Monumental moments Harry Ettlinger, last WWII Monuments Man, speaks at JCC
Sheila Berg, commander of the Jewish War Vets Post 39 in Allentown, during her introduction of Harry Ettlinger, described him as a world traveler telling the story of his experiences as the last surviving “Monuments Man.”
“I’d like to let you know that my travels through this world is no longer around it, just north Jersey and parts of Pennsylvania …” quipped the feisty, 90-year-old U.S. Army veteran. “Here I am!” Ettlinger declared to an appreciative audience at the Jewish Community Center of Allentown at a free interactive brunch held March 6. The event was co-sponsored by the Jewish War Veterans, the Jewish Community Center and the Jewish Federation.
Ettlinger not only helped to return treasures stolen by the Nazis during WWII, but proved to be a genuine treasure himself. Born in 1926 to an affluent Jewish family, his journey began in his hometown of Karlsruhe, Germany, when his parents took Harry and his two younger brothers and fled the Nazis. They found sanctuary in New York City in 1938, then later moved across the river to New Jersey.
After being drafted into the U.S. Army in August of 1944, Ettlinger was shipped back to Europe in January 1945 to join his fellow infantryman on the front lines. Because of his fluency in German, he was reassigned from combat duty and held back for service as an interpreter for the upcoming Nuremburg Trials. After meeting Capt. James J. Rorimer of the U.S. Army, Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFA&A) unit in May of 1945, Ettlinger volunteered to serve with them to translate German intelligence documents and interrogate defeated Nazis, assisting in their quest to locate thousands of priceless art and cultural objects looted by the Germans during WWII.
As a goodwill gesture to his French allies, General Dwight D. Eisenhower made returning their stolen cultural treasures the unit’s first priority. Ettlinger said, “ … I was assigned over here to retrieve works of art that had been stored in two salt mines. Clean places. Ideal, … unlike coal mines, clean atmosphere which the Germans were thinking of turning into an underground factory to make jet engines.” Of the 40,000 boxes of stolen art found in these underground chambers, Ettlinger said he was assigned to “find 900 of them which belonged to French institutions … The first ones that I found were the stained glass windows that belonged to [and] taken from, a cathedral in Strasbourg, which was the city south of the Rhine River about 40 miles from where I was brought up.” Strasbourg was the capital of Alsace-Lorraine, a territory that had changed hands between France and Germany for centuries. These stolen objects were part of the hoard stashed away by Herrmann Goring in the Kochendorf-Heilbronn salt mines in Germany.
In July of 1946, with his mission accomplished in retrieving the 900 items, it was time for Sergeant Ettlinger to be discharged from the army. Harry helped “liberate” some of the fireworks that had been stored in the mines and slated for Hitler’s victory celebration. “I saw to it that that the 4th of July was celebrated in Heilbronn, Germany by the Jewish kids … that fireworks went off to celebrate our holiday!” he said to a round of applause. A few days later, Ettlinger was sent home to New Jersey. Harry went to college on the GI Bill and became an mechanical engineer. He later married and raised a family. Although long retired, Ettlinger is co-chair of the Wallenberg Foundation of New Jersey.
The exploits of these official treasure hunters were brought to the big screen in The Monuments Men written and produced by George Clooney and Grant Heslov. Clooney also starred in the film. Matt Damon portrayed a fictional character that was loosely based on Capt. Rorimer while Dimitri Leonidas played “Pvt. Sam Epstein,” a character loosely based on Harry Ettlinger. When asked during a Q&A how he had been treated by Clooney and the others from Hollywood at the movie’s 2014 screening at the 64th Berlin International Film Festival, Ettlinger replied with a grin, “I was in the front row!”