WWII GI Returns Books Taken From Germany 64 Years Ago

After 64 years, veteran Robert E. Thomas returns books that he took from a salt mine in Germany during WWII that contained national treasures hidden by the Nazis.
By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 8, 2009

Robert E. Thomas, 83, breezed into the National Archives on Tuesday with a smile on his face, a white hankie peeking out of his suit coat pocket and an old briefcase containing the two rare books he filched in Germany 64 years ago.

He was a World War II GI then, fresh from the horrors of combat. He had blundered into one of the notorious salt mines where the Germans stashed their national treasures. And this one contained books. Millions and millions of books from institutions across Germany.

Thomas poked around, saw two that looked old and took them.

Now, a lifetime later, in an ornate room with a fireplace and two chandeliers, and the German ambassador looking on, the retired optometrist from Chula Vista, Calif., was returning them.

Everyone seemed happy. Thomas, a widower with two hearing aids who still has a touch of the brash and cheerful GI about him, said he acted because "it was the right thing to do."

He hadn't been bothered that much by keeping the books all these years. Other things haunted him more -- such as the German soldier who looked like a child Thomas had shot one day in a bunker along the Siegfried Line.

"I've had these books since I was 18 years old," he told a group of officials from the archives, as he removed the plastic wrap covering the two boxes in an anteroom before the ceremony. "I'm relieved, for one. I wanted to return them to the original owners, but I had no clue where to start."

The National Archives was delighted to facilitate the return. Senior archivist Greg Bradsher, whom Thomas had contacted last spring, researched the books, and urged Thomas to return them.

German Ambassador Klaus Scharioth said the 16th-century volumes date back to the dawn of the Protestant Reformation when Germany was the book publishing center of the world.

One of the books, written in Latin and published in 1593 by legal scholar Johannes Borcholt, is a commentary on Roman law, Scharioth said. The other, written in German and published in 1578, dealt with court administration in the Duchy of Prussia.

The first book has been traced to a museum in Paderborn, Germany, the ambassador said. The second has been traced to a library in Bonn.

Both books are small and thick. Thomas said he kept them in two old cardboard boxes -- one of which had long ago contained shaving lotion. He said he never read the books but had kept them in cool, dry, safe places in his home.

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