At a ceremony at the National Archives in Washington DC, an American World War II veteran handed over two priceless 400-year-old manuscripts to the German Ambassador.
After six decades the two books are to be returned to Germany
In the closing days of World War II, as the Allies marched deeper into Germany, it was not unheard of for soldiers to take souvenirs. Usually they consisted of a helmet, or a flag, or maybe a knife. But in the case of Robert Thomas, an 18-year-old soldier in George Patton's Third Army, his souvenirs turned out to be two legal manuscripts more than 400 years old.
As the tide of the war turned and allied bombing began to take its toll on German buildings and institutions, rare books and artworks were moved underground to caves or abandoned mines. It was in an abandoned salt mine in the small town of Merkers outside of Frankfurt that the young infantryman stumbled on a room filled from floor to ceiling with thousands of books.
A different kind of souvenir
Robert Thomas, left, handed the books over to the German ambassador
Thomas grabbed two of the books and took them home with him to the United States.
"I kept them in two boxes in the darkest coolest place at my house in order to preserve them. They are pretty much in the same condition as I found them," said the 83-year-old veteran. It was the officials at the National Archives who urged Thomas to return them to the rightful owner.
"The books will go home now. That's the right thing to do," said Thomas as he handed over the manuscripts.
The oldest of the two books, one written in German and the other Latin, was published in 1573 and deals with Prussian statutes. The other was published in 1593 and is a treatise on Roman law.
The books were originally from the Diocesan Museum of Paderborn and will be returned to the University of Bonn library where they were before the war.
At a ceremony at the National Archives in Washington DC where Thomas handed the books over to German Ambassador Klaus Scharioth, the ambassador said that getting the books back was a stroke of luck.
The books are legal treatises
"We're really lucky to get these books back," said Scharioth. "The fact that these books are returned tells you a lot about our relationship today - it's a sign of friendship and trust."
Other manuscripts found
It is not the first time that German manuscripts have been returned. In 1992, a woman who had lived through Auschwitz turned over seven medieval manuscripts that had been taken by an American soldier who drove a tank in Patton's army.
The manuscripts were dated from the 15th and 16th centuries and were traced back to St. Anthony's Church in the town of Hambach near Aachen.
One of the most famous hoards of German antiquities and manuscripts are known as the Quedlinburg Treasure. The church treasures were hidden in a mine during the waning weeks of World War II and disappeared soon after US troops occupied the area.
In the 1980s objets d'art started surfacing in a small Texas town in the United States, stolen by an American soldier. When he died, his relatives tried to sell the art work and the ensuing court case made headlines. In the end, the German Cultural Foundation bought most of the works for $3 million.
In 2008, German cultural institutions published a catalog of over 180,000 works of art that disappeared after the war.
Editor: Trinity Hartman