There is hardly a white spot visible on Harry Ettlinger’s calendar.
As we tour the 88-year-old Ettlinger’s immaculate apartment, he ignores the ringing phone; someone from Sony Pictures leaves a voicemail: “I will be emailing you today or tomorrow your confirmation number for your limousine pickup.”
He pulls press clippings and pictures out of folders, and in his ever so slight German accent, he points out the family photographs, certificates and awards — and the drawings and copies of paintings on his walls.
For most of his adult life, Ettlinger worked as a mechanical engineer, but it is his role in assisting with art repatriation that is making him the subject of so much attention right now. A soldier in the United States army during World War II, he spent a year and a half as part of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Program.
The 350 men involved with the program, which endeavored to save cultural treasures from the frontlines and return looted artworks to their rightful owners, were nicknamed the ‘Monuments Men.’ A movie with the same title and a cast that includes George Clooney, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett and Bill Murray arrives in cinemas on February 7. The director is Clooney.
Translating and summarizing German documents were among Ettlinger’s main tasks in the MFAA. Born Heinz Ludwig Chaim Ettlinger in Karlsruhe in 1926, he escaped Germany together with his parents and two brothers in September 1938. They managed to get visas for the United States, and settled in Newark, N.J.
Hailing from a wealthy, influential family — he can trace his mother’s ancestors, the Oppenheimer family, back to the 15th century — Ettlinger worked odd jobs after school, such as running errands for a butcher and delivering newspapers; the family had lost its women’s fashion business in Germany.
Ettlinger was drafted into the U.S. Army in August 1944 after graduating from high school. Stationed in France, he was removed from his infantry division in January 1945 and reclassified to be a translator for the impending Nuremberg trials. When he learned of the MFAA’s work, he decided to offer his services as a translator, because he didn’t have much work to do for the trials.