We had the chance, as a family, to see a living piece of history last week. That piece of history arrived in the form of 89-year-old Harry Ettlinger, the last surviving member of the 345 people that made up the Monuments Men. In the movie, Ettlinger was renamed Pvt. Sam Epstein, played by British actor Dimitri Leonidas. For about an hour, we heard his story, from the rise of Hitler, restriction on being Jewish, having his family’s application for immigration to the US on the last day allowed before the war, to joining the army and being a part of the U.S. Military program known as Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFAA). It ends up that Hitler pillaged all works of art / culture to put into one of his own museums, but kept them safe from bombings by storing them 700 feet below ground in salt mines. Harry Ettlinger pointed out that the commission was unusual in that it was the first time that a group of nations got together, not to pillage the spoils of war, but to return them.
“You have to respect other people and their cultures as they should respect yours,” Mr. Ettlinger said, at least twice. These were, to me, the most powerful words spoken, as they underlie a power truth that many people seem to forget or do not think applies to them. Look at ISIS, they do not respect neither valuable treasures nor human life, and have sought to eliminate both. You can turn on the news, listen on the radio, engage in meetings, and in some cases, have conversations where respect for others is overlooked, sometimes in action and sometime in word. While it is easier to address person-to-person, when larger groups / nations are involved, this becomes more difficult and could lead to a less than desirable outcome (i.e., war). The credo of the MMFA to respect other people is lacking with some of the people in our world today.
“One of the first tasks,” Mr. Ettlinger was explaining, ”was finding and sending back the stained glass windows that belonged to the Cathedral in Strasbourg, not far from where I grew up.” Bec sat up at this point. “I was there last year,” she proudly told us. It’s a small world - Bec spent time in Karlsruhe last summer, as part of a German exchange program, the same German city that Mr. Ettlinger grew up in, before his family fled to the United States. After the presentation, an excited Bec went up to talk to Mr. Ettlinger and to share some of her pictures. When she showed the picture of the train station, Mr. Ettlinger’s eyes lit up and he proceeded to share some childhood memories of going to the train station with his family. All of a sudden, the generations between them disappeared as they talked about Karlsruhe and made the presentation more real and personal to Bec. It was truly a unique experience.