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Soldier restores artwork, 1 ‘monumental’ piece at a time

By Lt. Col. Sean J. Ryan | 1ST INF. DIV. PUBLIC AFFAIRS | June 11, 2014

The last thing 88-year old and former Sgt. Harry Ettlinger said he thought he would be doing in his twilight years was jet setting around the world attending movie premieres with Hollywood stars like George Clooney, Bill Murray and Matt Damon. Yet there he stood, center stage, in Berlin, Milan and London, helping promote a movie based off author Robert Edsel’s book, “The Monuments Men.”

The men were a group who helped preserve the world’s most cherished cultural goods throughout Europe during World War II.

In 1938, Ettlinger of Rockaway Township, New Jersey, had to flee Karlsruhe, Germany – the home where he was born and raised. Despite his family being affluent and influential within the Jewish community, they were forced to relocate or face the same predicament many Jewish families suffered throughout Europe.

Ettlinger, his parents and two brothers managed to obtain visas on the last day the consulate in Stuttgart was accepting them. The family escaped Germany in September 1938, after taking a long boat ride through Switzerland. They settled in Newark, New Jersey, and upon graduating from high school, Ettlinger found himself drafted like millions of other young men.

It was 1944 and 19-year old Pvt. Ettlinger just finished his military training with eight buddies. He officially became an American after receiving his citizenship and was going back to Germany as a Soldier to fight against a country he left only years earlier.

Ettlinger was headed to the 99th Infantry Division, but was mired in a hurry-up-and-wait status with no definitive orders. He spent countless days “doing nothing, but I made up my mind on the boat ride to the U.S. that I was going to become an American, and I never really thought about going back to Germany because everything I had known before was gone.”

Tired of waiting, he ended up volunteering to help then-1st Lt. James Rorimer translate documents from German to English. Rorimer, who would later become curator at the Metropolitan Museum, was portrayed by Matt Damon in the movie.

The 99th Inf. Div., unbeknownst to Ettlinger, was destined for duty at the Battle of the Bulge and would fight in the same area of operation as the 1st Infantry Division.

However, Ettlinger was pulled off the bus with all of his gear at the last second. His unit would go on and fight without him, and he would go help translate important documents. Out of the eight friends he trained with, three would give the ultimate sacrifice, while four others were wounded during the battle in the Ardennes region of Belgium.

The last-second change in duty would forever change Ettlinger’s life, and he became an unsung hero to millions of art lovers, past and future, despite living most of his adult life in relative obscurity as a mechanical engineer. His unofficial duty during the war was to join the group called the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives, which was tasked to save millions of the world’s most precious art and other cultural treasures from the Nazis.

“Being a part of this history is unique because instead of taking on the spoils of war, we returned thousands of works of art to the people who created and owned them,” Ettlinger said. “This is the only time in civilization that this has happened, and it is very unusual. You do a job which feels good when you do the right thing, and I’m very comfortable having done that.”

The group consisted of about 345 art historians, professors, Soldiers and Sailors from 13 countries and included 225 Americans. Despite the systematic looting and years of war, the group returned more than 5 million pieces of work to past owners.

Ettlinger is the last surviving member of the MFAA and one of the few Soldiers who has accomplished more without a weapon, than those heroes we celebrate with weapons.
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