The Travels of two 16th Century Books from Germany to California, to Washington, D.C., and Back to Germany, 1945-2009

Today’s post is written by Dr. Greg Bradsher.

Three years ago, on October 9, 2009, a former member of General Patton’s Third Army, in Room 105 of the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C. returned to the German Ambassador two 16th Century books he had taken from a German mine during April 1945.

The story how this soldier acquired the books began a year earlier.  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 mine at Merkers, 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.

In the late afternoon of April 2, 1945 elements of the 358th Infantry Regiment (90th Infantry Division, Third U.S. Army) reached Ransbach and quickly moved eastward.  Meanwhile, elements of the same regiment reached Heimboldshausen.  On April 3 elements of the regiment captured Vacha and Philippsthal and secured a bridgehead across the Werra River.  On April 4 the regiment moved 5 miles eastward and captured Merkers and its mine, full of fabulous artworks from Berlin museums and Germany’s gold reserves.

Robert E. Thomas, an 18-year old soldier with the 358th Infantry Regiment, a veteran of fighting on the Siegfried Line, and a headquarters officer, probably on April 2 or 3, were inspecting the area that the 90th Infantry Division had captured.  During their inspection they stumbled upon the mine and entered it. They then returned to their headquarters to report what they had found. Thomas took two books with him. They were a German statue book entitled Hofgerichts-Ordnung des Herzogtums Preusen, Konisgsberg (1573) and the other was a commentary on Roman Law, entitled Commentaria in illustrem titulum des iureiurando sive voluntario Sive neessario sive iudiciali (1593).  After serving time with the occupation forces Thomas returned home to California, taking with a Bronze Star medal, a Combat Infantryman Badge, and the two books he had found in the mine.

In some respects it was lucky that Thomas took the books, because on April 25, 1945, before the American Army was able to place a proper guard at the mine, displaced persons, in the mine looking for costumes to wear (to replace their ragged clothes) accidentally started a fire.  The fire destroyed and damaged at least 25,000 books and made gaining access to the mine’s contents almost impossible until the spring of 1946.

View of the charred remains of books from libraries in Berlin and Marburg that had been stored in a salt mine near Heimboldshausen, Germany

The University of Marburg books in the mine were returned to Marburg in June 1946. The Dusseldorf books were returned to Dusseldorf in August 1946.  The Prussian State Library books, rather than being returned to Berlin (and to the Russian Sector) were transported to the University of Marburg between August 1946 and March 1947.  They were returned to Berlin in the 1990s.

In March 2009 Dr. Robert E. Thomas, a retired Optometrist in Chula Vista, California, and a Volunteer Docent on the Historic Midway Aircraft Carrier Museum in San Diego, having seen an article I had written about the Merkers Mine, contacted me by email, sharing some of his story about his adventure at a mine in Germany near the end of World War II, and asked me to inform him which mine he had visited.  Based on the information Thomas provided and what little I knew of the mines of Hesse and Thuringia I informed Thomas that he might have been at the Ransbach mine.  Thomas wrote back, providing more details, including the fact that he had picked up two books. I responded, providing additional thoughts regarding the story of the mine and suggesting that he might consider returning the books and having the National Archives and Records Administration work with him to facilitate their return.  He agreed and mailed me a packet of information about his experiences and numerous photographs of the books.  On April 6, 2009, for his 83rd birthday, I sent Thomas an account of the books at the Ransbach-Heimboldshausen Mine and asked him why would an 18-year old choose books as a wartime souvenir.  He responded that his interest of books started in high school when he was a frequent visitor to the Long Beach Public Library.

I suggested to Thomas that he send me the books and I would ensure that they would be returned to the German Government.  He was insistent that he fly to Washington, D.C., and personally return them.  I joked with Dr. Thomas that he might have to pay an overdue fee if he showed up in person. But he wanted to come to Washington, D.C.  So working together the NARA staff and the German Embassy arranged a ceremony for the return of the books.  At Archives I Dr. Thomas turned over the books to the German Ambassador (see Washington Post article and video) and subsequently the German Government returned them to their rightful owners.

2 thoughts on “The Travels of two 16th Century Books from Germany to California, to Washington, D.C., and Back to Germany, 1945-2009

  1. I love this story. Thanks for sharing. I’m glad Mr. Thomas was able to come to Washington, DC to personally return the books. For me, this is one of the reasons why our country built the National Archives. Once again, the agency has been a part of something that had great historical significance.

  2. Interesting story! I’m not surprised Dr. Thomas wanted to deliver the books personally instead of trusting a delivery service; I’d want to do the same thing if I had two 400+ year old books.

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