WARREN, NJ - Watchung Hills Regional High School students, teachers and community members warmly welcomed guest speaker, 88-year-old Harry Ettlinger, World War II veteran and one of the few remaining Monuments Men, on Thursday, May 8, on the 69th anniversary of V-E Day.
V-E Day or Victory in Europe Day, was the public holiday celebrated on May 8, 1945 and marked the acceptance by the Allies of Nazi Germany's unconditional surrender of its armed forces thus ending the War in Europe. On April 30, Adolf Hitler committed suicide during the Battle of Berlin. Germany's surrender, therefore, was authorized by his successor, Reichspräsident Karl Dönitz. The act of military surrender was signed on May 7 in Reims, France and on May 8 in Berlin, Germany.
The evening was co-sponsored by Chai Center for Jewish Life and the Watchung Hills Regional High School History Department.
Ettlinger, along with many other men and women, worked to find thousands of stolen works of art during WWII and return them to their rightful owners. Ettlinger had no prior experience with the arts. However, he was essential to the team because he was the only member who could speak fluent German.
Ettlinger's family originally came from Germany, however they fled the country six weeks before Kristallnacht due to the persecution of Jewish citizens. Ettlinger's family turned in applications for American visas on the last day they were being accepted. Ettlinger joined the Army after he graduated from high school, in Newark. At 19, while he was in a truck heading to Belgium, a sergeant ordered him off the truck.
Ettlinger had been selected to be a translator at the trials at Nuremberg.
But first, he went to Munich and ended up volunteering his services to an American who needed help decoding German documents.
That American was James Rorimer, who went on to become a curator at the Metropolitan Museum.
Hitler had been amassing art stolen from Jews for a Führermuseum. Rorimer became one of the three hundred and forty-five people, from thirteen countries, who tracked down and returned more than five million looted art objects. Ettlinger joined them.
Ettlinger spoke to the full house about his experiences, and he detailed his help in returning thousands of pieces of art found in mines across Germany.
The Nazis stored art, sculpture, tapestries, and other valuables plundered from state museums and private collections in salt mines and castles throughout Germany and Austria.
“I was helpful in two salt mines, to see to it that nine hundred boxes out of forty thousand boxes were returned to the rightful owner outside of Germany,” he said.
Ettlinger explained the reasoning why the Nazis stored their treasures in salt mines.
Due to their clean atmospheres, it was the ideal place for acclaimed artwork.
Ettlinger found and sent the stained-glass windows of Strasbourg Cathedral, in seventy-three crates, back to Alsace. Elsewhere in the mines, he found nitroglycerine which the Nazis planned to use to blow up the mine. He said that, before he left Germany, “I got some miners to blow it up top."
Although Ettlinger himself had not been involved in returning private belongings, after returning home from war, he found out various privately owned artwork had been given back. Members of the audience thanked him for the return of some of their own family treasures.
Ettlinger said,“I am glad that finally you can hear about the mission."
Based on the 2009 book of the same name, “The Monuments Men” movie stars George Clooney, Matt Damon, John Goodman and Bill Murray as a team of dedicated art lovers and soldiers out to prevent historic works from becoming history. Ettlinger's character is renamed Sam Epstein and portrayed by England’s Dimitri Leonidas.
As a boy in Karlsruhe, Ettlinger said, he had wanted to see theRembrandt self-portrait that is the city’s pride and joy.
But being Jewish, had not been able to visit as a child. His grandfather got a print instead. During the war, Ettlinger recovered the print from the Nazis and his grandfather’s copy now hangs in his living room in New Jersey.
After Ettlinger told his story, he received a standing ovation from the audience. Following the main speaking event, audience members had the opportunity to speak with Ettlinger on their own, and get their "Monuments Men" book signed by a real-life Monuments Man.
Chai Center is a new community formed to provide an affordable center for multi-generational learning, celebration, and worship. The Center is not affiliated with any Jewish movement, but is progressive and egalitarian in its approach to Judaism. Additional information on Chai Center may be found on the website, http://www.chaicenternj.org