U.S. World War II Veteran Returns 500-Year-Old Books to Germany

Bloomberg 6 October 2009
By Catherine Hickley

Robert Thomas, a U.S. World War II veteran, agreed to return to the German government two 16th- century legal volumes that he took from a salt mine 64 years ago as an 18-year-old soldier, the U.S. National Archives said.

Thomas, a retired optometrist, contacted the National Archives to seek information about their provenance, according to a press statement from the National Archives. He agreed to a suggestion by archivist Greg Bradsher that the two of the works should be returned.

“The books will go home, because it’s the right thing to do,” Thomas said, according to the statement sent by e-mail.

Many German cultural institutions stored their valuable collections in salt mines during the war to protect them from bombing attacks. Between June 1944 and March 1945, the Prussian State Library sent some 1.5 million volumes to an unworked salt mine in the state of Hesse, with shafts at Heimboldshausen and Ransbach, the U.S. National Archives said.

Thomas was inspecting recently captured areas when he stumbled across the mine, the statement said. He returned to his headquarters to report on what he had found and took the two books with him, the National Archives said.

One is a German statute manual and the other is a commentary on Roman law, the statement said. They were scheduled to be handed back to Germany’s ambassador to the U.S., Klaus Scharioth, at a press event in Washington today.

Several items lost from Germany in the aftermath of World War II have returned decades after U.S. soldiers took them from the depots and back to their homes. In March, a New York court ordered a collector to return a 16th-century volume valued at $600,000 to a museum in Stuttgart.

U.S. Ambassador J. Christian Kennedy, the U.S. State Department’s special envoy for Holocaust issues, thanked Thomas for returning the volumes, according to the statement.

“I hope his decision to take this step will serve as an example for others in this country and elsewhere to step forward and return such items displaced during World War II,” he said.

To contact the writer on the story: Catherine Hickley in Berlin at
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