Michael E. Ruane (c) 2014, The Washington Post
WASHINGTON — After U.S. Army private Harry Ettlinger got the confiscated stained glass windows out of the Nazis’ secret salt mine, he took a walk down one of its long corridors and came to a bricked-up doorway.
On the lookout for stolen art, he asked the German miners working for him what was behind it. No one knew. “Break it down,” he told them.
When they did, they were aghast. What they found wasn’t art, but huge jars of highly explosive nitroglycerin.
“The miners went bananas,” Ettlinger said Thursday over breakfast. The nitro could blow the place sky high. The mine was evacuated. The nitroglycerin was carefully removed and detonated outside.
Ettlinger, 88, of Rockaway, N.J., one of the original allied “Monuments Men” who tracked down European art stolen by the Nazis during World War II, was in town for a special donation at the National Archives.
The Monuments Men Foundation, which is dedicated to the story of the lost art and the men who helped recover it, gave the Archives the last known album of the photos the Nazi looters took of their stolen art.
The album, containing over 70 black and white images of paintings seized in France, was compiled by the Nazi task force whose job was to scour Europe for artistic treasures for Hitler.
The unit took photos of what it was seizing to show the Nazi leader.
The donation came on the anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany and the end of World War II in Europe, where Ettlinger served as a 19-year-old draftee.
Thirty-nine of what are believed to be a set of 100 albums were found by the Allies at the end of the war.
They were used to determine where the art was stolen and as evidence at war crimes trials. Those albums were turned over to the Archives in 1947.
In recent years, four more volumes turned up in private hands, as a book and now a movie raise the profile of the Monuments Men. Three were donated to the Archives by the foundation in 2007 and 2012.
This album, so called #6, was found at Hitler’s villa in Berchtesgaden, Germany, in the closing days of the war.
It had been taken as a souvenir by a former GI from Texas, now deceased, Robert Edsel, chairman of the foundation, said at the donation ceremony.
His relatives gave it to the foundation in 2006, Edsel said, and the foundation kept it until now to help urge veterans and their families to turn over other historically important artifacts they might have.
The leather-bound album had a photograph of a painting on each page, and a code reflecting which family the painting had been stolen from, Edsel said. R stood for the wealthy Rothschild family. EW stood for Elizabeth Wildenstein.
The first photo in the album showed the painting, “Portrait of a Woman,” by Nicholas de Largilliere, an 18th century French artist. Its inventory code was R437, meaning it was the 437th object stolen from the Rothschilds.
Ettlinger, a bald man with gray eyes and a gift for telling a story, was present to bear witness to the work he and his colleagues did, as well as the crimes of the Nazis.
“I am the only healthy living Monuments man,” he said before the ceremony. “We, in contrast to the Nazis, had a policy, had a philosophy, to make sure that the cultures of people would remain so long as they respect other cultures.”
“What we did during and after World War II is unique in the history of civilization,” he said.
David Ferriero, the head of the Archives, said a character in the movie, “The Monuments Men,” was inspired by Ettlinger.
Ettlinger grew up in Karlsruhe, Germany, where his father ran a women’s clothing store. “They used to go to Paris every month,” he said. But because his family was Jewish, the business was boycotted, and it closed in 1935.
Six weeks before the notorious Kristallnacht — the anti-Jewish rioting that swept Germany in November 1938 — Ettlinger and his family fled to the United States.
“My parents were relatively lucky that they were able to get out” with him and his younger brothers, he said.
Before they left, his grandfather took him and his brothers aside and told them: “You boys are going to become Americans,” he said. “And he understood what that meant, the freedom that we have, for me to talk to you without worrying . . . that two cops are going to come tomorrow morning at my door.”
Ettlinger, who spoke fluent German and was drafted into the U.S. Army after high school, said he joined up with the Monuments Men in May 1945 as the war in Europe was ending.
He was assigned to the Nazi repository in the Heilbronn-Kochendorf salt mines.
There, the Germans had stashed, among other things, stained glass windows from France’s magnificent Strasbourg Cathedral that had been removed for safekeeping by the French, according to the Monuments Men Foundation.
Ettlinger’s job was to get the boxes containing the windows out of the mine and onto trucks to be returned to the cathedral.
When he discovered the nitroglycerin, he said he figured “somebody, unknown, had in mind to blow up the mine.”
After the war, Ettlinger returned to New Jersey and wed a “Newark girl,” Mimi Goldman. They were married 53 years and raised three children. She passed away 10 years ago.
Following a career as an engineer, he said he connected with the foundation fairly recently.
“Yeah, this is a new world for me,” he chuckled. “Being infamous.”