Monumental Mission- page 2 | History | Smithsonian
Current Issue
November 2014 magazine cover
Subscribe

Save 81% off the newsstand price!

(Cheryl Carlin)

Monumental Mission

Assigned to find art looted by the Nazis, Western Allied forces faced an incredible challenge

Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

(Continued from page 1)

Perhaps the most notable find at Heilbronn was a cache of stained-glass windows from the cathedral of Strasbourg, France. With Ettlinger supervising, the windows, packed in 73 cases, were shipped directly home without passing through a collecting point. "The Strasbourg windows were the first thing we sent back," says Ettlinger. "That was on orders of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, supreme commander of Allied forces, as a gesture of good faith." The windows were welcomed home with a huge celebration—a sign not only that the Alsatian city was free again after centuries of domination by Germany but also that the Allies intended to restore the fruits of civilization.

Most of Ettlinger's comrades had training in art history or museum work. "Not me," says Ettlinger. "I was just the kid from New Jersey." But he worked diligently, his mastery of German indispensable and his rapport with mineworkers easy. He was promoted to technical sergeant. After the war, he went home to New Jersey, where he earned degrees in engineering and business administration and produced guidance systems for nuclear weapons. "To tell you the truth, I wasn't as interested in the paintings as I was in other things over there," says Ettlinger, now retired in Rockaway, New Jersey.

Upon arrival at the Kochendorf mine, Ettlinger was shocked to learn that the Third Reich had intended to make it an underground factory using 20,000 workers from nearby concentration camps. The Allied invasion scuttled those plans, but a chill lingered over the mines, where Ettlinger was reminded daily of his great luck: had he not escaped Germany in 1938, he could have ended up in just such a camp. Instead, he found himself in the ironic position of supervising German laborers and working with a former Nazi who had helped pillage art from France. "He knew where the stuff was," Ettlinger says. "My own feelings couldn't enter into it."

Chronically understaffed, underfinanced and derided as effete "Venus fixers" by service colleagues, the Monuments Men soon learned to make do with very little and to maneuver like buccaneers. James Rorimer, curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's medieval collections in civilian life, served as a model for all Venus fixers who followed him—inventive and fearless in the face of authority. When someone on Gen. Eisenhower's staff filled the supreme commander's residence with old paintings and furniture from the Versailles Palace, Rorimer indignantly ordered them removed, convinced that he was engaged in nothing less than safeguarding the best of civilization.

Capt. Rorimer arrived in Heilbronn just as the ten-day battle for that city shut off the electrical supply, which caused the mine's pumps to fail, threatening massive flooding of the treasures below. He made an emergency appeal to Gen. Eisenhower, who, having forgiven the officer's earlier furniture removal operation, dispatched Army engineers to the scene, got the pumps going and saved thousands of pieces of art from drowning.

Rorimer also went head-to-head with the fearsome Gen. George S. Patton. Both men wanted to take over the former Nazi Party headquarters in Munich—Patton for his regional Third Army command center, Rorimer for processing artwork. Rorimer somehow convinced Patton that he needed the building more, and Patton found offices elsewhere. Few people who had seen Rorimer in action were surprised when, after the war, he was chosen as director of the Metropolitan Museum in New York City. He died in 1966.

"It helped to be a little sneaky," says Kenneth C. Lindsay, 88, a Milwaukee native who thoroughly detested Army life until he read of Rorimer's exploits, applied for a transfer from the Signal Corps, became a Monuments Man and reported to the Wiesbaden Collecting Point in July of 1945.

There Sgt. Lindsay found his new boss, Capt. Walter I. Farmer, an interior decorator from Cincinnati, bustling around the former Landesmuseum building, a 300-room structure that had served as a state museum before the war and as a Luftwaffe headquarters during the conflict. It had miraculously survived repeated bombings, which had nonetheless shattered or cracked its every window. The heating system had died, a U.S. Army depot had sprouted in the museum's former art galleries, and displaced German citizens had taken over remaining nooks and crannies of the old building. Farmer, Lindsay and a complement of 150 German workers had just under two months to depose the squatters, fire up the furnace, root out the bombs, fence off the perimeter and prepare the museum for a shipment of art scheduled to arrive from wartime repositories.

"It was a nightmare," recalls Lindsay, now living in Binghamton, New York, where he was chairman of the art history department of the State University of New York. "We had to get the old building going. Well, fine, but where do you find 2,000 pieces of glass in a bombed-over city?"

Farmer took matters into his own hands, deploying a crew to steal the glass from a nearby Air Force site. "They came back with 25 tons of glass, just like that!" says Lindsay. "Farmer had larceny in his veins, God bless him! My job was to get the workers to install the glass so that we had some protection for the art we were about to receive."

Tags

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus