April 12, 2012
For years, a leather-bound photo album sat on a bookshelf in John Pistone’s Ohio home. Visitors would ask the World War II veteran about the heavy book. He would respond that he didn’t know much about the contents, but that, as a soldier, he had found it in Adolf Hitler’s abandoned home. Not until a friend did some research did this member of the Greatest Generation understand what he had.
After contacting the Monuments Men Foundation in Dallas, Pistone realized he possessed one of the rare albums that the mad Hitler used to identify artworks that he wanted for a future museum in his hometown. Hitler’s sycophantic lieutenants had pilfered collections across Europe and put pictures of ideas in the albums. Pistone’s book was one of only 31 that Hitler used to make his final decisions.
Now, thanks to Pistone and Robert Edsel, founder and president of the Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art, that album sits in a Berlin museum. Pistone donated the rarity after he learned more about it from his discussions with Edsel.
This story is just one of many that Edsel has collected in his effort to retrieve rare artifacts that American soldiers and others may have inadvertently picked up during World War II. The former Dallas businessman even has written a book, The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History.
In Dallas last week, Edsel handed over to the National Archives two more albums that relatives of other World War II veterans had in their possession. In a ceremony at the Meadows Museum at SMU, Edsel gave archivists albums that Hitler studied to prepare for his museum.
Of course, we know Hitler was a murderous wretch. Not so well known is how much he and his aides pillaged Europe’s cultural treasures. As the war came to a close, some items ended up in the hands of soldiers headed back to America.
Edsel believes hundreds of thousands of works of art are still at large. He calls tracing them down “the unfinished, unwritten chapter of World War II.”
Dwight Eisenhower actually started writing that chapter during the war itself when he authorized a special group of soldiers to track down the treasures Hitler’s men had either stolen or were about to steal. The art experts were known as the “Monuments Men.”
The work is not complete, which is why families of the receding World War II generation should look closely through their loved one’s possessions. Perhaps somewhere in some forgotten stack sits a valuable historical object.
Taking the time to look — and contact the Monuments Men Foundation with a relevant discovery — will help write that last chapter of World War II. Fortunately, one more piece of it was written last week in Dallas.