CALGARY, Alberta, Canada — During the Second World War as the Nazis stormed across Europe, they systematically looted millions of priceless paintings, sculptures and other cultural artifacts from museums, including their own, churches, libraries and private collections, mostly Jewish. The monetary value ran into the billions, but the cultural loss was incalculable. It was by far the greatest theft in history. The art treasures were hidden indiscriminately in many locations, mainly within Germany and Austria, and as hostilities drew to an end were in peril of being destroyed by Nazi zealots.
Formalized by U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section (MFAA) of the Allied forces was established in late 1943, comprising about 350 service men and women from thirteen nations, almost all volunteers, tasked with locating, preserving and wherever possible returning the stolen art to their rightful owners. They were colloquially known as the Monuments Men.
The 2014 movie The Monuments Men starring George Clooney, Matt Damon, John Goodman and Bill Murray is a fictionalized portrayal of a small group of the real-life Monuments Men.
The actual Monuments Men were middle-aged art historians, curators, artists, architects and academics, all except for one, Harry Ettlinger, a 19-year-old New Jersey kid with but a high school education and little knowledge of art. He did however have one attribute that all others lacked. Ettlinger spoke fluent German. The movie character of Sam Epstein was inspired by Harry Ettlinger.
Heinz (Harry) Ludwig Chaim Ettlinger was born in 1926 in the southwestern German city of Karlsruhe. The family was German to the core. Harry’s father, a decorated veteran of World War I, could trace his German ancestry back to the 1600s and his mother to the 1400s. The family was respected and financially well-to-do. However, they were Jewish and after Hitler came to power in 1933, they like all German Jews were stripped of their rights, shunned and harassed. The Ettlinger business collapsed, Harry was forced from public school and the family desperately sought to flee Germany. Finally in 1938, after years of trying, the Ettlingers received visas, amongst the last granted, to emigrate to America.
Before leaving, Harry, then twelve, and his two brothers visited his maternal grandparents for the last time and while there marvelled at their grandfather’s art collection. Harry’s grandfather, a minor patron of the arts, had a compilation containing almost 2,000 gallery quality fine art prints, primarily by minor German impressionists, one of the best being a print of the self-portrait by Rembrandt that hung in the Karlsruhe museum four blocks from Harry’s house. Harry had never seen the original as Jews since 1933 were forbidden entry to the museum.
The day prior to departure for America, Harry celebrated his bar mitzvah in Karlsruhe’s magnificent Kronenstrasse Synagogue. On October 9, 1938, the Ettlinger family arrived in New York harbor. Exactly one month later on Kristallnacht the Kronenstrasse Synagogue was burnt to the ground and Harry’s grandfather was arrested and thrown into the Dachau internment camp. Harry’s bar mitzvah was the last celebrated in Karlsruhe.
Five years after Harry had arrived in the United States, living in New Jersey, he had completed high school, received his draft notice, finished basic training and shipped overseas. On January 28, 1945, U.S. Army Private Harry Ettlinger, an infantryman, found himself together with the rest of his unit on a convoy of trucks in Givet, Belgium, only several miles from his country of birth, on their way to join the counterattack in the Battle of the Bulge when he was ordered to dismount. It was Harry’s nineteenth birthday.
For the next few months, Harry was doing nothing with no idea why he had been taken off the truck. What nobody bothered to tell Harry was that because of his fluency in German he was to become an interpreter for the intended Nuremburg trials, which would prosecute and bring to justice Nazi war criminals. Not knowing that he had been so assigned, on a chance encounter with another soldier in Munich, Harry volunteered for a job as a translator only later to discover that it was with the MFAA. Harry Ettlinger was now a Monuments Man. It was May 7, 1945, one day before Germany’s formal surrender.
At first, Harry was put to work reading captured German documents and interrogating prisoners of war searching for clues as to the location of repositories where the Nazis had hidden their plundered booty. And then in September Harry received a more important task. He was to go to Heilbronn in southern Germany, catalogue and remove from the bowels of its salt mine over 40,000 cases of plundered paintings and other valuables secreted therein by the Nazis and dispatch them topside for delivery to Allied collecting points.
Earlier, in March, the Monument Men had learned from a French art historian and member of the French Resistance that the Nazis were using the salt mine at Heilbronn to store literally tons of stolen artworks. It wasn’t until April that a member of the team was able to get to the mine, but all he was able to do was to protect and secure the location. Now Harry was the one chosen by his superiors to remove its valuable and in some instances priceless contents.
So each morning Harry, together with two local German miners, descended an elevator 700 feet down into the dark and cold pit with its miles of tunnels branching off in all directions holding numerous chambers each containing similar-looking brown crates. They inspected and sent dozens each day to the surface into the hands of the only other Monuments Man on site, an officer, who would forward them in turn to central collecting points. Harry, now promoted to Sergeant, was in effect the underground operations manager, a 19-year-old Jewish kid giving orders to the Germans. In all, it would take 10 months to empty the mine of its valuable cargo.
Not only was the work arduous and dirty but also dangerous. Some repositories were known to contain unexploded ordnance and others to hold booby traps. A few weeks into the work, Harry noticed a chamber walled up by bricks. When the wall was broken through, bottle upon bottle of unstable nitroglycerine was discovered. Everyone fled the mine while explosives experts gingerly brought the bottles to the surface and detonated the nitro in a field. One more month and the nitro would have destabilized amply to explode, likely the intent of whoever left the explosive liquid.
Almost certainly, the most precious works of art discovered by Harry in the Heilbronn salt mine were the stunning stained glass windows stolen by the Nazis from France’s Strasbourg Cathedral. The stained glass windows date from the 12th to the 14th centuries and are considered by the French to be a national treasure. The windows were returned to the Cathedral in an elaborate ceremony.
But works of art were not the only things found. Thousands of gold wedding bands ripped from the fingers of murdered Jews in the extermination camps were stashed in the Heilbronn salt mine.
For Harry the most astonishing find in the recesses of the mine happened when he chanced to lift from a crate Rembrandt’s self-portrait, the one of which his grandfather possessed a print. As fate would have it, Harry was holding in his hands the very painting from his city of birth that the Nazis had forbidden him as a Jew from viewing. The masterwork was not looted but placed in the mine for safekeeping from Allied bombing and shelling. It has since been returned to the museum in Karslruhe where it once again hangs, this time available for all to view.
Harry was discharged in August 1946 and returned to New Jersey. Prior to leaving, he completed one final mission, this one self-appointed. Harry’s maternal grandparents were able to flee Germany in 1939. His paternal grandmother was not so fortunate and perished. Before fleeing, his grandfather hid his personal art collection in a storage facility near Baden-Baden. In October 1945, he wrote Harry detailing the location of the facility and the combination to the lock, which would open it. It was his desperate hope that his beloved art collection would somehow miraculously have survived the war. Harry set off to find the collection, located the storehouse and there in its interior were the wonders Harry had known as a child. The collected art works were packed and unlike other shipments that were delivered to collection points, were sent to an apartment in New Jersey.
Following the war, Harry attended university earning a degree in mechanical engineering. He first worked for the Singer Sewing Machine Company and then in the defense industry. He is involved in veterans groups and Jewish causes. Today at 89, one of the last surviving Monuments Men, he remains active in the Wallenberg Foundation of New Jersey, which he co-founded, an organization that fosters the ideals of the renowned Righteous Gentile, Raoul Wallenberg who saved 100,000 Jewish lives during the Holocaust.
Today, the art collection owned by Harry’s grandfather has been broken up, divided amongst his descendents. Of the pieces Harry kept for himself is the print of Rembrandt’s self-portrait, which hangs in his living room, a remembrance of the day he held the original painting; poetic justice, a reminder of small personal revenge against the Nazi regime.
The Monument Men were disbanded in 1951. They had tracked, found and returned over five million artistic and cultural items hidden in over 1,000 locations. However, their work has not been completed. Thousands of art pieces remain unclaimed because either their provenance cannot be determined or their owners and family were amongst the millions murdered in Hitler’s racial crusade. And hundreds of thousands of works of art, including masterpieces, have yet to be found, either remaining hidden or destroyed.
(“The Monuments Men” movie is based on the non-fiction book, “The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History” by Robert M. Edsel with Bret Witter, which also formed the source of much of the research that went into the writing of this article. The book is essential for anyone interested in learning the factual story of the Monuments Men. For others, it is a first-rate read.)
Spier is a retired lawyer with a keen interest in Jewish history. You may contact him via email@example.com.