I recently came across an article on the BBC site titled US Soldier Returns Looted Books. After reading it twice, I tried to figure out if Mr. Robert Thomas should be applauded for his honesty, or disparaged for his original theft. As a US soldier serving in Germany during World War II, Mr. Thomas took two stashed books as “souvenirs”, which had been hidden in a salt mine to protect them from allied bombings.
Found in an underground chamber near Frankfurt amidst thousands of books from floor to ceiling, Mr. Thomas brought them back to the US and “kept them in two boxes in the darkest and coolest place” in his home.” Fortunately for Germany, this action left the books well-preserved.
Now 83 years of age, the former soldier has returned the 400 year-old books back to their rightful country. At a ceremony in Washington, the German ambassador Klaus Scharioth remarked that it is a “Gluecksfall” (stroke of luck) for Germany, and will return them to their respective libraries.
War of any sort finds many victims, but we often forget about those of a more obscure, inanimate nature. Voiceless literary works rely on the quick-thinking bravery of their protectors, who in turn, take incredible risks in hopes of preserving pieces of threatened culture and history. So my question is one of motivation. Do we commend Robert Thomas for preserving these priceless literary treasures and his attempt to save them from devastation? Do we praise his decision to turn them back to their rightful owners after keeping them safe within the confines of his own home?… Or, do we rebuke him and demand an explanation for stripping a country of its literary work? Or, perhaps, hold him accountable for preventing the study and appreciation of works kept in the dark for the last 60 years?
I suppose we could beat ourselves up wondering what finally possessed Mr. Thomas to return these 16th century treasures; the article is brief and leaves much room for personal interpretation. Whether Mr. Thomas felt that until now, Germany was unable to provide sanctuary for these works, or whether he had heard them whispering home for far too long, the fact is that they have finally found their way; a story within a story.
(Related fiction: People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks)
*Post by Megan Shaffer