Germany is getting back two 400-year-old law books from a former US soldier who took them as souvenirs from a salt mine storage vault in the closing months of World War II.
Robert Thomas, who was an 18-year-old just out of high school when he found the books, brought them from his home in California to give to German Ambassador Klaus Scharioth in a ceremony on Tuesday at the National Archives building in the capital.
Thomas said he was returning the books after almost 65 years at the suggestion of several experts, including US archivist Greg Bradsher, an expert on the subject.
Bradsher, Thomas said, suggested that the books — one in Latin and one in German — should be returned to libraries from which the Germans had taken them for protection from the raging battle that Thomas was a part of.
In an interview on Monday, Thomas read from a statement he planned to make on Tuesday: “With the gracious support of the German government ... the books will go home because it’s the right thing to do.”
Thomas was recuperating from wounds caused by “Screaming Mimis,” the German Nebelwerfer artillery rocket, sustained as he and other soldiers of General George Patton’s Third Army, 90th Division, fought to break the Siegfried line, invade Germany and end the war in Europe.
Thomas said a young lieutenant pulled him out of his recuperation center and they rode a motorcycle into Ransbach, where people were hanging out white flags.
They found a mine there, 760m below the surface, that was filled with up to 2 million books and, it turned out, 200,000 costumes from the Berlin State Opera. The costumes were stored in early 1945, shortly before the Americans arrived. The books had started coming in mid-1944.
Simply to survive the war, the law books had to beat some significant odds. At least 15 million books were lost to US and British bombers as they pounded the German heartland ahead of the eventual invasion, Bradsher said.
“Early on, whole libraries were blown away,” he said.
It appears uncertain where the books will go.
The Latin volume is expected to be returned to the Akademische Bibliothek in Paderborn.
The German-language book will go to the foreign ministry, but its final destination was unclear.
The mine where Thomas took his souvenirs had huge stacks of books. Some 25,000 of them were burned in an accidental fire caused by townspeople who, after Thomas left, went into the mine to get the costumes to use as clothing.