December 2009 | Christopher Lancette

WW II generation gets even greater

Another WW II veteran, John Pistone, is doing something I'm not quite sure I could bring myself to do in his circumstances: He is returning to Germany an invaluable book taken as a war-time trophy. The 87-year-old Ohio native isn't surrendering just any book, either. The one in his possession for more than 60 years is an art book that belonged to Hitler himself.

The act of cultural kindness follows another move that I wrote about in the November issue of Fine Books. Robert Thomas returned a book in Latin about Roman law published in 1593 and a German-language review of court administration in the Duchy of Prussia published in 1578. The literary and life journeys of both men have much in common. Both served their country in WW II, were drawn to books as keepsakes from their role in defeating Hitler, and tucked the volumes away during the entire time they've been back in the United States. Both said that they made the decisions to return their books because it was the right thing to do.

The whole time I was interviewing Thomas, I kept trying to put myself in his shoes ... his current pair anyway. It's impossible for me to imagine what it must be like to fight in a war. I can certainly imagine bibliomadness taking over me and causing me to take books from a sight where I was helping make history.

That, however, is about as far as my certainty takes me. Could I follow in the footsteps of Pistone and Thomas? I'm not sure.

For Thomas, finding out more about his books was part of a personal quest to learn more about where he was during the two days he spent somewhere in Germany helping the Americans take control of one of Germany's notorious salt mines. Once the National Archives in Washington D.C. helped him solve that mystery, Thomas told me that he wanted the books "to go back to their homes."

I can't help but suspect that I'd want to keep such treasures and pass them down for generations to come -- or figure out a way to sell them for a fortune so that a lot of money could go to my pockets. I have no sense of the market value for the kinds of books the World War II veterans parted with, and I haven't been able to speak to anyone who would even speculate on  such a number. My guess would be that such a sale could change somebody's life.

Pistone and Thomas didn't seem to think much about that possibility. 

Initially, I wondered why they could so easily take the actions they did. The more I think about it, though, the easier it is to understand. Their generation grew up with the values of making sacrifices and putting others before themselves. After everything those two men have done already, the unselfish act of returning cultural treasures is simply the latest expression of a personal character whose value is worth way more than what any book sale could bring.