By Robert M. Edsel
John Pistone, another member of the Greatest Generation and longtime friend of the Monuments Men Foundation, has passed. We first met in 2009 shortly after receiving a telephone call from a contractor doing work in Mr. Pistone’s home. In the course of his work there, the contractor had noticed a large old book that rested on the dining room table and asked about it. Mr. Pistone replied, “That’s a book I took from Hitler’s home in May 1945.” Having recently read about the Monuments Men Foundation’s discovery of the Hitler Albums, catalogs containing photographs of works of art looted by the Nazis, the contractor contacted the Foundation wanting to know if Mr. Pistone’s book might be another of these albums. Two days later I was sitting in the kitchen of John Pistone’s home in Shaker Heights, Ohio.
We visited for nearly three hours as John described his war years serving in the 20th Armored Division of General Patton’s Third Army, crossing Europe, liberating three concentration camps including Dachau, and losing buddies along the way. In early May 1945, with Hitler dead and the war just days away from ending, John and other soldiers entered the only place Hitler ever truly considered home, the Berghof, in Berchtesgaden, Germany. Seeing a stack of albums lying about, John picked up two and tried to load them into his backpack. With all his gear and his rifle, the two books, each weighing about ten pounds, proved too heavy to carry. I asked him what he did with the other book. “I tossed it back on the ground; some other soldier picked it up.” It didn’t take me long to determine that the book containing photographs of the works of art Hitler had selected for his Führermuseum in Linz, Austria, was absolutely authentic—and rare. There were only thirty-one such “Linz Albums” made; the Monuments Men found nineteen at the end of the war. The missing twelve were presumed destroyed at Hitler’s east Prussia headquarters or taken by Red Army troops, so this was an enormously important discovery because it confirmed that the missing albums were in fact with Hitler at the Berghof. The discovery of John Pistone’s album provides hope that some of the other eleven Linz Albums will eventually surface.
John Pistone took the album as a souvenir of his service during World War II – and as a reminder that he survived what so many of his comrades did not. He looked at it every day and gave thanks that he made it home. In 1949 he and Verna married and in time started a family that grew to include five wonderful children.
In January 2010, John and his family met me in Washington D.C. to attend a ceremony at the U.S. Department of State honoring John and the Monuments Men Foundation for the donation of the Gemäldegalerie Linz Album to the German History Museum (Deutsches Historisches Museum) in Berlin to join the other nineteen Linz Albums. American officials, including Ambassador J. Christian Kennedy, joined with German Ambassador Klaus Scharioth to recognize John for his selflessness and thank him for setting a sterling example for other World War II veterans who may have returned home with an important cultural or artistic object. At the end of the ceremony, John came over to me and with tears in his eyes said, “Next to my war service and my wife and family, this is the proudest day of my life. Thank you!” Seeing this fine man honored for his service to our nation, with his family present to bear witness, was one of the proudest days of my life, too.
The Monuments Men Foundation family and Pistone family had a special bond since that time, so the news of John’s death saddened us all. But he lives on in our memory, and through the lives of his children and grandchildren.