Harry Ettlinger, the only survivor of the original handful of Monuments Men assigned by the U.S. army in 1943 to hunt for Nazi-looted artwork and help return it to its owners, is once again helping families reunite with their prized art collections.
Ettlinger, 88, who this week is in Berlin for a screening of the movie “The Monuments Men,” based on their work, met in his New Jersey home last week with Mel Urbach, a Manhattan lawyer who represents individuals trying to recover their family’s Nazi-looted art treasurers.
“He is very supportive of our restitution work,” Urbach told The Jewish Week. “He said we are continuing the work they started during the war, and that tainted art has to be returned.”
Urbach said he spent more than an hour with Ettlinger and plans to meet with him again.
“He has a great deal of information that will be useful to us. It is always good to hear the workings of the Monuments Men so we can get the hard facts.”
Urbach said that although Ettlinger worked primarily on the recovery of artwork stolen by the Nazis from museums and other public institutions, “I am interested in learning about the overall [recovery] process and what the other Monuments Men found. …
"As the movie makes clear, there were thousands of items waiting to be returned [at the end of the war]. In Germany today there is hardly any major museum or private collection that does not have some tainted items as a result of 12 years of looting by the Nazis.”
Urbach is one of several lawyers trying to reclaim looted artwork. The World Jewish Congress has proposed that Germany establish a commission that would proactively examine all public art collections to locate looted works and return them to their rightful owners.
Most of the art the Monuments Men recovered were unable to be returned to their rightful owners because they could not be found or it was not possible to learn their identity. As a result, the art was returned to the countries from which it was looted, based upon the meticulous records the Nazis kept.
“Harry said that in the movie the art the Nazis kept in salt mines looked disorganized,” Urbach said. “But in reality the Nazis were very structured. The looted art was organized in an orderly fashion — it was marked and catalogued; they were very diligent.”
Although the movie focuses on the work of the team of Monuments Men, which swelled to 350 after the end of the war, it doesn’t address the furor their creation in June 1943 ignited among those concerned about the fate of European Jews.
New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia put it this way in Congressional testimony Nov. 24, 1943, five months after the creation of the team: “This very important problem [of rescuing Jewish refugees]…is not like the destruction of buildings or monuments, as terrible as that may be, because, after all, they may be rebuilt or even reproduced; but when a life is snuffed out, it is gone; it is gone forever.”
Rafael Medoff, director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies in Washington, D.C., pointed out that the Roosevelt administration’s creation of the Monuments Men caught many by surprise. He noted that throughout the spring of 1943, “Jewish groups were urging creation of a government commission to rescue Jews, and the Roosevelt administration kept saying it couldn’t divert any resources to help refugees. Then suddenly in June, the president turned around and created a special commission to rescue historic monuments and paintings. Jewish groups weren’t against saving the paintings — they were just puzzled by the administration’s priorities.”
A group of activists formed the Bergson Group that took out ads in the New York Times questioning the Roosevelt administration’s priorities. It called “commendable” the effort to save European treasures of art, saying it “shows the deep concern of the United Nations governments toward the problems of culture and civilization. But should it not at least show equal concern for an old and ancient people who gave to the world the fundamentals of its Christian civilizations …. A government agency with the task of dealing with the problems of saving the Jewish people of Europe is the least the United Nations can do.”
“What less could be done for a whole people in agony and torture than to appoint a few men, with compassion in their hearts and knowledge and experience, for the task of saving countless human lives,” it added.
The Bergson Group also organized a group of 400 primarily Orthodox rabbis who marched to the White House on Oct. 6, 1943, to ask that American and Allied forces stop the destruction of European Jewry. Vice President Henry Wallace met them, but President Franklin D. Roosevelt ducked out a back door for another event, reportedly on the advice of several prominent American Jews and Jewish advisers who feared a meeting would generate anti-Semitism.
But the rabbis’ march and the perceived snub by Roosevelt received wide publicity, and Medoff said “pressure from the congressional hearings, the newspaper ads, the rabbis’ march, behind the scenes lobbying by the Treasury Department, and other protests eventually compelled the Roosevelt administration to belatedly take some steps to aid Jews fleeing from the Holocaust.”
It did that on Jan. 22, 1944, with the creation of the War Refugee Board, tasked with the “immediate rescue and relief of the Jews of Europe and other victims of enemy persecution.”
After the war, its first director, John Pehle, described the board as “little and late.” It was, however, credited with saving as many as 200,000 Jews. Medoff noted that Roosevelt created the board just days before the Senate was to vote on a resolution calling for the establishment of such a body.
“Consider this irony: the Roosevelt administration agreed to divert military resources and personnel to rescue paintings by Chagall —but when Chagall himself had tried to get a visa to go from Vichy France to the United States a few years earlier, the U.S. stalled on his request and he almost didn’t get out,” Medoff said. “In fact, Varian Fry, who organized Chagall’s rescue, was forced to cut short his life-saving mission in France because the Roosevelt administration canceled his passport after the Nazis and Vichy France complained about Fry’s activities. If the administration had shown as much interest in saving refugees like Chagall as it showed in saving Chagall’s paintings, many more innocent Jews could have been rescued.”
The Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art, opened last week an exhibit that displays the archival documents that created the Monuments Men, officially designated by Roosevelt as the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Section. But it too deals with art rescue only and not the controversy it sparked.
A spokesman for the museum, Linda St. Thomas, said the museum is “well aware” of the historical context in which Roosevelt created the Monuments Men. But she said the exhibit will be in a “small gallery” that will contain “just documents that relate to the creation of this rescue effort.”
“Its focus is very narrow,” she said. “It’s not a history exhibit.”
Urbach noted that the movie “The Monuments Men” asks the question whether saving all that artwork was worth the lives of the two Monuments Men killed during the war (one by small arms fire and the other in an explosion). He said the question could also have been asked whether a similar team should not have been created to bomb the rail lines to save other Jews from extermination.
“I would say save one life and forget about the artwork,” he said.