GIs known as the Monuments Men went underground to rescue art masterpieces plundered by the Nazis.
Private Harry L. Ettlinger celebrated his 19th birthday on January 28, 1945, by boarding a truck in the bitter cold at a camp on the border between France and Belgium. He was a raw draftee of five months, untested in combat, and now assigned with hundreds of his comrades to the 99th Infantry Division, joining the American counterattack following the Battle of the Bulge.
Before the convoy could move beyond the camp gates, a sergeant dashed out of the office, halted the trucks and barked out an order: “The following three men will get off the truck with their gear.” Ettlinger heard his name called and stepped obediently off the truck. The change in marching orders resulted in Ettlinger’s “most memorable birthday ever,” for he had escaped some of the fiercest fighting of the war in Europe. The Battle of the Bulge—Adolf Hitler’s last great counteroffensive in the West—and the subsequent Allied invasion of Germany claimed the lives of three of his eight closest buddies from basic training and wounded the other five.
Ettlinger’s good luck came about because he was fluent in German. The Army initially included him in a pool of translators for the planned Nuremberg Trials of Nazi war criminals but soon transferred him to duty that received little public attention but was arguably of even greater long-term historical significance. He would join an extraordinary outfit known as the “Monuments Men,” whose mission was nothing less than to help find, recover and preserve the artistic and cultural heritage of Europe.
Formally titled the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Section, the elite organization eventually numbered more than 350 men and women from the armed forces of the United States and a dozen other nations. Its ranks consisted largely of art historians, museum curators, artists, architects and other such specialists. They were dubbed “Monuments Men” because their primary task after the 1944 invasion of France was to protect statues, historic buildings and other important cultural landmarks.
Harry Ettlinger’s role resulted less from any passion- ate interest in art than the circumstances of his birth, which gave him his facility for German. He was born a Jew in Germany and fled the country for the United States in 1938 along with his parents and two younger brothers. Ettlinger joined the Army as an infantryman in 1944 and was assigned to the Monuments Men at Seventh Army Headquarters in Munich at the beginning of May 1945. By then, more than 90 percent of the cultural landmarks in Germany had been hit by Allied bombing, and 60 percent were destroyed. So the Monuments Men focused on the even more monumental task of tracking down, protecting and restoring to their rightful owners the great paintings, sculpture and other artistic treasures systematically looted by Nazi Germany or otherwise displaced by the war.
The head of the Seventh Army task force, the late Captain James J. Rorimer, was on leave as director of the medieval collection at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art—and would become the museum’s director a decade after the war. He had joined the infantry as a 38-year-old private, driven a truck and then, as a newly commissioned second lieutenant in the Monuments Men, terrorized Allied commanders in France who wanted to billet their troops in historic castles. Rorimer at first tried to keep them out by posting off-limits signs, and when the signs proved ineffective he switched to white tape, a warning that the premises contained unexploded bombs or land mines. Rorimer was so brash and green in those early days that he even confronted a colonel on the staff of the Allied supreme commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, and badgered him into returning 11 important paintings requisitioned from the Palace at Versailles to furnish Ike’s new Paris headquarters. “The disparity between [Rorimer’s] knowledge of medieval art and his knowledge of the Army in which he found himself somehow caused his immediate superiors to dub him ‘Jimsey,’” wrote his commanding officer, Major Stratton Hammon.
By the time Rorimer reached Munich, he had learned a lot about Army ways, and he latched onto Ettlinger for his youthful affability as well as his linguistic skills. He took Ettlinger to a Munich prison to interpret for his interview with Heinrich Hoffmann, Hitler’s official photographer, an art agent and a suspected collector of looted paintings. He also took him to Berchtesgaden, the south Bavarian town near Hitler’s mountain retreat, where an entire train laden with Hermann Göring’s cultural loot was discovered in early May. This and other trips lodged in Ettlinger’s memory in no small part because he had never learned to drive; Captain Rorimer had to man the wheel of their jeep while Ettlinger, a lowly private, enjoyed the scenery.
Ettlinger’s most memorable trip with Rorimer was to a veritable house of treasure, the fairytale-like castle of Neuschwanstein. Built in the 19th century in a fantastic pseudo-Gothic style as a palace for King Ludwig II of Bavaria, the castle contained more than 6,000 items of art, jewelry and furniture. Most of it had been stolen from the Rothschilds and other prominent Jewish families in France by an organization headed by the Nazi racial theorist Alfred Rosenberg. Rorimer also discovered there a meticulous inventory of objects taken from public and private collections in Western Europe.
Rorimer had learned of the loot’s whereabouts in the castle from a French art historian and member of the French Resistance, Rose Valland. A curator at the Louvre in Paris, Valland worked during the war at the Jeu de Paume, a small museum nearby that the Nazis used as a clearinghouse for looted objects. Valland secretly kept track of everything that passed through and, just as important, its destination. After American troops secured the castle at Neuschwanstein, Rorimer put it off-limits and assigned GIs to guard it. During their visit, Ettlinger noted, Rorimer denied access to a two-star British general while “I, an American buck private, happily toured the castle.”
That summer of 1945, Rorimer assigned Ettlinger to work in the salt mines—literally—at the city of Heilbronn, a rail center less than 50 miles northeast of Ettlinger’s childhood home at Karlsrühe. During the final weeks of the European war, Allied troops had discovered a series of mines in Germany and Austria where the Nazis had secreted untold riches—looted art as well as treasures from German museums—for safekeeping.
Thus, in early September 1945, began Ettlinger’s life underground. Four or five days a week, he descended an elevator some 700 feet into the Heilbronn mine or down the shaft at the Kochendorf facility a couple of miles to the north. At the bottom of the Heilbronn mine were a dozen or so chambers, carved out by salt mining, up to a mile long and about 60 feet wide and 40 feet high. At one end of the mine, the original function carried on: Rocks containing salt were extracted and transported to a large furnace for refining. Ettlinger performed most of his duties in a series of smaller storage chambers above the large caverns.
Ettlinger’s first priority at Heilbronn involved some stained-glass windows from the Strasbourg Cathedral. According to captured documents, authorities in this French city had removed the intricately designed windows—some of them dating from the 13th century—at the war’s outbreak and stored them for safekeeping in southern France. Later, the Nazis, who had always maintained that Strasbourg was actually part of Germany, shipped the treasured windows in 73 cases to Heilbronn. When General Eisenhower got wind of this, he ordered the return of the windows to the cathedral. They were to be the first stolen works of art restored to their rightful owners.
Promoted soon to Technician 4th Grade, Ettlinger effectively became the underground operations manager. The wooden cases containing the stained-glass windows had to be pulled out and taken to the surface for shipment by truck back to Strasbourg. This task was completed in less than two months, and he moved on to the enormous challenge of segregating other stolen works of art from German-owned property and repackaging them for return to Western Europe. Ettlinger had the assistance of two-man teams of local miners, who cooperated fully with him. “Here I was a 19-year-old Jewish kid giving orders to the Germans!” Ettlinger remembers.
Determining the contents of all the storage cases without first actually opening every one presented a variety of challenges. At Kochendorf the German penchant for meticulous record keeping facilitated that process. The director of the mine had two record books with complete inventories of the estimated 30,000 cases stored there. These riches included a 16th-century oil, the Stuppacher Madonna by German artist Matthias Grünewald. According to Ettlinger, Captain Rorimer tried unsuccessfully to buy the painting on behalf of his own Metropolitan Museum, offering the then-unheard-of sum of $2 million.
At Heilbronn, clues came from many sources. Rorimer had tracked down German museum directors who provided key leads. One interrogation pointed to the discovery of boxes in the mine containing bills of sale and records of art transactions. The Americans also hired three Germans for the mine office who often provided helpful tidbits. One was an art historian; another, Ettlinger suspected, had worked for a Nazi art theft operation in Paris. “In the underground operations we were at the end of a long chain,” Ettlinger said. “There was a whole series of steps before I was informed that in ‘Box So and So’ there’s a Rubens.”
The most valuable painting Ettlinger unearthed at Heilbronn was a Rembrandt self-portrait. It had been stolen from the museum in Ettlinger’s hometown of Karlsrühe—a detail that pleased him.
Shipments from the Heilbronn and Kochendorf mines typically went to the cities of Munich or Wiesbaden, where Rorimer had helped establish central storage depots called Collecting Points to consolidate the hundreds of artworks arriving from German repositories in mines, castles and bunkers. At Wiesbaden, the Collecting Point was housed in a vast, 300-room war-ravaged museum where displaced persons had to be removed from the basement.
The Monument Men’s key enlisted man there, Sergeant Kenneth C. Lindsay, later noted the staff’s resourceful improvisation in transforming the old museum temporarily into one of the world’s greatest collections of art. His commander was Captain Walter I. Farmer, an interior decorator in peacetime and a cando kind of officer recently with the Army engineers. To repair the museum’s damaged skylights and replace more than 2,000 broken windows, Farmer “borrowed” 26 tons of glass from a U.S. Army Air Forces installation being built nearby. For humidity control, the men placed buckets of water in the galleries. And to cushion the sculpture and paintings for shipment, they improvised packing material from sheepskin greatcoats tailored for the German invasion of Russia but never delivered to the freezing troops driving toward Moscow in cotton summer uniforms. The coats had been discovered at a salt mine in Merkers along with 100 tons of gold, 27 Rembrandts and other treasures from the 15 state museums of Berlin.
Soon after Lindsay’s arrival at Wiesbaden, where he took up residence in the museum director’s office, enormous convoys of trucks escorted by tanks and laden with the Merkers booty lined up outside. Rorimer, as always, was in the thick of things, riding in the lead jeep. Lindsay, a trained art historian, had served in signal intelligence until one day in Paris he read an article in The Stars and Stripes about Rorimer and the Monuments Men. At Wiesbaden he became so enthusiastic about his work sorting, identifying, cataloguing and returning thousands of artworks that he chose to stay on an extra five months beyond his scheduled departure for the States.
One of Lindsay’s most memorable experiences was the uncrating of the ancient Egyptian bust of Queen Nefertiti. In 1912 German archaeologists had excavated the richly painted limestone statue, removed it from Egypt and donated it to a Berlin museum. When the Egyptian government learned that the bust might be at Wiesbaden, a representative was sent to find out if it was really there. Lindsay was designated to open the suspect box labeled Die Bunte Königin—“The Multicolored Queen”—while a gallery of officials stood by.
“The wooden top came off without trouble,” Lindsay later wrote, “after which I carefully uncovered the wrapping of jet black tar paper. Beneath the tar paper was a sea of pure white spun glass, and within it the beautiful face of the renowned Queen, serenely looking up at us.” He lifted the heavy bust onto a pedestal. “Within an instant, every man in there fell hopelessly in love with her.” The bust remained in Wiesbaden until it was returned to Berlin’s ancient history museum in 1955.
The planned destination of another group of artwork sparked an extraordinary controversy at the Wiesbaden Collecting Point in November 1945. A directive arrived ordering the Monuments Men to ship to the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.—purportedly for safekeeping—202 of the most valuable paintings being held in Wiesbaden. Lindsay remembered that his boss Walter Farmer “flew into a rage” and immediately called a meeting of other Monuments Men officers in Germany. They prepared a letter of protest, which became known as the Wiesbaden Manifesto. It was signed by 25 officers and sent up through channels. The directive, the manifesto suggested, resembled the kind of looting for which Nazi war criminals would be prosecuted.
Many years later, after a distinguished career as a professor of art history at Binghamton University in New York, Lindsay recounted the controversy in a scholarly journal. “To the men safeguarding these national treasures,” he wrote, “the directive was seen as nothing less than a betrayal of their purpose.” Lindsay did not sign the manifesto because he was “only an enlisted man.” But he was in full accord—as were his German workmen, who composed “a letter similar in spirit to our Manifesto.” With Lindsay’s permission, “they tacked it carefully to the inside” of one of the 45 shipping crates containing the paintings. After more than three years of being stored and exhibited in the United States, the paintings—by such masters as Botticelli, Rubens and Rembrandt, and then valued at $80 million—were returned to Wiesbaden in April 1949. Lindsay believes the manifesto was the only protest of an official order lodged by American officers in the European theater.
While millions of stolen or displaced artwork passed through the Collecting Points in the months after the war, the Monuments Men continued to pursue masterworks known to be still missing. Much of what they tracked down was referred to as “second-generation loot.” This consisted of objects originally stolen by the Nazis and then wrongfully acquired by the German populace through random looting or transactions on the black market.
Such items occupied much of the attention of Lieutenant Bernard Taper, an art intelligence officer for two years after the war in Europe. Early in the summer of 1946, Taper was persuaded by a Monuments officer to switch over from the intelligence staff of the Third Army. Though he had no background in art, he saw that his job would be like a detective’s, and as an aspiring journalist, he at least knew how to ask questions. He also liked the idea of the relative freedom from military routine—“wearing civilian clothes, driving a nice car and enjoying the glamour associated with art.”
What Taper called “loot twice removed” was especially difficult to locate because it rarely left a paper trail. When Munich fell to the Allies, for example, a mob broke into the Verwaltungsbau—Nazi party headquarters and later a Monuments Men Collecting Point—and sacked it. Among the art treasures taken was a collection of small works, mostly Dutch and Flemish masters confiscated from the Adolphe Schloss family after the fall of France and kept in Munich for Hitler’s personal enjoyment. “Most of the Munich looters had no idea what they had gone off with,” Taper said. He remembers one woman who had taken an 18th-century Dutch landscape and placed it under her mattress for extra support. She had cut it to fit but told the American soldiers who came to retrieve it, “I didn’t cut off anything important—just some sky and clouds.”
“Recovering what they had grabbed called for a somewhat different kind of detective work,” Taper said, “cultivating informants, keeping an eye on the local black markets, and the like.” In a first for the Monuments Men, he worked closely with the post- war German civilian police. Using claims filed by the Dutch, he compiled lists of artwork expropriated from the collection of a prominent Jewish art dealer in Amsterdam, Jacques Goudstikker, and provided them to dealers in the Frankfurt area. Many of these were suspected of engaging in shady transactions during the war, and Taper required them to identify any works they had sold and the purchasers. German police officers were then employed to track down a number of these works.
On a series of fruitful investigations in Berchtesgaden, Taper teamed up with an older Monuments intelligence officer, Lieutenant Edgar Breitenbach. A Hamburg-born Jew trained in library science and with a doctorate in art history, Breitenbach had left Germany before the war. He was “a squat, middle-aged man, with a stubby pipe invariably smoldering in his mouth,” Taper wrote of Breitenbach, who died in 1977. “He always seemed to be having the time of his life, even when trying to act solemn. During our Berchtesgaden investigations, he habitually dressed in Bavarian peasant garb, and not long after we had arrived there on our first visit, I heard that the German chief of police of Berchtesgaden had sent out a puzzled inquiry, wanting to know who this man was who was running around the country in lederhosen, speaking with a Hamburg accent through a pipe and claiming to be an American officer and a doctor of arts.”
Taper and Breitenbach were on the trail of a trainload of Göring’s possessions sent south in the last month of the war. Nazi guards had abandoned the train near Berchtesgaden, and local peasants swarmed over it, taking not only the plentiful schnapps but also manifold possessions Göring had amassed at his country estate, Carinhall. Even though the pair of Monuments officers arrived on the scene more than two years after the event, they succeeded in retrieving a number of missing items— along with colorful details of the train looting.
“It was a real mob scene,” wrote Taper. “Three women laid hands on the same Aubusson carpet, and a heated struggle ensued until along came a local dignitary, who said to them, ‘women, be civilized, divide it among you.’ So they did. Two of the women used their portions as bedspreads, but the third cut hers to make window curtains.”
For all his successes, Taper can’t shake the memory of a failure: his inability to find Raphael’s famous Portrait of a Young Man. The 16th-century masterpiece disappeared from a family collection in Kraków, Poland. Taper spent months interrogating a number of jailed Nazis, including two art advisers to the German governor general of Poland, Hans Frank. One interrogation lasted 12 hours. He suspected that Frank’s entourage took the painting when they fled west to escape the Red Army, but all traces of it were lost. Though Taper had seen only a black-and-white photograph of the painting, “in my dreams it was always in sumptuous color.” Six decades later, after a successful career as a staff writer for The New Yorker, a biographer and professor of journalism, Taper is still haunted by it—“possibly the most important painting lost in the war whose fate remains unknown.”
Back at Heilbronn, Tech 4 Ettlinger did a little unauthorized sleuthing of his own before returning home to New Jersey in the summer of 1946. He remembered that his maternal grandfather, Otto Oppenheimer, had been a minor patron of German artists and collector of their work. Before emigrating to the United States, Oppenheimer had stored his collection of nearly 2,000 etchings and bookplates—many of them first prints signed by the artists—in a Baden-Baden warehouse. Baden-Baden was 60 miles southwest of Heilbronn, in the French Zone of Occupation. When the personal valet for the French zone’s governor general visited Heilbronn, Ettlinger prevailed on him for directions to the warehouse.
With a young friend at the wheel of their jeep, Ettlinger headed for Baden-Baden. They found the warehouse and, inside, the Oppenheimer collection, remarkably intact in wooden boxes. They celebrated over drinks at dinner, and drove the jeep into a ditch, rupturing the brake line. Waiting for a ride back to Heilbronn, the men spent the next three nights in the best suite in the city’s finest hotel—the suite where the kaiser had slept during imperial days. At last they returned to base, and although Ettlinger clearly had been absent without leave, his superiors let him off the hook and had the Oppenheimer collection brought to Heilbronn. It was repacked with care by the miners, and shipped to the United States.
Six decades later, a number of prints from the Oppenheimer collection adorn the walls of the New Jersey condominium where Harry Ettlinger, now a retired aerospace engineer, makes his home. Hanging among them is a reproduction of an etching based on Rembrandt’s self-portrait, the precious original of which this old Monuments Man once incredulously lifted from its storage crate deep in a German salt mine.
Originally published in the May 2007 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.