WWII “Monuments Men” get their due: a Congressional Gold Medal

House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, left, presents the Congressional Gold Medal to Monuments Men Harry Ettlinger, center, and Richard Barancik, Thursday, Oct. 22, 2015, during a ceremony in Emancipation Hall on Capitol Hill in Washington. The award is Congress' highest honor of appreciation for distinguished achievement.
House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, left, presents the Congressional Gold Medal to Monuments Men Harry Ettlinger, center, and Richard Barancik, Thursday, Oct. 22, 2015, during a ceremony in Emancipation Hall on Capitol Hill in Washington. The award is Congress' highest honor of appreciation for distinguished achievement. AP

In 2006, Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, was at a dinner at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth when she found herself eavesdropping on a conversation about the rescue of art during World War II.

“I was astounded,” she told McClatchy in an interview, because she had never heard of the effort. “I’ve always had a special interest in World War II.”

The speaker was Robert Edsel, a self-taught art historian from Dallas who had just self-published a book, “Rescuing Da Vinci,” about the Allied effort to preserve and protect art and cultural treasures during the war.

On Thursday Granger spoke in the U.S. Capitol’s Emancipation Hall, as did Edsel and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio; Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.; and the leadership of the House and Senate as the U.S. honored the “Monuments Men,” the little-known band of art curators, scholars, and architects with the Congressional Gold Medal.

Granger led the legislative effort to recognize the Monuments Men with the gold medal, the nation’s highest civilian honor. Four of the surviving members of the 350 Monuments Men, who were from 14 countries, were on hand at the ceremony, including Harry Ettlinger, who accepted the gold medal on their behalf. There are six surviving members, but two could not travel.

Ettlinger had fled Nazi Germany, but was drafted in the U.S. and became a translator and right-hand man to one of the chiefs of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Section under the Civil Affairs and Military Government Sections of the Allied armies, the formal title of the group.

“This was the greatest plunder ever perpetuated in the history of civilization,” said Ettlinger.

Nazi forces seized art treasures from private collections, beginning with Jewish owners, and also from galleries and museums, with the best art destined for an art museum Adolph Hitler planned for Linz in his native Austria. Thousands of works were found in salt mines after the war, where Ettlinger was among the rescuers.

The event in the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center was attended by hundreds of well-wishers, including more than 175 family members of the living and deceased band of art rescuers as well as members of Congress, including Sens. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., and Robert Menendez, D-N.J., who spoke, and other dignitaries.

“They saved over 5 million pieces of art,” said Granger. “It’s an incredible story. Most of us thought all the stories of World War II had been told.”

The congresswoman, who represents Fort Worth and chairs an appropriations subcommittee that oversees foreign spending, warned in her remarks at the ceremony about the destruction of cultural sites going on today in Syria by the Islamic State.

In honor of her work, the medal, which is under the care of the Smithsonian Institution, will be displayed at the Kimbell in Fort Worth from Nov. 10 - 15.

Boehner, in his last Congressional Gold Medal event as speaker, choked up as he spoke about the history of the medal, which dates back to 1776 when Congress named the first recipient, Gen. George Washington. “It’s a great tradition that’s older than the country itself,” he said. Boehner will resign at the end of October when the House votes on a new speaker.

It was Edsel, a former oil and gas executive who uncovered the story of the Monuments Men while he was living in Europe in the 1990s.

His obsession with the subject led him to write three books: “Rescuing Da Vinci;” “Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History;” and “Saving Italy: The Race to Rescue a Nation's Treasures from the Nazis.” He collaborated on the 2014 “Monuments Men” film, based on his book, with actor-director George Clooney and created a foundation dedicated to finding art treasures and artifacts still missing from the war.

The gold medal ceremony was a capstone for him, too.

“It’s a dream come true,” he said in an interview. “The Monuments Men established a precedent for the protection of cultural treasures that has not been equaled since. We can see from the destruction in Syria and Iraq of cultural works we need to protect.”

But the ceremony also marked the end of the dream. The Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art and books have all been a labor of love –- and money – for Edsel who shocked attendees at a Southern Methodist University lecture Tuesday by announcing the closure of the foundation.

“We had to meet reality,” said Edsel, who volunteers as the foundation’s chairman.

Edsel had raised $3.5 million for the nonprofit, but he has had to supply $3.5 million of his own funds to meet $7 million in costs since the foundation was created in 2007.

“I’ve sold my art collection,” he said.

Donors have now come forward and may still save the foundation, Edsel said Thursday. But his focus was on the recognition that the nearly anonymous Monuments Men were now receiving. But Edsel got some of the tribute, too. At the beginning of her remarks to the Congressional Gold Medal recipients, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., looked at him and said, “Robert Edsel, you’re a hero to us.”

Family members of Monuments Man Guthorm Kavli traveled from Norway for the ceremony.

“I thought it was very moving at times,” said grandson Lars Guthorm Kavli “It kind of ties our family together.”

The Monuments Men at the Congressional Gold Medal ceremony:

Richard Barancik: Served with the U.S. Army in Europe and joined the “Monuments Men” division in Austria after World War II ended. He assisted with the rescue and protection of art treasures and had a long career as an architect in Chicago where he lives.

Harry Ettlinger: A German-born Jew whose family fled the Nazis, Ettlinger was in the U.S. Army and served as translator and aide to James Rorimar, one of the leaders of the Monuments Men. Ettlinger was instrumental in the rescue of artwork from salt mines in Germany. He became a mechanical engineer and lives in New Jersey. He is active in educating young people about the Holocaust and is co-chair of the Wallenburg Foundation of New Jersey.

Motoko Fujishiro Huthwaite: The U.S.-born daughter of Japanese immigrants, Huthwaite and her family returned to Japan to avoid internment camps in the U.S. After the war, she briefly served with the Monuments Men in Japan as a clerk-typist. A teacher for many years, she earned her Ph.D. in elementary education and lives outside of Detroit.

Bernard Taper: Born in Scotland and raised in London, Taper was sent to family in the U.S. and was drafted into the U.S. Army. In 1946 he joined the Monuments Men in Germany as an arts intelligence officer to track down works of art and culture looted by the Nazis. A journalist, Taper worked for numerous publications, including “The New Yorker” and taught at the University of California, Berkeley. He lives in Berkeley.