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The Warsaw Voice » Politics » December 13, 2015
Politics & Society
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Decades of Hunting for Nazi Treasure
December 13, 2015   
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The recent media frenzy over a mysterious Nazi train rumored to be loaded with valuables and hidden in an underground tunnel in the southwestern Lower Silesia region is just the latest in a long series of reports of sensational discoveries made in various locations throughout Poland.

Treasures of different kinds have been recovered from underground locations in Poland many times since World War II. Even though the country’s German invaders were not necessarily the only ones to leave precious objects behind, one recent find was indeed a “Nazi treasure.” On Oct. 10, two German armored vehicles from World War II were fished out of the Pilica River in central Poland. One of these vehicles was an artillery tractor destroyed in an explosion, and the other was an Sd.Kfz.250 armored personnel carrier. Considering the circumstances, the latter vehicle is in near perfect condition, complete with inflated tires and its original camouflage. Museum experts say the personnel carrier will be fully operational after restoration.

Other finds over the past few decades have included a German Jagdpanzer 38(t) tank destroyer, also known under the name of Hetzer. Destroyed by its crew, the vehicle was recovered from the small and swampy Utrata River in Poland’s central Mazovia province. Polish treasure hunters have also dug up Panther tanks—many of these vehicles have been smuggled to Germany for sale.

One of the most exciting finds for military aficionados were three Bofors wz. 36 antitank guns that the Polish army used in 1939. The guns were dug up in Warsaw in 1965, 1975 and 1979 even though they were previously considered to be lost forever. The last one had been buried along with its crew during a German attack on the Warsaw district of Bródno. Aside from the gun and the soldiers’ skeletons, the site revealed seven shells and three unfired projectiles, including one sitting in the barrel.

While armored vehicles are mostly sought after by museums and history fans, treasure hunters are above all interested in jewels, old coins and works of art. Plenty of those have been found in Poland after the war, including the famous Środa Treasure. This was found in the mid-1980s when construction workers in the town of Środa Śląska in southwestern Poland stumbled upon a hoard of jewelry made for Bohemian monarchs by Europe’s finest goldsmiths. The most precious items included a golden crown from the early 14th century, most likely made especially for a royal wedding. In addition to golden ornaments, many of them set with precious stones, the treasure-trove comprised almost 4,000 silver Prague groschen coins and 37 gold florins from different European countries. The collection’s most valuable coins were a Prague ducat and an extremely rare florin coined by Wenceslaus I, Duke of Legnica. Experts estimate the value of the Środa Treasure at zl.250 million.

Before the treasure became a global sensation, it stirred some controversy. The finders kept their discovery under wraps, knowing that rather than receive a generous reward, they could find themselves in serious trouble in the then communist Poland. As a result, the valuables lay abandoned and instead of archeologists, the site was soon swarmed by looters. A gold rush ensued and the locals started digging through the site. Many priceless items were later recovered from a local rubble dump. No police had been sent to Środa Śląska to protect the artifacts, which was particularly surprising considering that three years earlier, several thousand coins had been found during construction work on an adjacent property. The Środa Treasure was plundered and many precious items were destroyed, such as a priceless golden ornament that the two finders split between themselves with a shovel. The golden crown was badly damaged as well. Rumor has it that people used 14th-century Prague groschen to pay for beer in a local bar. In the end, the communist police launched a major operation code-named The Crown. The operation led to several criminal trials and some of the stolen items were recovered with threats and entreaties. Still, three decades later nobody knows what else was stolen and never returned and researchers are still puzzled as to who buried the hoard in Środa Śląska and why.

Lower Silesia province, where Środa Śląska is located and which was part of Germany before World War II, became an El Dorado for treasure hunters after the war. When the war broke out in September 1939, the Nazis began to systematically rob museums, palaces and manor houses in the Polish lands they invaded. They would bring art and cultural artifacts, both stolen and their own, to Lower Silesia, which according to the Third Reich authorities was a perfectly safe region that would remain “forever German.” The plundering continued and intensified until the end of the war and whenever the Germans retreated, they took with them most of the valuable objects they had stolen. One example was the evacuation of German Governor General Hans Frank from Cracow.

In August 1944, one of Frank’s officers, Ernst Wilhelm von Palezieux, transported part of the collection from Cracow’s Wawel Castle to the palace of Count Manfred von Richthofen in Seichau, Lower Silesia. The collection was classified as exceptionally precious and included paintings by da Vinci, Rembrandt, Rubens and Durer, in addition to collections of engravings and boxfuls of coins. Even though the items rightfully belonged to Poland, Frank always regarded them as the property of the Third Reich. When he was later interrogated by U.S. officers, he said he wanted to protect the treasures from being stolen by the Russians.

As the front was drawing dangerously near, the Nazis decided to lock away works of art and other valuables in a number of secret hiding places. The task of coordinating the project was assigned to German art historian Günther Grundmann. He arranged for the treasure to be stashed away in almost 80 secret hiding places whose locations he put on an encrypted list. After the war, the list was accidentally found in the rubble of the public conservator-restorer’s office in Wrocław, the main city of Lower Silesia province that became part of Poland after the war. Polish art historian Józef Gębczak helped decipher the list and the hidden works of art were eventually found. However, by that time, many of the hiding places had been plundered. When Polish officials arrived, they found many valuable paintings already missing, only the picture frames remaining. In many instances, the first people to inspect the sites were Soviet experts seeking stolen art. They treated almost everything they found as spoils of war. One Soviet team exploring the underground section of the Oder Warthe Bogen fortifications—a Nazi fortified military defense line between the Oder and Warta rivers—found a well-camouflaged chamber with paintings, sculptures, coins and other valuables stolen from museums in Cracow, Warsaw and Poznań. The chamber was emptied and its contents put on a special train to Moscow. It was not returned to Poland until 1956.

The Grundmann list indicated that, apart from paintings, items stored in Lower Silesia included altarpieces, prehistoric artifacts, books, engravings, furniture, medals and coins, clothes, tapestries, armor and lots of other historic objects, all meticulously catalogued and counted. Using data from the list, in July and August 1945 alone Polish researchers recovered 100 truckloads of objects. But Grundmann’s list was by no means complete and most of the cultural artifacts stolen in Poland were hidden in places missing from the list. A hiding place in the village of Hain, for example, revealed three paintings by celebrated Polish painter Jan Matejko. To commemorate the event, the village was renamed Matejkowice.

Given that some secret hiding places were probably not on the Grundmann list and others were plundered, it is safe to assume that many of Poland’s treasures have never been found. Some believe that after Grundmann finished drawing up his list, he arranged for dozens of other hiding places to be created. With time, these gave rise to legends and inspired Nazi treasure hunters for decades after the war. In the 1980s, Poland’s communist authorities explored an old monastery in Lubiąż, Lower Silesia, for underground chambers and hidden works of art. All they found was a pot of silver coins, a large part of which were later unlawfully sold abroad by the communist security services.

Gold fever returns

Treasure hunters from around the world descended on the southwestern Polish city of Wałbrzych in recent months after claims that a Nazi train, rumored to be packed with gold and valuables plundered during World War II, had been found in a secret hideout.

Reports of the sensational discovery first surfaced in the summer in Wrocław, the main city of the Lower Silesia region where Wałbrzych is located. The local authorities received a letter from a law firm representing two men claiming to have tracked down the train. In return for revealing the exact location, they wanted a finder’s fee—10 percent of the value of their find.

The news triggered something of a gold rush among both professional and amateur treasure hunters in Poland and beyond.

Historical accounts indicate that Lower Silesia could indeed be where the Nazis hid part of the Third Reich’s gold reserves as well as valuables they stole from 1939 to 1944. Historians believe the Nazis may have chosen Lower Silesia in the hope that the region would remain part of Germany after the war even if the Germans were defeated. To this end, they cleared museums in Berlin and other German cities of works of art and brought them to the Wrocław area. At the time the city was in Germany and had the German name of Breslau—it became part of Poland when borders shifted after the end of World War II in 1945.

Paweł Lekki
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