Harry Ettlinger recounts his days as a WWII ‘Monuments Man’
In the new movie The Monuments Men, his character is named Sam Epstein. In real life, he is Harry Ettlinger, a German Jew whose family escaped Nazi Germany in the late 1930s.
On Friday the Morris County freeholders honored Harry, who is 88 and lives in Rockaway Township, for his role in one of the most unusual Army missions of World War II.
“What we did during that particular period was unique, and something that every American should be proud of,” Harry said. “We returned stolen works of art.”
His translation skills landed him with the so-called Monuments Men, a group of 350 soldiers, artists, curators and historians from 13 countries dedicated to recovering art treasures plundered by the Nazis.
Harry received the National Humanities Medal from President George W. Bush in 2007, and soon the veteran will be getting a Congressional Gold Medal, too, announced Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ).
The Monuments Men who rescued Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper, Michelangelo’s David, and other treasures are “truly heroes, who did their duty, and saved our cultural heritage … We owe them our thanks, and the world owes them a debt of gratitude,” Sen. Menendez said.
Ten veterans also were honored on Friday with Morris County’s Distinguished Service Awards Medal. They were: Sean P. Abrusci, Marines; Brandon Ashby, Army; Kimberley Ike, Army; Charles E. Johnson, Navy; Eric Kowal, Marines; Luis Maldonado, Army; Frank Misurelli, Air Force; Mario Monaco, Marines; Dwight David Eisenhower Wallace, Army; and Ron Wenzel, Coast Guard.
Harry gave the keynote talk at the freeholders’ annual Memorial Day observance in Morristown. Gesturing at his head, he joked: “I am at that particular age where this thing isn’t working 100 percent!”
But some things are seared into his memory.
Harry’s assignment with the Monuments Men spared him a trip to the bloody Battle of the Bulge. Three of his buddies from infantry training were not so lucky.
The first one killed in action, Harry said, was Frankie Polito, “the smallest guy in my squad.”
He gave his life “to make sure that we have the kind of freedoms that do not exist in other countries, that we have the kind of life that is not possible in other countries.”
For Harry, that life would include a mechanical engineering degree on the G.I. Bill, three children and four grandchildren.
Despite his awards, Harry is not prone to boasting about his military service, according to Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-11th Dist.). The congressman said he has known Harry for decades, “but in his modesty, he never told me of his exploits.”
As a buck private, Harry literally was sent to the salt mines–a pair of German mines where 40,000 cases of looted art were hidden. Harry said he helped load 900 of those cases onto railroad cars for their return to places like the Strasbourg cathedral, which was reunited with its stained glass windows.
Modesty aside, Harry clearly is proud of his adopted homeland and the ideals reflected by the Monuments Men.
“Unlike in the past, when countries came along and conquered other people and other cultures and took their spoils with them, this country and its allies adopted a different policy: Find it and return it to their rightful owners. The first time in the history of civilization. And regrettably, the only time,” he said.
There is one personal exploit that Harry delights in sharing.
During his last days in Germany, in a mine, he found fireworks intended for Hitler’s victory celebration.
“I saw to it that we had fireworks, at the Fourth of July 1946–in Heilbronn, Germany.”