Returning souvenirs of war


LEIPZIG, Germany - In April 1945, as World War II was coming to an end, James W. Jensen, a young assistant signals officer in the Army's V Corps bumped along the German countryside in his military jeep to courier information to commanders waiting in Leipzig.

Allied forces had entered this town in eastern Germany a week earlier, and what he saw was a desolate and bleak city, empty from the recent battle and destroyed by years of war.

After delivering his message of codes and ciphers to the waiting officers, he and several soldiers explored the town and wandered into the town hall, an ornate stone building that had escaped much of the allied bombing. He poked his head into a room strewn with straw and guns, apparently left by fleeing German troops.

In the corner of a once-locked closet that had been kicked open, he spotted a fancy blue case with a golden monogram of the town's crest.

Inside the case was a book, 3 inches thick, embossed in a gold binding with images of Leipzig etched into the cover. Five tales of the town history and more than a hundred testimonials from famous visitors, including Adolf Hitler, covered its pages.

He put the book in his knapsack and took it with him.

Jensen, telling his story earlier this month, says he took the book because he wanted to take it back to Army headquarters at Naumberg for safekeeping. But he found that headquarters had already moved south.

Not wanting to leave the book for the approaching Soviet troops, he says, he decided to ship the 20-pound book to his home, in Bryan, Texas.

So for 56 years, the artifact townspeople here knew as the Golden Book of Leipzig stayed in Texas, where Jensen occasionally looked at the pages and showed the book to dinner guests. And for the same 56 years, Leipzig officials unsuccessfully searched for it, accepting finally that the book, a priceless artifact representing their municipal history as well the darkest period of their past, was gone forever.

Earlier this month, Jensen took the book back to Leipzig. In an official ceremony at which he was welcomed almost as a hero, Jensen said, "I have always known it was a great treasure, and I am happy to return it to you."

Some of the town's residents later joked that they ought to pat him down before he left again.

Jensen is like many other former GIs, who took priceless artifacts from Europe during the waning days of the war and now, a half-century later, want to return them.

U.S. customs officials at the Art Fraud Investigations Center in New York believe some soldiers in Eastern Europe, who knew the Soviets were moving in behind them, took artifacts to protect them. Some soldiers wanted to sell them for money. But most soldiers, they believe, just wanted souvenirs - and often had no idea of the value of what they were taking.

In the past 10 years, dozens of works of art have been returned by former U.S. soldiers, just as Europe continues to sort through art and heirlooms pilfered from the war's victims.

Joseph R. Webber, the Custom Service's special agent in charge in New York, says that as more of the former soldiers die, family members come upon the items and attempt to learn. In some cases, the passage of time persuades the former soldiers to return what they know doesn't belong to them.

"In some cases, people have a fit of conscience and want to return the items," Webber says. Works of art still listed as missing from Europe could be sitting in someone's garage or on their bedroom wall. U.S and European laws require that the items be returned to their rightful owners, but the person returning an object is entitled to a "finder's fee," or 3 percent to 4 percent of the item's value.

If people try to profit from the exchange or refuse to hand over items they know are stolen, the service's Art Fraud Investigations Center gets involved.

There was the case, for example, of a faded, framed painting of Christ that a nun, Sister Rose Mary Phol, took to furniture restorer Frank Vaccaro in New York in 1998. She had had the painting for 26 years but no longer wanted it; she had covered it with a magazine picture. But she asked Vaccaro to restore the frame.

Vaccaro recognized the frame's lattice backing as being from the 16th century. After researching the matter, he discovered the painting was a 1503 work by Jacopo de Barbari, "Bust of Christ," a painting that officials believe American soldiers stole from the Schwartzburg Castle, a summer retreat in Rudolstadt once used by Hitler, in 1945.

Customs officials eventually charged Vaccaro with extortion for allegedly contacting German authorities and demanding a finder's fee for the painting's return. (The charges were later dropped.) The Customs Service seized the painting, which was returned to Germany last December. The painting is now appraised at $5 million.

If people show good faith in returning the items, they won't face charges, Webber says. "We're not interested in small tokens taken 50 years ago. A $6 million painting on someone's wall, that's something that interests us."

In 1992 the family of former GI Joe Meador returned millions of dollars' worth of treasures for a fee after the Cultural Foundation of Berlin tracked down some of the missing items. Meador had apparently brought the artworks home in 1945 after he came across them in a church in Quedlinburg, Germany.

In Portland, Texas, a young boy named Thomas Watson grew up admiring four prints that hung in the hallway of his childhood home. He admired them and often wondered about the meaning of the oval embossed seal that read "Stadtisches Museum Leipzig" meant. It meant Municiapal Museum of Leipzig.

When he asked his father where the prints came from, his father told him he won them in a dice game.

Forty years later, in 1966, Watson learned the truth. In a conversation with his father just before his father's death, he says, his father made him promise that he would either sell the prints if they were worth something, or return them to where they came from - a castle just outside Leipzig.

After two years of research, Watson pieced together that his father, Lt. William A. Watson, took the prints from the Pachau Castle in 1945 when Company B of the 369th Medical Battalion stayed there. During the war, Leipzig officials hid dozens of paintings and prints in the castle to protect them from bombing raids.

Two years ago Watson mailed the prints to the Leipzig Museum with his father's postponed apology.

"It didn't matter what they were worth," Watson says. "They didn't belong to us."

The Golden Book took even longer to be returned to Leipzig.

Jensen says he waited 56 years to return it because it was difficult to contact the city when it was part of East Germany. Last year, he asked for help from his daughter, who volunteers for the George Bush presidential library, which helped make the arrangements.

Leipzig Mayor Wolfgang Tiefensee says he is not angry that Jensen took the book, but "wishes perhaps that he had returned it sooner."

As he accepted the book, he smiled and said, "It is as if we have closed the Golden Book of the past, and now we can open a new chapter."

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