U.S. Col. Seymour Pomrenze received his basic training in a Ukrainian village, while still a child (then known as Sholom Ben-Yaakov). All the little children knew: If a siddur falls, you kiss it. If you see a Torah, you kiss it. If it falls, it is a calamity, the congregation must fast, and then you kiss it. Imagine, then, how much Sholom must have wanted to kiss his father when his father was falling, murdered by thugs rampaging through the town on a pogrom, when the boy was 3 or 4. Imagine the fallen books, the upended shelves, the broken hearts.
The orphaned 5-year-old was sent to America around 1921, and some 20 years later, he was back in Europe, wearing G.I. khaki.
In February 1946, through a blinding German snowstorm, an army vehicle, its windshield wipers flapping, carried Major Pomrenze (he was not yet a colonel) from Stuttgart to his newest assignment: overseeing an Offenbach warehouse that had most recently been used by I.G. Farben, the chemical company that benefited from Jewish slave labor and helped make the Zyklon B pellets that were dropped into gas chambers.
The major walked into the haunted warehouse and “I felt faint,” he told Adele Tauber, an oral historian. “In one corner I saw Torah scrolls piled in huge heaps, one on top of the other, some on the ground and some on makeshift shelves,” books in and out of crates, hundreds of thousands of books, many Jewish, many holy. “In my mind’s eye, I envisioned the Nazis breaking into synagogues and Jewish homes, murdering the families and stealing the objects lying before me. I was stunned … I wanted to cry.”
From the Nazis, the Allies had captured 100,000 photographs, shofars, candelabras, knives for kosher slaughter, menorahs, megillot, silver Torah ornaments, Eternal Light containers, knives for circumcisions, replicas of the Ten Commandments, tefillin, Passover seder plates, literally millions of objects. Pomrenze had only six people to help him organize it, but he soon commandeered almost 200 more, putting local Germans to work, as Gen. Dwight Eisenhower had ordered local Germans be put to work cleaning up Dachau.
“Good working conditions were essential,” the colonel later told Tauber, “so we fixed up the warehouse and made it a desirable place to work. We fixed the windows, cleaned the floors, and I installed an American flag.” As he walked by, German children would greet him, “Jawohl, jawohl,” German for “yes indeed.”
“You see,” said Pomrenze, “they knew who was boss.”
He created a methodology to deal with these treasures and their restitution. More than three million volumes were eventually returned to their owners, if they survived, or to the nation of origin. Not wanting to send the Jewish books into the black hole of post-Holocaust communities, Pomrenze made certain the Jewish properties were distributed directly to Jewish groups, such as a library to a Spanish-Portuguese synagogue in Amsterdam; or to YIVO, which had relocated from Vilna to New York; or to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which delivered books and materials for use in the Displaced Persons camps.
Pomrenze had become one of the “Monuments Men.” If you think the name implies men with strength and integrity as immovable as granite, you wouldn’t be wrong, but that’s not the half of it. In fact, the Monuments Men were a few hundred Allied soldiers assigned to the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Section of the Western District’s Seventh Army, a unit established in 1943 to protect cultural property during the war. After the war, the unit turned its focus to salvaging the remnants of art, libraries and religion that had somehow survived the Nazi assault.
Some of the men, such as Pomrenze were trained as archivists; others had significant experience in the art world, such as Lt. Commander James Rorimer, who before the war was a curator at the Cloisters, in upper Manhattan, responsible for obtaining one of the museum’s signature exhibits, the Unicorn Tapestries.
While the Nazi book burnings are well known, these bonfires were actually infrequent and used more for their satanic theatrics and intimidation than as a systematic way to dispose of Jewish and other “degenerate” examples of civilization. By 1939, for reasons known only to the Nazis, the book burnings were replaced by what seemed like concentration camps for art and artifacts. The Nazis imprisoned their vast plunder, hiding the materials (often behind booby-trapped explosives) in salt mines, caves, castles and brickyards.
The best art went straight to the personal collections of upper-tier Nazis, such as Josef Goebbels and Herman Goering.
The Monuments Men have been getting some long overdue honor, in recent years. In 2007, two of the men, Pomrenze and Henry Ettlinger, were honored at the White House by President George W. Bush with the National Humanities Medal, the nation’s highest honor for work in the humanities. Also honored was Robert M. Edsel, president and founder of the Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art. Edsel is also the author of “The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History.” The Monuments Men operated until 1951, five million objects later, but their work is still used for the restitution of stolen art to this day.
Col. Pomrenze died in 2011, but he (through his family) and Ettlinger will be honored Nov. 1 at the American Jewish Historical Society’s Emma Lazarus Dinner at the Center for Jewish History. For those who prefer popcorn, George Clooney is in Europe now, co-writing and starring in a movie about the Monuments Men, based on Edsel’s book.
Like Pomrenze, Ettlinger was a refugee; his family escaped from Germany the day after his bar mitzvah. He was pivotal in the recovery of the famed stained-glass windows of the Strasbourg Cathedral. Edsel, writing in Heritage, the magazine of the American Jewish Historical Society, reports that Ettlinger was among those who helped recapture, from a Bavarian castle, 20,000 paintings stolen from Jewish collectors and French families.
Jonathan Karp, executive director of the American Jewish Historical Society, says, the Monuments Men are “an amazing story and almost nobody ever heard of them. It sounds like hyperbole, but even aside [from the Jewish artifacts], in a sense they rescued Western civilization. They protected great works of art from destruction, did the detective work to discover where the Nazis hid cultural treasures, some intended for destruction. This was maybe the only time in a war when to the victors did not belong the spoils. Everything was to be returned. Discovery and restoration is still going on, but the principle was established in 1945-46.”
Pomrenze retired from the army in 1976, after serving as an army archivist during the Vietnam War. In retirement, he worked as an archivist and consultant to organizations such as UJA-Federation of New York, HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) and the Jewish Community Centers Association.
For Pomrenze, said his son Jay from Israel, his work “was more than a job, it was his heritage.” His posting as a Monuments Man “was a fusing of his identities, being Orthodox, being an American. He didn’t have artificial divisions; these identities were as one.”