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Press Release
October 6, 2009

National Archives Facilitates Return of 16th Century Books to Germany

U.S. World War II Army veteran Robert Thomas, left, presents two 16th Century books to German Ambassador Klaus Scharioth.

Dr. Robert Thomas speaks at the October 6 event marking his return of two historic 16th Century books to the German government.

Washington, DC…Today at a National Archives press conference, Assistant Archivist Adrienne Thomas announced the return to Germany of two 16th Century German legal volumes found in a salt mine in Ransbach, Hesse, during World War II. These books had been in private hands for over 60 years.

As General Patton's army advanced eastward through Germany in early April 1945, Robert Thomas – no relation to Acting Archivist Adrienne Thomas – an 18-year old soldier with the 358th Infantry Regiment, was inspecting recently captured areas when he stumbled upon a mine. He returned to headquarters to report on what he had found and took with him two 16th Century books -- a German statute book entitled Hofgerichts-Ordnung des Herzogtums Preussen, Konigsberg, 1573, and a commentary on Roman Law, entitled Commentaria in illustrem titulum des iureiurando sive voluntario Sive neessario sive iudiciali. Both books are approximately 7 inches tall, 5 inches wide, and 2 inches thick.

After the war, the soldier returned home earning a Bronze Star medal and a Combat Infantryman Badge, among other medals. He also took home (as souvenirs) the two books he had removed from the mine.

“Today, we celebrate the homecoming and return of these precious books,” said Adrienne Thomas. “The National Archives is honored to facilitate the restitution of these volumes to the German government and people,” she added.

After 60 years, “the books will go home, because it’s the right thing to do,” said Dr. Thomas, the U.S. World War II veteran, who found the books in a salt mine in Germany in 1945.

More than 60 years later, the veteran contacted the National Archives, seeking information about the circumstances surrounding the books. Archivist Greg Bradsher traced the general provenance of the volumes, located the Ransbach mine from which they were removed, and determined both when the two items were placed in the mine, and when they were uncovered by the soldier. In supplying the information to the veteran Dr. Bradsher suggested that the books be returned. Dr. Robert Thomas, the veteran, readily agreed.

U.S. Ambassador J. Christian Kennedy, the Department of State's Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues, commended Dr. Thomas “for taking the initiative to return these two 16th Century jurisprudence volumes to German authorities… 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.”

German Ambassador Dr. Klaus Scharioth thanked the National Archives and Dr. Thomas. “Today’s ceremony is a sign of mutual understanding and reconciliation. It says a lot about the state of German-American friendship, which has been characterized by mutual trust for 60 years now” he said.

Background

During World War II German cultural institutions stored their cultural property – including works of arts, archives, and books – in at least 1,500 repositories to protect them from the ravages of war. Many of these priceless objects were placed in salt mines in Germany – the most famous of which was Merkers mine.

From June 1944 until the last week of March 1945, the former Prussian State Library at Berlin sent for safekeeping, some 1.5 million books, as well as a large collection of maps and manuscripts, to an unworked salt mine in Hesse, with shafts at Heimboldshausen and Ransbach. The mine is about fifteen miles west of the Merkers mine, ten miles west of Vacha, and five miles west of the potash mine at Philippstahl. In August 1944 the University of Marburg Library sent some 250,000 books 80 miles to the northeast to the mine. Later that summer the Berlin State Opera and Theatre sent approximately 50 boxes of musical scores and sheet music for the musicians and actors and upwards of 200,000 stage costumes to the mine. In the spring of 1945 the Landes und Stadtbibliothek of Dusseldorf sent 500,000 books and manuscripts to the mine. Books were also stored in the mine by other libraries and private collectors. And German military archives relating to economics were placed in the mine at the end of March.

Hofgerichts-Ordnung des Herzogtums Preussen originated in the private collection of Arnold Wilhelm Elbers (died in 1807) and will be returned to the Landes-und Universitätsbibliothek Bonn (University and Regional Library in Bonn) to which this collection was transferred in 1829. The commentary on Roman Law was part of the Diocesan Library in Höxter which in the 1950s was taken over by the Akademische Bibliothek (Archbishop’s Academic Library) in Paderborn to which it will return.

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For press information, contact the National Archives Public Affairs Staff at 202-357-5300.

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