Monday, February 11, 2008

Rescuer of art stolen by Nazis to speak at JCC

Published February 8, 2008 in Volume 64, Issue 3 of the Arizona Jewish Post

U.S. Army Capt. James Rorimer oversees removal of looted art from Neuschwanstein Castle in southern Germany.

Harry Ettlinger, a member of the team assigned to recover art plundered by the Nazis, will speak at two showings of the film The Rape of Europa during the Tucson Jewish Film Festival on Sunday, Feb. 10, at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. at the Tucson Jewish Community Center.

At age 19, Ettlinger and 2,500 other men of the 99th Infantry Division were on their way to the bloody Battle of the Bulge when he and two others were stopped and ordered off the convoy. Though he didn't know it at the time, Ettlinger was about to become part of a historic effort to rescue cultural treasures stolen by the Nazis. Born in Germany, Ettlinger had fled to the United States with his family in 1938. Because of his fluency in German, the army sent him to Munich to begin an assignment as a translator. "This was of great significance to me and my life," Ettlinger told the AJP, "in light of the fact that there were eight buddies of mine that I had trained with, three of which were killed in action and five of which were wounded. I was spared that sacrifice."

During his assignment, Ettlinger met Capt. James Rorimer, the head of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Section of the Western District's Seventh Army. Rorimer took the young soldier under his wing, making him one of 350 men and women charged with protecting the artistic and cultural treasures of Europe. Ultimately, the group--who came to be known as the Monuments Men--recovered more than five million items, about one-fifth of Europe's art.

In the summer of 1945, Ettlinger was given the task of recovering 900 pieces of stolen art stashed in salt mines at Heilbronn, just 70 miles from his childhood home. The mission had been made possible by French art historian and museum overseer Rose Valland, who secretly recorded information about plundered artworks circulating through the Jeu de Paume museum, which the Nazis used as a collection point for looted items. In the summer of 1944, after the invasion of Normandy, she brought the mine activities to Rorimer's attention, prompting him to ensure that the mines were protected and the artworks restored. "She was a great heroine," says Ettlinger.

Among the works found in the mines were a prized self-portrait by Rembrandt and musical instruments such as the rare eight-stringed viola d'amour, but for Ettlinger, one of the most memorable discoveries was the "Stuppach Madonna" by the 16th century painter Matthias Gruenwald. Rorimer, who later became director of the Metropolitan Museum in New York, sought to buy the painting from the Stuppach church to which it belonged for $2 million, but the church turned down the offer.

The mines hid more than cultural artifacts. They had also housed underground factories manned by Hungarian Jewish slave labor. "They were going to go into production building jet engines," says Ettlinger. "If they had been successful, they would have lengthened the war by a year or two" by enabling the Germans to shoot down American planes making advances into Germany. In April 1945, shortly before American troops reached Heilbronn, the 500 to 1,000 slave laborers were shipped to Dachau. Most froze to death along the way.

The story of the Monuments Men entered the public spotlight with the publication of Rescuing Da Vinci, a photographic and historical volume written by former oilman Robert Edsel. In January 2007, Edsel worked with Rep. Kay Granger of Fort Worth, Texas, to introduce House Resolution 48, honoring the Monuments Men. On June 6, 2007, the 63rd anniversary of D-Day, the Senate passed the similar Resolution 223, sponsored by Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma and Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts. The Rape of Europa film, co-written by Edsel and Lynn H. Nicholas, author of a book by the same name, tells the story of the massive theft, recovery and survival of European art during the war.

Ettlinger, now 82, has served as deputy director of a division of the Singer Sewing Company that produced guidance systems for submarine-launched nuclear weapons. His WWII experiences inspired him to participate in Holocaust education and he is co-chair of the Wallenberg Foundation of New Jersey, which promotes the ideals of Holocaust rescuer Raoul Wallenberg.

"The cultural significance of what we did was very unique in the history of civilization," says Ettlinger. "We were the first country in the history of civilization that, in lieu of taking the spoils of war, did not take it. Our mission was to bring culture back to Europe."

Tickets are $8 for adults and $6 for students, seniors and JCC members. For more information call 299-3000, ext. 200, or go to

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