At the age of 88, Harry Ettlinger is achieving more than 15 minutes of fame for work he did as an American soldier in World War II.
Ettlinger, a Jewish refuge from Nazi Germany, was one of 350 “Monuments Men” who helped recover and restore works of art stolen by Hitler’s troops and stashed away in caves and mines.
Now, the Rockaway resident and the few other surviving Monuments Men (which included some women) have been officially recognized by Congress and the White House.
President Barack Obama recently signed a bill approving a Congressional Gold Medal for them. Ettlinger and the other survivors will receive certificates saluting their work. The story of the Monuments Men was retold earlier this year in a film directed, cowritten by and starring George Clooney. Ever since Monuments Men was released in February, featuring a character loosely based on the teenage Ettlinger, he has become somewhat of a celebrity — making public appearances along with screenings of the film.
After one such program — held June 19 at the Aidekman Family Jewish Community Campus in Whippany — he told NJ Jewish News that while he is not necessarily looking forward to a formal ceremony in Washington, he is “highly thankful and appreciative that members of Congress made this happen.”
One prime mover was Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), who presented Ettlinger with a personal citation in December 2013, praising him and his compatriots for being “instrumental in safeguarding innumerable works of art that might have disappeared or been destroyed during World War II and in its aftermath.”
Ettlinger said he expects to make more public appearances at future screenings of the film.
“I have already seen it three times and the more I see it the better I like it,” he said. “There is a good deal of Hollywood in it, but it gives the general public the opportunity to see and hear something that we did in the name of our country and its allies in World War II.”
To Ettlinger, there is an important lesson to be learned from the work of the Monuments Men.
“We have to respect each others’ cultures, which is something Hitler did not,” he said. “Hitler wiped out cultures. We need works of art in order to lead more blessed lives.”
According to Menendez’s office, no date has been set for presenting the citations to Ettlinger and the other Monuments Men.