By John Burton
RUMSON – Harry Ettlinger has had brushes with some of western civilization’s greatest works of art – and helped save them – but he still remains that kid who emigrated from Germany to Newark.
“It has been, with respect to what other human beings had, a pretty good life,” Ettlinger told the gathering at Congregation B’nai Israel Synagogue Sunday morning. Before Ettlinger became an engineer, the father of three and grandfather of four, he served in the U.S. Army during World War II as a member of a multinational military group that would become to be known as “the Monuments Men.”
As detailed in the nonfiction book by Robert M. Edsel, “The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and Greatest Treasure Hunt in History” and “The Monuments Men,” a 2014 film written, directed by and starring George Clooney, Ettlinger was one of approximately 345 recruited from 13 nations working to recover thousands of artworks.
The works, plundered by Nazi troops during the European campaign, were “some of the greatest cultural treasures of our civilization,” said Yona Shulman, chair of the B’nai Israel’s adult education program, as she introduced the octogenarian.
The unit worked with governments “to return them (artworks) to where they rightly belonged,” Ettlinger said, including to owners in Italy and France.
That was “something unique in the history of civilization,” when the valuable spoils of war were not kept by the victors, but returned to their rightful owners, Ettlinger said.
“That is something that we all should be damn proud we did it,” he stressed.
The 88-year-old Ettlinger, who is Jewish and still speaks with a thick German accent, fled his German village with his family to escape the advancing Nazis in September 1938 when he was just 13.
“The political situation was so dark that the rabbi recommended we leave that day,” which was the day of his bar mitzvah. Upon arriving in New York, the family was advised to “go west,” and they did, all 16 miles west to Newark, he recalled.
After high school Ettlinger was drafted into the U.S. Army, where he was assigned to an infantry unit as a rifleman. Because he was fluent in German, he was plucked from his unit and assigned to the Allied Forces Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Program. There he served under Capt. Jim Rorimer, who had been a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, and would become the museum’s director following the war.
As German troops advanced through Europe they took art treasures with the intent of establishing a massive museum as a tribute to what Adolph Hitler and the German high command had been saying would be a thousand-year Reich.
Toward the end of the war, Ettlinger and others in his unit worked for about 10 months uncovering and retrieving more than 900 boxes containing the works of Picasso, Monet and Rembrandt and others that had been stored deep in an old salt mine inside Germany’s borders that were abandoned by the retreating Axis troops.
Ettlinger also worked translating documents for the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal. After Hitler’s death, he was assigned to Eagle’s Nest, Hitler’s mountain retreat in Bavaria. The historic significance of the location was lost on the still quite young Ettlinger, he said, noting he was more interested in the breathtaking mountain view than anything.
Ettlinger never really had much of an interest in art, he said. The closest he ever came to considering art as a pursuit was when he thought about being an architect. He abandoned that idea to study engineering at the Newark College of Engineering after his discharge in June 1946.
In the movie Ettlinger is fictionalized as “Sam Epstein,” portrayed by actor Dimitri Leonidas. His captain, Rorimer, became Frank Stokes, Clooney’s role.
Ettlinger’s major criticism of the film was that it reduced his contribution to driving Clooney around in a Jeep.
But, “It’s Hollywood,” he said with a shrug, adding with a chuckle, that it “was zero for me” when it came to earning anything on the movie.
Ettlinger, who lives in Rockaway, regularly appears at schools and for social organization to talk about his experiences.
“Who wouldn’t be attracted to that story?” Shulman said, calling Ettlinger “a real American hero, a real Jewish hero.”
Ettlinger has written his memoir, tentatively titled “Ein Amerikaner,” that family members are working on getting published, he said.
Congregation B’nai Israel, which is located at 171 Ridge Road, is a 92-year-old conservative synagogue that regularly hosts cultural events. The synagogue has about 10 guest speakers a year, talking on a variety of topics, which are open to the general public, according to Shulman.
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