You know that movie “The Monuments Men” with George Clooney that is out now? Our own Harry Ettlinger, regular Tuesday night bridge player, is believed to be the only survivor of the original handful of Monuments Men. Harry Ettlinger was born in Germany but fled with his parents when Hitler came to power. Drafted into the Army in 1944, he wound up in the Monuments Men in part because he could speak German. That’s how he found himself hundreds of feet below ground in a salt mine in southern Germany, sifting through 40,000 cases of artworks that the Nazis had stored there for safekeeping.
Following are some excerpts from “Monumental Mission” which can be found on Smithsonian.com.
“When the smoke cleared, Hitler planned to unearth many of these spoils and display them in his hometown of Linz, Austria. There they would be showcased in the new Führer Museum, which was to be one of the finest in the world. This scheme died with Hitler in 1945, when it fell to Ettlinger and other Monuments Men to track down the missing artwork and provide refuge for them until they could be returned to their countries of origin.
‘That’s what made our war different,’ Ettlinger … recalls. ‘It established the policy that to the victor do not go the spoils. The whole idea of returning property to its rightful owners in wartime was unprecedented. That was our job. We didn’t have much time to think about it. We just went to work.’
For Ettlinger, that meant descending 700 feet below ground each day to begin the long, tedious process of clearing artwork from the salt mines of Heilbronn and Kochendorf in southern Germany. (Harry is on the right in the old photo.)
Perhaps the most notable find at Heilbronn was a cache of stained-glass windows from the cathedral of Strasbourg, France. With Ettlinger supervising, the windows, packed in 73 cases, were shipped directly home without passing through a collecting point. “The Strasbourg windows were the first thing we sent back,” says Ettlinger.’That was on orders of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, supreme commander of Allied forces, as a gesture of good faith.’ The windows were welcomed home with a huge celebration—a sign not only that the Alsatian city was free again after centuries of domination by Germany but also that the Allies intended to restore the fruits of civilization.
Most of Ettlinger’s comrades had training in art history or museum work. ‘Not me,’ says Ettlinger. ‘I was just the kid from New Jersey.’ But he worked diligently, his mastery of German indispensable and his rapport with mineworkers easy. He was promoted to technical sergeant. After the war, he went home to New Jersey, where he earned degrees in engineering and business administration and produced guidance systems for nuclear weapons. ‘To tell you the truth, I wasn’t as interested in the paintings as I was in other things over there,’ says Ettlinger, now retired in Rockaway, New Jersey.
Upon arrival at the Kochendorf mine, Ettlinger was shocked to learn that the Third Reich had intended to make it an underground factory using 20,000 workers from nearby concentration camps. The Allied invasion scuttled those plans, but a chill lingered over the mines, where Ettlinger was reminded daily of his great luck: had he not escaped Germany in 1938, he could have ended up in just such a camp. Instead, he found himself in the ironic position of supervising German laborers and working with a former Nazi who had helped pillage art from France. ‘He knew where the stuff was,’ Ettlinger says. ‘My own feelings couldn’t enter into it.’
You can read more about this at Smithsonian.com Thank you for your service, Harry, and for sharing your story too.