training in this area at all. Still, he noted, "I was in great shape then," something that stood him in good stead as he climbed down into the salt mines of Heilbronn and Kochendorf in southern Germany each day to locate and reclaim works of art. Ironically, he and Lt. Dale V. Ford, with whom he worked, supervised several Germans, who were assisting them in this project.
In the course of his work, Ettlinger discovered underground factories in the mine at Kochendorf, "carved-out chambers" that he later learned were meant to be used as underground concentration camps. He realized, he said, that had he not escaped Germany, he might have ended up in the camp as an inmate rather than as a victorious soldier supervising German workers.
"Three Germans worked for me: an art historian, an administrator and a young man who had been in Paris stealing" the same types of priceless artworks they were now trying to recover, said Ettlinger, recalling that during his first assignment at Heilbronn in August 1945, he found boxes of stained glass windows from the cathedral in Strasbourg, France.
"These were the first cultural works returned," he said, pointing out that this was done on the direct orders of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Ettlinger said his most famous find, "the one that got the most publicity," was a self-portrait by Rembrandt. But perhaps more meaningful was the recovery of his own grandfather’s collection of prints. "He was a minor patron of the arts," said the Rockaway resident. Nevertheless, he mused, "In retrospect, the most significant accomplishment came when I was walking down a corridor in the mine and I discovered a doorway that had been bricked closed. I ordered the miners to break it down and on the tables there were jars of nitroglycerin, just one or two months from [exploding]."
Ettlinger said he never got to see the many hundreds of Torahs looted from synagogues, many of which were sent first to a collection point in Wiesbaden and later to the Offenbach Archival Depot near Frankfort supervised by Capt. Seymour J. Pomrenze. "Many of the Torahs ended up in Israel," he said.
After the war, Ettlinger returned to the United States and attended college, earning degrees in engineering and business administration. Besides working for many years with Kearfott Guidance & Navigation Corporation in Wayne, he was active in Jewish War Veterans and served as co-chairman of the Raoul Wallenberg Foundation of New Jersey.
Ettlinger said he is proud of the philosophical position established by Lt. Ford and 34 other Americans who signed a manifesto in early 1946 declaring that "to the victors do not go the spoils." As a result of their efforts, artworks were returned to their original owners even in Germany.
"That was unprecedented," he said. "It’s the first time in the history of civilization that this happened."