Sometimes, the best laid plans…actually go far better than expected.
On May 8, the Chai Center for Jewish Life hosted a talk by Harry Ettlinger, the youngest member of the Monuments Men, the U.S. Army team immortalized in the book and movie of that name, expecting about 30 people. They ended up with 10 times as many.
It was the largest event yet for the Warren-based group, which formed a year ago. Jan Kulick, referred to by the Chai folks as their “matriarch,” said they planned to hold the talk in the clubhouse at the Barons, a townhouse community in Basking Ridge, where she lives. So many people signed up to attend, they ended up joining forces with history teacher Shelly Lettington at Watchung Hills Regional High School, also in Basking Ridge, and holding it in the school’s auditorium. As a result, dozens of students were also in attendance.
Ettlinger, 88, of Rockaway has being giving talks about the Holocaust for many years and was unfazed by the turnout. “This is what people are interested in,” he said. He joked about all the added attention he gets these days from women curious about George Clooney, who starred in, cowrote, and directed the movie. “I get such wide smiles now,” Ettlinger said.
His own story is a dramatic one: He fled to the United States from Germany in 1938 with his parents and brothers, two days after a rushed bar mitzva, and just six years later was drafted into the U.S. Army and returned to Europe. (In the film, the young translator shares this biographical backstory.) But on May 8, VE Day as it happens, he barely mentioned all that. Instead he focused entirely on the Monuments Men story. “What this country did is more important than me,” he said.
What the United States did, he told the audience, was “something never done before in the history of civilization: Instead of taking the spoils of war, they put a great effort into returning them to the rightful owners.”
As a German-speaking soldier expecting to serve as a translator in the Nuremberg trials, he was chosen to join the army’s Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section, or MFAA, seeking out artworks stolen by the Nazis. “It was something to do,” he said matter-of-factly. The nearly 400 members of the MFAA ended up rescuing thousands of artworks stored in salt mines and hundreds of other hideaways by the Nazis, and cataloguing them for later restitution.
But this is still not a closed chapter, Ettlinger said. “There are still hundreds of thousands of paintings out there that were taken by organizations or individuals and that haven’t been returned to their rightful owners. In the coming years, you will see a lot of these cases coming up,” he predicted.
Asked if the movie is accurate, Ettlinger replied with a grin, “It gives the places and the general thrust of what we were trying to do; however, the rest is Hollywood.”
When one of the students asked him which of the pieces they recovered inspired him, he named a self-portrait by Rembrandt. “It was the pride and joy of the art museum in Karlsruhe, the town where I grew up,” he said, “but I never saw it. As a Jewish child, I wasn’t allowed to go in there.”
His connection with the work is, in a way, personal. Ettlinger’s grandfather had assembled a collection of prints, which he inherited. Five years ago, going through them, Ettlinger recalled, “Lo and behold, I found a print copy of the Rembrandt portrait. I have it up on the wall in my home. It isn’t worth the billions the painting is — I’ve been told it’s worth about $300 — but I wouldn’t sell it even if they offered me tens of millions of bucks for it.”
In the audience were many of the members of the Chai Center, but far more from the broader community. A number of the attendees said they had come because they had read the book or seen the movie. One of the students there said afterward, “We’ve learned a bit about the war, but it’s really amazing to hear about it like this, from someone who was actually there.”
Chai Center president Wendy Piller was thrilled with the turnout, and with the opportunity to spread word about the group’s existence. “We’re the little giant that can,” she said. She described it to the audiences as “a warm, dynamic, affordable community.”
The group was started last May by a cluster of people who decided to leave Temple Har Shalom, the Reform congregation in Warren. Talking at the Ettlinger event, the leaders chose not to discuss their reasons for leaving, focusing instead on how much they are enjoying the camaraderie and informality of the new group. They have about 65 family units now, slightly more than a year ago.
They have been meeting on Saturday mornings at a doctor’s office in Warren, but are planning to find another venue to accommodate their numbers. “People can contact us to find out where we’ll be,” Piller said.
For more information on the Chai Center for Jewish Life, contact firstname.lastname@example.org or 908-864-7788.