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A grandson commemorates a real-life 'Monuments Man'

By Yon Pomrenze, CNN
updated 4:11 PM EST, Mon February 10, 2014
  • "The Monuments Men" movie rekindles memories of a grandfather's Army service
  • In 1946, Seymour Pomrenze oversaw a depot of cultural artifacts looted by Nazis
  • Pomrenze's job was to get them back to the countries and institutions they belonged to
  • The depot, under him and his successors, managed to return more than 3 million objects

(CNN) -- Was Col. Seymour Pomrenze, my grandfather, more of a Clooney or a Damon?

It's not a question I ever thought my family would be discussing. But with the release of "The Monuments Men" movie, it was one we jokingly started talking about. The movie tells the story of an "unlikely World War II platoon, tasked by FDR with going into Germany to rescue artistic masterpieces from Nazi thieves and returning them to their rightful owners." It's touted as "Ocean's Eleven" meets World War II.

In the film, a motley crew of architects and art experts risk shootouts with Nazis as they try to protect and save cultural artifacts. The movie isn't bad. For me, though, it's special because without it and the book it was based on, I may never have known that my grandfather was one of the real-life Monuments Men.

As a kid, I knew my grandfather had been a colonel in the U.S. Army, which I thought was pretty cool. I also knew he had been an archivist, which was decidedly a bit less cool. To me, he was the kind, quiet and slightly reserved grandfather who came with my attention-grabbing, larger-than-life grandmother.

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The family joke was always that he was the colonel, but she was the general. We never really talked about what he did, so I figured it involved boring record keeping. Still, with a distinctive last name, I got a kick out of being "the colonel's grandson."

Before the movie, there was the book of the same name written by Robert Edsel and the foundation he started. Edsel's passion for the subject and his belief that the Monuments Men (almost 350 men and women from 13 countries) hadn't received proper recognition led him to interview my grandfather and others for his book. That's when we first learned his story -- not only what my grandfather had done, but also the scope and significance of what he achieved.

Near the end of World War II, my grandfather volunteered for the OSS (the intelligence agency that was the precursor to the CIA), hoping to go overseas. He was assigned to its Research and Analysis division and spent the last months of the war in India, Burma and China. But it was his post-war assignment that would make him a Monuments Man.

In early 1946, he was assigned to Offenbach, Germany. Because of his previous work in the National Archives, he became a 29-year old army captain tasked with overseeing a depot filled with whole libraries, documents and cultural artifacts that had been looted by the Nazis. When he first walked into the depot, "you feel like crying," he said in a 1989 interview. "Here was the horrible, tragic evidence of what happened," he said, calling it the "cultural Holocaust."

His job was to make sense of the millions of volumes, a thousand Torah scrolls and other objects and to figure out a way to get them back to the countries and institutions they belonged to.

It doesn't sound like an exciting or adventurous job -- not surprisingly, you don't see a character like my grandfather in the movie. But for a quiet, methodical and analytical archivist and the gargantuan task he was up against, it was the perfect match. The Offenbach Archival Depot, first under my grandfather and then his successors, managed to restitute more than 3 million objects. Some of the more prominent collections that he helped to return, both at Offenbach and in later assignments, included the Rothschild family archives to France, the Rosenthaliana and Spinoza libraries to the Netherlands, and the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research collection, which ended up in New York.

In the grand scope of World War II, it's a tiny story line. Just a small measure of justice. According to my father, my grandfather "really felt he was doing his job. He didn't feel like he wasn't recognized, didn't think he was a hero." He enjoyed and appreciated being part of a group of Monuments Men awarded the National Humanities Medal by President George W. Bush in 2007, but didn't feel like he needed it.

He passed away in 2011, but if he were alive today, I think his reaction to the movie would have been the same -- he would have gotten a kick out of it, but probably would have waited to see it on DVD rather than go to the red carpet premiere. The way he described it, "here I was, a little captain, and I got thrown into this historical Jewish episode."

As someone who loved him but never felt like I knew him the way I wish I could, it's a big deal to recast the way you see your grandfather when he's 90 years old. It helps me understand why the archivist was just as cool as the colonel (as proved by a fellow archivist geeking out over finding a marker he once used), and makes it that much more special when I meet someone who still calls me "the colonel's grandson."

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