By Laura Rlgge
Harry Ettlinger has seen a lot in his 89 years.
Ettlinger was born into a Jewish family in Germany in 1926. He and his family personally witnessed the rise of Hitler and the National Socialist Party, before fleeing Germany the day after Ettlinger' s bar mitzvah in 1938. Just six years later, he was drafted into the U.S. Army when he was 18 years old.
Eventually, Ettlinger was assigned to the Monuments Men, a unit tasked with locating and recovering the Nazis' prodigious haul of art and other culturally significant items that had been systematically looted from churches, synagogues, museums and private collections of Holocaust victims. He served as an interpreter thanks to his fluency in German.
Now the last living member of this elite unit, Ettlinger will share his story on Oct. 18 at the JCC. The interactive lunch is sponsored by the Jewish War Veterans, the Jewish Community Center and the Jewish Federation and is free and open to the public.
Ettlinger spent much of his time in the unit overseeing the underground operations at the Nazi repository in the Heilbronn-Kochendorf salt mines. The underground mines had been utilized by the Nazis to protect German museum treasures as well as for the building of jet engine parts by Hungarian Jewish slave laborers from concentration camps.
The Strasbourg windows were the first thing they sent back. "That was on orders from Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower as a gesture of good faith," Ettlinger said. The stained glass had been removed from the windows by French authorities for safekeeping at the onset of the war and later sent to Heilbronn by the Nazis. The windows alone required 73 shipments to be safely returned to their rightful owners. In all, it took 10 months and five shipments, including one to Paris, to empty the mines of some 900 works of art. Most of the treasures later went back to their German institutions.
While many of the Monuments Men were trained art historians, Ettlinger, while brought up to appreciate art, had no plans to go into the field professionally. "I was just the kid from New Jersey. To tell you the truth, I wasn't as interested in the paintings as I was in other things over there," he said.
Following the war, Ettlinger went home to Newark, New Jersey and later to Long Island, New York. There he earned master's degrees in mechanical engineering and business administration before becoming deputy program director for a company that produced guidance systems for submarine-launched nuclear weapons. Today he lives in Rockaway Park, New York and continues to educate young people about the power of a single person's actions to positively affect society as a co-chair of the Wallenberg Society of New Jersey.
In November 2012, Ettlinger accepted an award from the American Jewish Historical Society on behalf of all the Monuments Men. He is proud of the work he and his unit accomplished during the war. "It makes me feel good that I did something of value for the rest of the world," Ettlinger said.
The Monuments Men recently came into national prominence when they were the subject of a 2014 movie of the same name starring George Cooney and Matt Damon. In the movie, British actor Dimitri Leonidas portrays the character Sam Epstein, who was based on Ettlinger.