French Honors for an American Veteran of the ‘Monuments Men’


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Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French defense minister, embraced a newly decorated veteran at a ceremony honoring World War II service members at South Street Seaport in Manhattan on Friday.

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Mark Kauzlarich/The New York Times

It was 1945 when Harry L. Ettlinger, a Jewish-American soldier, escorted two German miners down a 12-foot-high aisle of a deep underground salt mine. They kept passing sealed doors.

Mr. Ettlinger, who was only 19 at the time, recalled asking the miners what was inside. They said they did not know. He ordered them to knock one of the doors down. Inside, the men found big, glass jars with a clear liquid that had small, yellow bubbles. It was nitroglycerin, he said on Friday.

German troops had intended to blow up the mine — and, more important, all the stolen artwork hidden inside, Mr. Ettlinger said.

Mr. Ettlinger, 89, who was born in Germany but has lived most of his adult life in New Jersey, was among more than 20 American World War II veterans honored by French officials in Manhattan on Friday with the insignia of the French Legion of Honor for their service in that country’s liberation.

Mr. Ettlinger’s service was rather specific: He served in the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Section of the Allied military effort, or the so-called “Monuments Men” whose goal toward the end of the war was to recover precious artwork stolen by German troops. Mr. Ettlinger is one of the few original members of the group still alive.

Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French defense minister, presided over the decoration ceremony, held at the South Street Seaport, beside the moored replica of the frigate Hermione, which in 1780 carried Marquis de Lafayette, the “French founding father,” to America with news of France’s military support for the American Revolution.

Mr. Le Drian noted the frigate’s significance in a speech, and said that the American veterans represented in turn the United States’ support for French liberation in World War II.

“The friendship that unites France with the United States is one of the oldest and strongest friendships,” the defense minister said.

Mr. Le Drian also noted Mr. Ettlinger’s efforts as a member of the “Monuments Men,” whose efforts were memorialized in the titular film directed by and starring George Clooney.

In recalling his work, Mr. Ettlinger’s face lit up when he spoke of recovering a Rembrandt self-portrait from one of the salt mines, in which German troops had hidden stolen artwork in wooden crates.

The portrait had been taken from a museum three blocks away his childhood home in Karlsruhe, Germany. The first time Mr. Ettlinger had ever seen the portrait was at the salt mine; he had not been allowed to see it at the museum because he was Jewish. The portrait was returned to the museum once recovered.

“It felt damn good,” Mr. Ettlinger said, recalling his emotions upon finding the piece of art.

Another of the veterans honored by the French minister in his speech was Benjamin B. Ferencz, 96.

A Harvard Law School graduate, Mr. Ferencz served in an antiaircraft battalion in 1943, but was better known for his role after the war ended.

At age 27, Mr. Ferencz became the chief prosecutor for the United States in the Einsatzgruppen case of the Nuremberg trials. .

“Law, not war, is the solution to most of our problems,” said Mr. Ferencz, who lives in New Rochelle, N.Y.

He noted that while he believed Lafayette represented much of the early American ideals of liberty, he was not too pleased with the cannons on the Hermione because it reminded him too much of war.

“I would rather they have come with flowers and champagne,” Mr. Ferencz said with a laugh.



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