WASHINGTON – The art was stolen,or about to be,but U.S. soldiers got there first,swiping and saving 10 million works of art from Nazis during World War II.
Known as “Monument Men,” they stopped the greatest theft in history.
On Capitol Hill Wednesday,one of 13 known surviving Monument Men joined Rep. Kay Granger,R-Texas,as she introduced a resolution to honor them.
“To give is more rewarding than to take,” said Harry Ettlinger,80,of Rockaway,N.J.,who was drafted into the Army and worked for the War Department's fine art and archive section.
Ettlinger,80,whose Jewish family fled Germany in 1938,worked to locate and store art,from paintings to church bells. He worked on more than 900 cases during World War II.
Granger said she is glad to have gotten the resolution going,”which I think is overdue,but not too late.”
In 1939,European museum directors and local volunteers emptied the Louvre Museum in Paris and other museums,hiding their treasures in castles and other buildings in small towns before invading Germans could loot them. Near the end of the war,Ettlinger and others went into Germany to find artworks that had been stolen.
The sergeant kept safe artworks including Rembrandt's 1650 “Self Portrait” while it was stored in the Heilbronn salt mine in Southern Germany.
The Heilbronn mine took 10 months to empty. Ettlinger accompanied the final shipment of artworks on a train to Paris.
“Everything which was underground was in good condition,” Ettlinger said.
He worked with the 400 other Monument Men – and women – from 15 different countries. Other soldiers gave the unit its nickname because of the work it did.
Museum directors were also involved,including those of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York,the Cleveland Museum of Art,the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City,Mo.,the Legion of Honor in San Francisco and the National Gallery of Art in Washington.
Ettlinger and other Monument Men were able to stop the Allied nighttime bombings in the center of Cologne,Germany,to preserve the city's Gothic cathedrals,including the Rhine Cathedral.
Their work also took place in the U.S. during the war. One week after Pearl Harbor,71 paintings were moved from the National Gallery of Art to the Biltmore Estate in Asheville,N.C.,for protection in case the U.S. capital was bombed.
“The officers issued a manifesto that said,‘To the victors do not go the spoils of war,'” he said. “We are here to make it a better world.”
After the war,artwork stored by museums in the U.S. was returned to countries of ownership,including Holland,Belgium and France.
Robert Edsel,author of “Rescuing Da Vinci,” a book of pictures that shows the work of the Monument Men,said Congress and the museum directors should recognize he Monument Men's preservation efforts.
“They have at their roots the work of these men and women,” Edsel said. “He's [Ettlinger] the hero that changed the course of civilization.”