The Warsaw Voice » Politics » Monthly - September 30, 2015
Politics & Society
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Nazi ‘Treasure’ Train Stirs Media Frenzy
Treasure hunters and reporters from around the world and have descended on the southwestern Polish city of Wa│brzych after claims that a Nazi train, rumored to be packed with gold and valuables plundered during World War II, has been found in a secret hideout.

Reports of the sensational discovery first surfaced Aug. 18 in Wroc│aw, the main city of the Lower Silesia region where Wa│brzych 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.

On Sept. 4, the two treasure hunters identified themselves as Piotr Koper, a Polish construction company owner, and Andreas Richter, a German researcher who seeks genealogical data for inheritance lawyers dealing with cases involving former German territories. In their letter to the Polish authorities, the two men described their find as an “armored train from the World War II era.” The letter suggests that the train may contain “additional equipment, such as self-propelled cannon mounted on platforms … It also contains valuables, valuable industrial materials and precious metals.”

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 Wroc│aw 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.

It is speculated that 300 metric tons of Nazi gold may have been brought to the area, along with hundreds of kilograms of precious stones and even the fabled Amber Room—a lavish and intricate chamber decorated with gold-encrusted amber plates that was given to Russian Czar Peter the Great by Friedrich Wilhelm I of Prussia in 1716—believed to have been spirited away in parts from the Soviet Union during World War II. But over the 70 years since the end of World War II, none of the legendary treasures have been found, even though Lower Silesia has for years been combed by the Polish military and security services, as well as private treasure hunters. According to one historical account, some of the Third Reich’s treasures were loaded on one or more trains and buried in underground tunnels built specifically for this purpose. The construction workers were likely killed on the spot so that the secret would never be revealed. The operation was apparently overseen by senior SS officers, one of whom reportedly told the story to one of the two alleged finders while on his deathbed.

Several days after the news made headlines, a crisis management team gathered in Wa│brzych, formed by members of the police, fire service, the local prosecutor’s office and military officials. Wa│brzych county administrator Jacek Cichura said the team’s priority was to make sure the local population was safe. “If the train does exist, it is likely mined and it might also contain large volumes of methane,” said Cichura. The authorities sealed off the supposed find area, which is around 65 kilometers down railroad tracks leading from Wroc│aw toward Wa│brzych.

At a press conference Sept. 1, Poland’s deputy culture minister Piotr »uchowski said it was “99 percent certain” that the train existed, although what was on the train was unknown. He added that images obtained from a ground-penetrating radar indicated the train was around 100 meters long and armored.

»uchowski cited an opinion from Polish lawyers, according to which the train and everything on board would become state property unless people came forward with ownership claims for objects found on the train, complete with evidence to substantiate their claims.

Such claims were voiced by representatives of the World Jewish Congress, Russian lawyers and other parties. The Jewish organization argued the valuables in question could have been stolen during the Holocaust, while according to the Russians, the objects came from areas the German army seized after invading the Soviet Union June 22, 1941.

Some lawyers say that if the train holds gold deposited by former Breslau residents, then the gold belongs to their heirs, who may be able to present deposit receipts and witness accounts. Other lawyers argue that if the train carried works of art stolen in Nazi-occupied Poland, then the items do not belong to the Polish state, but to the heirs of individual Polish citizens who were robbed. And should there be any gold from the Nazi Reichsbank, there are those who say its legal owner is Germany. One way or another, an international legal dispute will likely begin if treasure is ever unearthed.

Meanwhile, some believe the Nazi treasure train story has been blown out of proportion by the Polish media. Experts on World War II military technology point out that an armored train would simply lack room to accommodate treasures in the quantities journalists have been talking about. For example, 300 tons of gold would require dozens of train cars rather than just five or six, which a 100-meter-train would consist of. Many experts believe the train only holds military equipment with nothing but historical value.

Officials in Wa│brzych have said the train will remain buried for some time because the site is still being examined by the military and other experts, who are trying to protect it from treasure hunters. Autumn and winter make any exploration work hard to conduct anyway and parts of the train are reportedly buried over 50 meters underground. As a result, the mystery is unlikely to be solved before spring.

The local authorities agree that so far the only tangible result of the Nazi treasure train hubbub is a major promotional push for Wa│brzych and the local Ksi▒┐ castle. Rumor has it that the Nazis hid some treasures in the castle’s basement as well. Hotels in the area are packed and visitors from Western Europe are even offered “gold sightseeing tours” of the neighborhood that cost the equivalent of a week’s vacation in the Mediterranean (zl.1,500).