The fate of artworks under the Nazis — and the human stories behind their theft and restoration — will be the theme of the annual Henry Ricklis Holocaust Memorial Committee Yom HaShoa commemoration, to be held Sunday, April 19, at the Monroe Middle School.
Harry Ettlinger, one of the youngest of the World War II-era “Monuments Men” who rescued plundered art from the Nazis, will be the keynote speaker at the program, “Lost Lives, Lost Art.” The rescuers’ exploits inspired a book, a documentary, and the 2014 feature film The Monuments Men, directed by and starring George Clooney.
Ettlinger, 89, now of Rockaway, was born in Germany and came to the United States in 1938 within days of having his bar mitzva.
“It was actually the last bar mitzva in the town in which he was born,” said program chair Nina Wolff.
As a young soldier in the U.S. Army, Ettlinger was among the 400 men and women from 13 nations in the newly created Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section. Members of the MFAA — dubbed the “Monuments Men” — ended up rescuing thousands of artworks stored in salt mines and hundreds of other hideaways by the Nazis, and cataloguing them for later restitution.
What the Americans did, said Ettlinger in a previous interview with NJJN, 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.”
Also featured at the program will be a new original film by Ricklis committee president Amy Antelis about the Bloch-Bauer family and their descendants’ fight for the return of a famed painting by Gustav Klimt, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, which was confiscated by the Nazis in Vienna just prior to World War II. Their legal battle is the subject of a 2012 nonfiction book, The Lady in Gold, and the current movie The Woman in Gold. It stars Helen Mirren as Maria Altmann, who fought the Austrian government for almost a decade to reclaim the portrait of her aunt Adele.
The program will also include a candle-lighting ceremony with survivors and their relatives. Monroe resident Judith Sherman, a survivor and published author, will recite a new poem.
Naomi Miller will sing a tribute to the late Carl Lustbader, former copresident of Monroe Township Holocaust Survivors, who for many years led the singing of “The Partisans’ Song” at the commemoration. The tribute’s original lyrics were written by Joanne Howard, a friend of Lustbader’s son, David, and daughter-in-law Wendy, whose mother helped some 3,000 Czech Jews escape the Nazis by forging documents in 1939 on behalf of the Unitarian Church Society of Boston.
NJJN staff writer Elaine Durbach contributed to this article.