"I felt that the beating heart of the story was these letters that the Monuments Men wrote home during the war," he said.
The resulting book, "The Monuments Men," chronicles the experiences of members in northern Europe, including Harry Ettlinger, now 87.
Ettlinger, who lives in New Jersey, fled Nazi Germany with his family the day after his bar mitzvah in 1938 and returned to Europe in 1945 with the U.S. Army. Ettlinger, fluent in German, volunteered to be a Monuments Man. His first assignment was to help interview Adolf Hitler's personal photographer and later went on to help return works of art tucked away in salt mines.
He said that the group's work earned respect from the German people.
"They didn't quite understand how you could come along and give things back," he said, adding, "It gave you a good feeling."
Over the years, Edsel's foundation also has worked to continue the mission of the Monuments Men, which had members overseeing the restitution of stolen works of art for up to six years after the war ended. His foundation, for instance, has been contacted by those who realized something taken as a souvenir during WWII is a historical artifact and has helped with the repatriation of items, including the return to Germany of an album of photographs of artwork Hitler planned for his "Fuhrermuseum."
Following their service as Monuments Men, members returned to their careers, including as architects, artists, curators and museum directors.
Lola Scarpitta-Knapple, of Los Angeles, is grateful Edsel's work has brought attention to the group that included her late father, Salvatore Scarpitta Jr., an artist.
"It's amazing how so many people can know about something that's so interesting but nobody takes the bull by the horns," she said. "And Robert has the energy, the intellect and the heart to have done that. And for that all Monuments Men are happy. Because I think they all wanted to talk about it in the way that was in the public arena because it was so important."
Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art: http://www.monumentsmenfoundation.org
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