Harry Ettlinger, a Holocaust survivor and World War II veteran of the United States Army, will be honored Nov. 1 by the American Jewish Historical Society for his role in the rescue and preservation of art looted by the Nazis.
Ettlinger was one of 350 American “Monuments Men” who helped preserve confiscated European art treasures, ranging from priceless stained glass stripped from cathedrals to Old Masters paintings seized from Jewish owners.
He will receive the society’s 2012 Emma Lazarus Statue of Liberty Award.
“We are honoring Harry as an individual who was there in the thick of things and whose life is exemplary. He is a survivor of a cohort who did something remarkable that has not yet been adequately recognized,” said society executive director Jonathan Karp.
Ettlinger, a resident of Roxbury, escaped as a child from Germany to the United States in 1938. Six years later, as an American soldier, he was about to be deployed to the bloody Battle of the Bulge. But because he was fluent in German, the army reassigned him to a special unit called the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Section. Its members were tasked with collecting and protecting cultural treasures in the European war zones.
“The Nazis were taking art from anyplace they could find,” Ettlinger told NJ Jewish News. “They murdered Holocaust victims and took their belongings. They took from museums. They raided everything in France.” Art experts estimate that the Nazis looted artwork worth tens of millions of dollars.
Ettlinger’s contributions to the rescue effort were made deep inside a salt mine in Heilbronn, Germany, where thousands of pieces of art were buried deep in the ground by the slave labor of Hungarian Jews.
“Harry helped to excavate some of the most important works of art, including the stained-glass windows from the Roman Catholic Cathedral at Strasbourg,” said Karp in an Oct. 10 phone interview. “It had never been done in a major war before,” he said. “The values it reflects are important for any minority groups who are victims of ethnic cleansing or whose culture is under siege or threatened by destruction.”
The unit’s exploits were chronicled in Lynn H. Nicholas’s book The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe’s Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War and a documentary film based on it.
“Over the years I began to realize what a great impact we had,” Ettlinger told NJJN. “The concept was that instead of taking, we gave back the spoils of war. It was very, very unusual.”
One man who had a major role in returning confiscated treasures was the late Capt. Seymour Pomrenze, a commander of the Monuments Men who will be honored posthumously with the society’s Legacy Award alongside Ettlinger.
“Naturally I am happy with my award, but he really deserves it,” Ettlinger said.
The two men had never met until a White House ceremony honored the Monuments Men in 2007.
Pomrenze, a career U.S. Army officer who died in 2011, was an Orthodox Jew who became the army’s chief archivist.
He was in charge of the Offenbach Depot in Germany, a repository for nearly two million books stolen by the Nazis from Jews, trade unions, Masonic temples, and Communist Party offices. “His Herculean task was to create order out of this chaos of books so they could be returned to their places of origin,” said Karp.
When it came to artifacts originally owned by Jews, Pomrenze insisted they be placed with Jewish institutions, rather than given to the anti-Semitic governments that had collaborated in the Nazi genocide.
“Pomrenze concentrated on archives and Judaica,” Ettlinger said. “Among the items recovered were 800 Torah scrolls from Czechoslovakia that were stored at Offenbach, and he saw to it that they were sent to Israel after the war.”
After retiring from the Army in 1976, Pomrenze established methods of record-keeping that were adopted by major Jewish organizations, including the American Jewish Committee, the Jewish Welfare Board, and UJA-Federation of New York.
“The Monuments Men’s ultimate contribution was establishing a precedent for how art and artifacts and cultural treasures have to be protected and preserved amid conflict,” said Karp.
But 68 years after his military service Ettlinger still has one regret.
“There are probably about 750,000 items still out there that we never recovered,” he estimated. “Half the stuff stolen by the Nazis is still out there, or destroyed.”
Ettlinger is now retired as a deputy program director for a division of the Singer Sewing Company that produced guidance systems for submarine-launched nuclear weapons. He remains active in the Jewish community as chair of the Wallenberg Foundation of New Jersey and a volunteer with the Holocaust Council of Greater MetroWest. He considers his assignment as a Monuments Man to be “probably the most profound job that I ever had.”
“From my personal viewpoint, we ought to preserve the cultures of all the people in the world,” he told NJJN when he received a citation from Congress in 2007. “Culture is important. Human beings don’t just come along and live in a wild forest. It brings back a sense of value to our lives as human beings to be around things created by other human beings.”