MARLBORO, N.J. — Seeing the majestic stained glass windows of Strasbourg Cathedral during a vacation in France last April left Rose Ann and Vince Scotti in awe.
Last week, the Colts Neck couple were awestruck again. This time, they were listening to Harry Ettlinger, one of the men who helped recover the storied windows, dating to the 12th through 14th centuries, from a secret Nazi lair at the end of World War II.
During a talk at the public library here last week, the 88-year-old Rockaway resident enthralled the Scottis and about 150 other people with vivid recollections of his wartime role as an interpreter with a special Army unit known as the Monuments Men, the subject of a recent movie of the same name starring George Clooney and Matt Damon.
Ettlinger's character, called Sam Epstein in the film, is portrayed by actor Dimitri Leonidas.
"They changed everybody's names because they wanted to keep all the money for themselves," Ettlinger quipped.
Born in Germany, Ettlinger escaped to America with his Jewish family shortly before the war, eventually settling in Newark. Drafted in 1944, he was a 19-year-old private heading into combat during the Battle of the Bulge when he was pulled from his unit.
The Army needed German-speaking translators for upcoming war crimes trials, but before those orders came through, Ettlinger stumbled upon the obscure Monuments Men unit in Munich and volunteered.
Officially the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section, the unit, which included art historians, museum curators and professors, was tasked with locating and recovering the Nazis' prodigious haul of art and other culturally significant items that had been systematically looted from churches, synagogues, museums and the private collections of Holocaust victims.
All told, the Monuments Men were able to return some 5 million works to their home countries and rightful owners.
Ettlinger spent nearly a year working in a pair of ancient salt mines in southern Germany to identify and catalog thousands of art works and other valuables stored there.
Some 40,000 crates of items ultimately were taken out of the two mines. Among the first were those containing the missing stained glass windows from Strasbourg, located in the Alsace region of France, about 40 miles from Karlsruhe, Germany, Ettlinger's hometown. U.S. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower directed that the windows to be promptly returned to France.
When the Scottis visited the cathedral this year, their French tour guide said the country was indebted to the Americans for recovering such a priceless treasure.
"I don't know if you knew it but your work is being acknowledged," Rose Ann Scotti told Ettlinger during a question-and-answer session.
Ettlinger also helped recover a Rembrandt self-portrait that belonged to the museum in Karlsruhe, a scene that is included in the movie. While he enjoyed the film, much of it, particularly the use of composite characters, was pure "Hollywood," he said.
While many stolen artworks were never recovered — just two years ago, more than a thousand pieces from the Nazis' art trove turned up in a Munich apartment — Ettlinger is proud of what the Monument Men were able to accomplish.
"I think all Americans should be proud that, instead of taking spoils of war, (the U.S. government) saw to it that they were returned to their rightful owners," he said. "It was the right thing to do."