By Robert M. Edsel
Today we mourn the passing of a great American and friend, Monuments Man Harry Ettlinger, who died yesterday after 92 remarkable years.
In the course of my work honoring these heroes of civilization, I have known twenty-one Monuments Men and Women. I was closest to Harry Ettlinger. Harry embodied every great quality that defines a selfless and honorable American. He was an immigrant – the last Jewish boy to have a bar mitzvah in his hometown of Karlsruhe, Germany, just weeks before Kristallnacht. His immediate family fled Nazi Germany for a new home in New Jersey. The rest of his family perished in the Holocaust. Harry worked hard. Imagine the life of a twelve-year-old boy, uprooted and moved to another country, knowing no one other than his family, having to learn a new language while attending a new school and holding down a job. Harry left Europe as a German but returned an American. Drafted into the United States Army, he proudly served his new country when he returned to his homeland in February 1945, six years after escaping Nazi tyranny. In February 1945, just six years after escaping Nazi tyranny, Harry returned to his homeland to fight a war as a citizen of a new nation. As a Monuments Man, Harry served civilization by helping to recover and preserve some of the world’s shared cultural heritage stolen by the Nazis.
After the war, Harry returned to New Jersey and, like so many other American soldiers, completed his education, found career success, and started a family. He gave freely of his time through his work as co-chair of the Raoul Wallenburg Foundation of New Jersey, and other related causes. A patriot – and epic storyteller – to the end, Harry could often be found at airports welcoming home soldiers returning from duty overseas, or in a school or synagogue sharing his life experiences with audiences of all ages.
Harry and I traveled together, retracing the path he took as a young soldier. We attended ceremonies together, where Harry quickly and consistently became the star of the show, even when we were alongside some of the biggest stars in the world. We mourned together as we visited the grave of Walter Huchthausen, one of two Monuments Men killed in action during World War II. And we celebrated together, at the White House, in the halls of Congress, and at movie premiers here and abroad as world leaders and the general public embraced the legacy of the Monuments Men and Women. Somewhere along the way, Harry became a part of my family, someone I admired and respected. He never complained about hardship. On the contrary, Harry considered himself a lottery winner for having become an American. He spoke eloquently and vigorously about the importance of respecting people of all faiths, all nationalities, all beliefs, because that reflected the life he lived. He had a kind word and a smile for everyone he met, regardless of their station in life.
Harry’s life is a reminder of the selflessness of the 350 museum curators, scholars, art historians, architects, artists, and librarians, who constituted the Monuments Men, of which only four are still living.
While we mourn Harry’s passing, we celebrate his amazing life. He will forever be an inspiration to the many people whose lives he touched.