Germans ecstatic about return of religious treasures from GI's Texas family

October 15, 1992|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Berlin Bureau

BERLIN -- The conservator gently brushes one final bit of dust from the 500-year-old gold and gem-be decked Bible that was once GI booty from World War II.

"It is in exceptionally good condition," Wolfgang Pohl, a conservator at Berlin's Handicrafts Museum, announces. "It was very well taken care of in the United States."

The Bible is one of about a dozen "souvenirs" that a U.S. Army lieutenant named Joe Tom Meador sent back home to his mother in Whitewright, Texas, in 1945.

Lieutenant Meador's mother was an art teacher and he had a degree in art history. He had a nice eye for an artifact. He'd sent his mother a healthy chunk of the German national heritage.

Lieutenant Meador's war souvenirs came from the "Quedlinburger Schatz," a treasure trove of religious and cultural artifacts that belongs to the St. Servatius Lutheran congregation whose imposing but austere Romanesque church dominates the medieval town of Quedlinburg.

Some of the pieces date back a thousand years to the very beginnings of the German nation, when the first German kings ruled from Quedlinburg.

Lieutenant Meador's loot has been returned to Germany and will be shown publicly in this country for the first time in half a century in an exhibition called "The Quedlinburg Treasure Back Together Again." It will begin October 31 at the Handicrafts Museum.

As part of the deal to get them back, the artifacts Lieutenant Meador took were exhibited early this year at the Dallas Museum of Art.

The objects from Texas needed no restoration, only delicate cleaning and minor repairs.

"It's amazing how well-kept they were in the United States," Mr. Pohl says. "We are constantly thankful."

The Quedlinburg Treasure is surpassed by only one church collection in Germany, according to Herr Professor Doctor Dieter Koetzsche, the curator of the show.

The treasure contains extraordinary examples of medieval high craftsmanship, the professor says. They become doubly important because the collection was amassed by the first German Kaisers, he says.

The splendidly devout Saxon Queen Mathilde began building St. Servatius after the death in 936 of her husband Heinrich I.

Heinrich, a bird lover who became known as "the conqueror of the Slavs," was the first "Kaiser" who asserted enough real monarchal power to begin the creation of a German nation.

Heinrich and Mathilde remain entombed today beneath twin grills in the undercroft of the church.

Mathilde founded St. Servatius as a "stiftkirche," a kind of monastery church for high-born maidens who didn't necessarily want to become nuns, but felt religious.

The Quedlinburg Treasure accumulated at the church during the Queen's long life and especially during the reigns of her son Otto I and grandson Heinrich II.

By the 12th Century enough stuff had come to the church to fill a special treasure chamber.

Lieutenant Meador kept most of his part of the treasure in a safe deposit box in a Whitewright bank. He would turn up once in a while to take them out and look at them.

He was a quiet, aloof bachelor who helped run the family hardware store and raised orchids in a huge greenhouse behind his home. He died in a nursing home in 1980.

He had enlisted in the Army two days after Pearl Harbor. He ended the war in an artillery outfit sta

tioned at Quedlinburg. His unit was assigned to guard the treasure, which had been stashed in a cave outside town.

"Two old men with pistols guarded it," says the Rev. Friedemann Gosslau, who has been pastor of St. Servatius for 27 years. When U.S. Army troops showed up they decided the local guards didn't have enough firepower and retired them.

Mr. Gosslau has met a sergeant in Lieutenant Meador's outfit who used to see him go into the cave and come out with his jacket bulging. Lieutenant Meador then apparently put his booty in the mail.

"He just wrote on the label 'Bible,' " Mr. Gosslau says. "It was the truth.

Among the artifacts Lieutenant Meador mailed home were the bible with an extraordinary relief of a saint sculpted in gold on the cover, an ivory and gold ritual comb that Heinrich I was said to have used to comb sin out of his hair and a crystal reliquary flask that the faithful believed contained a drop of the Virgin Mary's milk.

Lieutenant Meador's treasures began to surface when his heirs tried to sell a richly filigreed and jewel-encrusted gospel to a New York dealer in medieval art.

After protracted negotiations and the payment of a reported $3 million by the German government, the heirs agreed to return Lieutenant Meador's loot.

Mr. Gosslau looks forward to having the treasure back in his church next summer. But he doesn't think he'll use the Bible in his Sunday services.

"I want a normal Bible," he says, "not a Bible that is worth 30 million marks."

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