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Real Monuments Man spoke at Archives May 8, WWII Victory in Europe anniversary

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Monuments Man Harry Ettlinger, 88, a German-born Jew, told his story better than any film could at a ceremony May 8, donating the last-known "Hitler Album" to the National Archives.

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Ettlinger spoke beside a photograph of himself as a 19-year-old Army "buck private" viewing a Nazi-looted Rembrandt self-portrait that his fellow Monuments Men had found and recovered.

The masterpiece "had been in a museum three blocks from my home in Germany, but I was not allowed to go in because I was Jewish," Ettlinger told the press conference. "Thanks to the Monuments Men, I finally got to see it."

He and his family fled Karlsruhe, Germany in 1938 -- the day after his bar mitzvah, and the eve of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Their fortunate escape came just before Kristallnacht ("Night of Broken Glass"), anti-Jewish riots that marked the unofficial start of the Holocaust.

The Ettlinger family settled in Newark, New Jersey, where he was drafted right after high school -- and sent back to Germany.

On his 19th birthday, he was "pulled out on my way to the Battle of the Bulge. I didn't know why." Only much later, the fluent German-speaker found out that he was to be an interpreter at the Nuremberg Trials of Nazi war criminals.

While waiting for the trials to begin, he volunteered for the Army's Monuments Men, some 345 men and women who tracked, located, and ultimately returned more than five million artistic and cultural items stolen by Hitler and the Nazis.

Now one of only six surviving Monuments Men, Ettlinger said he was assigned to two salt mines (Heilbronn-Kochendorf) in Germany, where Nazis had stashed 900 cases of looted art and other cultural objects. Nazis stored stolen treasures in 1,500 sites including mines, castles, and mills.

"The first case we opened contained stained glass windows from Strasbourg Cathedral," Ettlinger recalled. "(Supreme Allied Commander) Eisenhower made a big deal out of it." The Monuments Men's first priority was to return the magnificent stained-glass windows to the French cathedral. They filled 73 cases.

Ettlinger's job was to load cases onto trucks for eventual return to rightful owners. In the film, Ettlinger's character, Sam Epstein, is played by Dimitri Leonidas.

"What an honorable thing we did...I am proud to be part of that group," he said.

The mines served also as an underground factory for building jet engine parts by "Hungarian Jewish slave laborers selected not to be gassed at Auschwitz. But all except two were murdered when they were sent back to the concentration camp," he noted. Ettlinger later met the two survivors. "One was a violinist and composer in Hollywood, and the other was a butcher in Detroit."

The Rockaway, New Jersey retired engineer added that he's writing a book, "The Story of My Life" -- maybe you'll read it some day." That book, like his eyes, will shine with compassion and subtle humor along with sadness.

"All human beings are equal...," Ettlinger stressed. "We must show respect for each other and each other's culture."

At the ceremony -- on May 8, the 69th anniversary of World War Two's Victory in Europe, V-E Day -- Ettlinger joined Robert M. Edsel, chairman of the Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art, in presenting the leather-bound album to Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero.

This is the fourth album that the Monuments Men Foundation has given to the National Archives, which has 39 "Hitler Albums". They were used as evidence at the Nuremberg Trials of Nazi war criminals.

Edsel, author of the best-selling "The Monuments Men", basis of the George Clooney film, noted, "This album is just the tip of the iceberg for hundreds of thousands of cultural items still missing since World War Two."

(And now, you can read online the personal correspondence of members of the Monuments Men held in the Smithsonian's Archives of American Art collection -- a 200-page project digitized recently by volunteers. The Smithsonian launched its massive Transcription Center on Aug. 12.)

For more info: National Archives, www.archives.gov. National Archives' Holocaust-Era Assets,www.archives.gov/research/holocaust/. Monuments Men Foundation,www.monumentsmenfoundation.org, toll-free number 866-WWIIART. Robert M. Edsel's books include "The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History" (Center Street), and "Saving Italy: The Race to Rescue a Nation's Treasures from the Nazis" (W. W. Norton & Company). "The Monuments Men" film on Blu-ray Combo pack, DVD and Digital will be released May 20 by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment,www.SonyPictures.com.

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