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Ettlinger, a German Jew whose family fled to the United States to escape the Nazis, is one of the few surviving Monuments Men who can recall the chaotic process of tracking down and returning millions of pieces of Nazi-confiscated art.
With about 350 people working over six years, the assignment was impossible to complete by the time the Monuments Men were called back in 1951, Ettlinger said.
Many, including his boss, Senior Monuments officer Lieutenant Commander Jim Rorimer, (played by Matt Damon in the upcoming movie) estimated they were leaving approximately three-quarters of a million pieces of art unaccounted for.
Ettlinger said his association with the Monuments Men began in Munich one day in 1945, when, because of his German language skills, he was pulled off a truck headed to the Battle of the Bulge to join the frantic operation.
“I opened the door and there was a captain,” Ettlinger said. “He pointed to a desk and a chair and said, ‘This guy at the next desk, he will tell you what to do.’ And that was my entry into the Monuments Men.”
Interrogating men such as Hildebrand Gurlitt to track lost art took time and resources that the group simply lacked, Ettlinger said.
Ettlinger interrogated Heinrich Hoffmann, a personal photographer and art collector for Hitler, whose testimony was cagey and impossible to verify, he said.
“It was not easy,” Ettlinger said. “There is no central record in any place where a particular piece of art - and there were literally millions of them - of where the current owner of that particular item is.”
Documents from the U.S. National Archives verify his claim. In a May 1946 report from the Monuments Men to the U.S. War Department, they asked for more time to continue investigations, saying: “Determination of the scope of the activity of such men as … Hildebrand Gurlitt … is vital to the satisfactory resolution of the whole looting problem.”
Under pressure to return U.S. troops home, the government ordered the Monuments Men to cease operations. Under Military Government Law 59, they were forced to return art to anyone who had documentation.
“It was the best we could do,” Ettlinger said.