HUNTING HITLER’S HIDDEN LOOT
Secret Nazi trains crammed with stolen treasures have been the stuff of legend ever since the end of World War II. Now two men in Poland claim to have found a long-hidden stash of Hitler’s stolen gold, writes Jamie Seidel
ADYING NAZI soldier. His deathbed confession. An armoured train loaded with nearly 300 tonnes of gold. It’s the stuff of an Indiana Jones movie. But it’s a tale that has thrilled Poland and has treasure hunters scrambling for clues.
What makes this tale of long-lost Nazi loot different is two prospectors have filed a legal claim on their find. And the Polish Government is taking them seriously.
It’s just that it hasn’t actually been dug up yet.
The story goes something like this:
It was May 1945, the last days of the war. Tired, haggard German troops were in full retreat. Soviet fighter planes ruled the sky – swooping on any target of opportunity. Amid the chaos of retreat, a last heavily armoured and armed German train pulled into a station in the city of Wroclaw in eastern Poland. It was quickly and quietly loaded up. Some saw it leaving along a south-western line.
It was never seen again. Where did it go? Where could it hide? Did it even exist?
Speculation grew and grew: Was this train carrying loot the Nazis had assembled from Poland’s museums, galleries and treasury? Was it the valuables stripped from Polish Jews before they were sent to the concentration camps? Was it something else – the fabulous Amber Room panels ripped from a Russian palace perhaps?
About 70 years later, the story has surged back with a vengeance.
Early last month, two men contacted the Walbrzych local council through a lawyer. They demanded a guarantee that they would be granted the 10 per cent cut Polish treasure laws promise. They had found the legendary gold train, they claimed, buried in a collapsed tunnel near a 4km stretch of track between Wroclaw and Walbrzych, near the border with the Czech Republic and Germany. It was now time to cash in.
“We inform you about the finding by the shareholders (of an) armoured train from WWII. The train is likely to contain additional equipment in the form of self-propelled guns positioned on platforms with a total length of about 150 metres. The train also contains valuable, rare industrial materials and precious ores,” the legal letter sent to the Walbrzych district council reads.
Their lawyer, Jaroslaw Chmielewski, spoke to Radio Wroclaw about the hunters’ claim: “This is a treasure of global significance, comparable with the Titanic.” But there was a catch. “They don’t want to show us the place before the 10 per cent guarantee is made,” a council official told local media. “That is a big problem, because we don’t know what’s inside.”
Then, a few days later, Poland’s Ministry of Culture stepped forward. Its spokesman stated authorities were “99 per cent certain” a buried Nazi train had indeed been found. A groundpenetrating radar scan had confirmed it.
“We do not know what is inside the train. Probably military equipment but also possibly jewellery, works of art and archive documents,” Deputy Culture Minister Piotr Zuchowski (right) said. “The fact that it is armoured indicates it has a special cargo.”
He didn’t say how he knew it was armoured.
The news was incendiary. A wave of excitement flashed around the world. Troops have been deployed. Rail police have been activated. A swathe of forest and track declared outof-bounds.
But, two weeks later, there’s still no Nazi train.
Now authorities have to contend with a surge of treasure hunters stumbling into the path of trains on busy railway lines, trampling through the woods and accidentally setting alight the forests surrounding the old Nazi castle headquarters of Ksiaz.
They’ve since appealed to the public to keep out of the area. There is a “huge probability”, they say, that the train is booby-trapped.
Two weeks ks after the announcement, Polish authorities are not exactly backtracking on their statements.But they are attempting to put the brakes on rampant speculation.
A Wroclaw administrator said earlier this week that the claims “aren’t any stronger than similar claims made in past decades.”
Polish government officials have also been emphasising the train is more than likely filled with rusted weapons and unexploded munitions intended to assist in the defence of the collapsing Third Reich.
And, perhaps, the treasure hunters’ 10 per cent isn’t so certain after all.
Russia has already reminded Poland of its obligations under the war reparations agreement reached during the Potsdam Conference of 1945: Any loot recovered from the Nazis was to be split equally between the US, Britain, France and the Soviet Union.
The World Jewish Congress has also made representations: It wants any jewellery or other valuables that may have belonged to murdered Jews returned to their families, immediately. None of this has eased public enthusiasm.
Even now, the tunnels there have not been fully explored or mapped. This is why talk of it being the Nazis’ secret treasure stash still has traction
and treasure hunters are thronging to a 200m mound near Walim, a village about 20km west of Walbrzych.
They’ve been drawn there by unusual police and military activity.
Black vans. Electronic surveillance equipment. Crime scene tape. Fresh “no entry” signs.
All serve only to add to the air of anticipation.
We know the Nazis used armoured trains. Clad in heavy sheets of toughened steel, they also carried cannons and anti-aircraft guns. Fortified carriages protected platoons of loyal troops.
We know they were used to carry dignitaries. Secret weapons. Treasure. One such train was seized by US soldiers in 1945. It was hauling 24 carriages stuffed with $250 million worth of jewellery and artwork out of Budapest. So the idea is real enough. But then there’s the mystery of the Walbrzych Nazi tunnel complex.
Project Riese (meaning “giant”) was one of the Nazis’ biggest building projects of World War II.
More than 5000 slave labourers died hewing caverns into the living rock of the Owl Mountains surrounding Ksiaz castle. Nobody knows what they were for.
Was it a nuclear research facility, an advanced weapon factory – or an impenetrable command centre?
Then there are the fringe theories: That it was the site of the “Nazi Bell” research project into particle cannons, anti-gravity and time travel.
In truth there is some indication that Ksiaz castle and its bunkers were intended to be a secret retreat for Adolf Hitler. After all, an ensuite and lavatory was installed to his personal specifications.
Even now, the tunnels there have not been fully explored or mapped. This is why talk of it being the Nazis’ secret treasure stash still has traction.
There’s another complication.
There may even be more than one hidden train.
“We actually have two gold train legends,” local historian Joanna Lamparska told Polish media.
“One is supposed to be under a mountain and the other somewhere around Walbrzych. But no one has ever seen documentary evidence confirming the existence of such trains.”
The gold train stories are nothing new in Walbrzych. It’s been a vibrant part of local folklore since World War II.
Treasure hunters are nothing new either. The mystery of Project Riese has long drawn explorers, cranks and truth-seekers.
What makes this time different is that someone has actually staked a legal claim.
Little is known about the two men.
One is said to be German, the other Polish. They say they have been scouring railway sidings in the area after being told of the burial of the loot train by a dying former German soldier.
He even handed them a 70-year-old hand-drawn map.
Lawyer Chmielewski told media his clients “are not treasure hunters, attention seekers” but “people who have significant experience in this (area)”.
While no fountain of treasure has yet erupted from the earth, the Walbrzych district council has been tacitly encouraging the gold rush.
The region is suffering. Mine closures have resulted in the local economy collapsing, and a third of its populace has moved away.
Treasure aside, the region’s rich history and beautiful terrain have plenty of allure.
But the opportunity to exploit a mystery is proving irresistible.
Throngs of hopeful onlookers – and media – already have the region’s bed and breakfast operators smiling.
Parts of Project Riese and the underground facilities at Ksiaz castle have long since been secured and turned into tourist attractions.
Among the dank caverns are the remains of rusted rifles, dismantled radios and corroded construction facilities.
There are also plenty of warning signs where the tunnels have been collapsed or inadequately explored.
Despite all the speculation, the two treasure hunters haven’t actually revealed to anyone where they think the train is. There are vague rumblings in Polish media that they may have promised to tell the president of Walbrzych next week.
In the meantime, the Polish Government has sent military and police personnel to secure and survey a site alongside a heavily used line.
And the locals are enjoying telling all who will listen their tales of the grim Nazi occupation forces, their secret toils in the mountains, and the distant rumble of armoured trains.