As a young Jewish soldier in the U.S. Army at the end of World War II, Harry Ettlinger was chosen for a unique mission. Sergeant Ettlinger, along with the other members of the Army’s Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives (MFA&A) section, were given the assignment of recovering and repatriating innumerable works of art looted by the Nazis as they ravaged Europe during the war. It is a mission that Ettlinger is still committed to today.
But Ettlinger had witnessed Nazi brutality even before he found himself in Germany as an American soldier. Ettlinger, his parents and two younger brothers had fled the country in 1938, severing family roots that extended deep into Germany’s history. They also had to give up the affluence earned by a prosperous clothing business. Coming to the United States, the family settled in Newark and Ettlinger graduated from Eastside High School before being drafted into the Army.
Ettlinger’s fluency in German led to his being selected as an interpreter for the war crimes trials ultimately held in Nuremberg. Before this assignment was finalized, however, he had the opportunity to volunteer for a very different mission — the one that involved helping to recover and repatriate works of art stolen by the Nazis from historic buildings, museums and individuals.
Ettlinger became a member of the MFA&A section. After four months in their 7th Army office, he spent ten months in charge of underground operations in salt mines at Heilbronn and Kochendorf in southern Germany. His first task was to retrieve the 73 boxes holding the stained glass windows from the cathedral in Strasbourg, France, stored among the 40,000 boxes in the mines. These were the first cultural artifacts returned, under direct orders from General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander in Europe.
More priceless art was recovered and returned, including a self-portrait by Rembrandt and even prints that had belonged to Ettlinger’s grandfather, who he says was “a minor patron of the arts.” In the course of their service, the MFA&A contingent recovered hundreds of works of art. But as Ettlinger points out, these were just a fraction of the works stolen, many of which are still unaccounted for today.
As he explored the salt mines after the Germans surrendered, Ettlinger was also forcefully struck by the preparations he saw to create underground assembly lines for jet engines — facilities that would have been operated by thousands of slave laborers. The advanced aircraft technology that the Nazis might have brought to bear against advancing Allied forces could have prolonged the war for a year or more, Ettlinger surmises. “It was very frightening to see.”
Upon his discharge in 1946, Ettlinger returned to his home city and enrolled at Newark College of Engineering to study mechanical engineering. Of his days at NCE, he says that comments he heard from several students who had transferred from MIT confirmed the high quality of education on the Newark campus.
“They complained that the work was harder at NCE,” he recalls with an amused tone.
Graduating in 1950, Ettlinger had a series of positions, beginning with a job in a bronze foundry and later at firms specializing in radar and sonar equipment. He retired from the Guidance and Navigation division of Kearfott Corporation in Wayne, New Jersey, where he was a deputy program director responsible for making sure that the company’s contracts with the Navy for missile guidance-system components were fulfilled and met the target cost.
Ettlinger retired from Kearfott some twenty years ago. Since then, he has been an active member of the Jewish War Veterans and the Wallenberg Foundation of New Jersey, named for the Swedish diplomat who inspired others to help him rescue 100,000 Hungarian Jews from the Holocaust.
Ettlinger has also spoken many times before groups in New Jersey and elsewhere about his wartime experiences and the greater meaning of his wartime MFA&A work. In recent years, the MFA&A section and Ettlinger’s role have received wide attention through the efforts of philanthropist Robert Edsel, author of The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History and Rescuing Da Vinci. Edsel also established the Monuments Foundation for the Preservation of Art, dedicated to the legacy of the men and women who served in the MFA&A section. In 2007, this legacy was honored in a special way when President George W. Bush presented the foundation with the National Humanities Medal at a ceremony attended by Ettlinger and three other surviving “Monuments Men.”
“It was unprecedented in history,” Ettlinger says of the MFA&A effort. “We were part of a victorious army, but we didn’t loot or seek revenge against innocent people. We did our best to return priceless works of art to their rightful owners, to individuals, for institutions and for civilization.”
While much of the art looted by the Nazis has yet to be found, others have taken up the search. It may be with less frequency than Ettlinger would like to see, but pieces acquired in the chaotic days after the war by museums and individuals are being identified and magnanimously returned to the heirs of those from whom they were stolen. “It’s great that this is still happening,” Ettlinger says.