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
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
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
“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.