When I first saw this story hit the media I allowed myself a wry smile. It had a familiar ring to it. The search for looted Nazi treasure has been going on for 70 years and a ‘find’ is always newsworthy.
The latest discovery of the ‘Polish Gold Train’ apparently entombed in a tunnel complex three miles outside the town of Walbrzych has attracted the interest of the world’s media in just a few days.
More information has emerged since the original report and culminated on Friday with a Polish government spokesman, Piotr Zuchowski, confirming that the Polish authorities were now “99% sure that the train exists”. “ Armoured trains from this period were used to carry extremely valuable items” he continued “and this is an armoured train”. According to Zuchowski he was convinced that the story is true when he was shown “ a blurred image from a ground penetrating radar that showed the shape of a train platform and cannons”. The location of the train was apparently revealed in a deathbed statement by a person “who claimed he had helped load the gold train in 1945”. He also voiced concerns that the train could be booby-trapped with explosives. The Deputy Mayor of Walbrzych , Zygmunt Nowaczyh is also credited as having told the press “We have found something”.
However despite the massive publicity, hard facts still appear difficult to come by. The lawyer who wrote to the parish council , announcing the discovery, has still not named the two treasure hunters who wanted confirmation of a 10% finders’ fee before they would identify the alleged location of the ‘gold train’. Press reports indicate that one is a German national and the other a Pole. Nevertheless it does appear, from the comments of the government spokesman, that they, or their lawyer, have been in touch with the authorities.
So far there do not appear to have been any ‘reality checks’. As an historian and co-author of the book ‘Nazi Gold’ I have been a student of the subject for four decades. Indeed, as far as I am aware I am still the only private individual to have tracked down and located stolen Nazi Gold. Over the years I have been approached by many individuals and organisations who thought, or claimed, that they had located stolen Nazi treasure of one type or another. Excluding the regular ‘sightings’ of the Amber Room the most usual commodity is gold bullion and occasionally diamonds. The most common locations are, lakes, mountains, underground caverns plus sunken ships and submarines. Some people are genuine treasure hunters and why not. It can be an exciting and adventurous concept. On the other hand there are also hoaxers who, from time to time, manage to hoodwink television companies into making expensive programmes or do it just for the fun they get out of the resultant publicity.
My own research and frequent contact with the treasure hunting fraternity has taught me to approach these ‘finds’, however exciting they may appear to be, with great caution and this is what I fear is lacking from the current ‘Polish Gold Train’ story.
Initial reports suggested that the ‘armoured train’ (150metres long but now apparently only 100 metres long) bore the insignia of the Reichsbank emblazoned on its sides. Hardly likely that a train on a secret mission would draw attention to itself with such an advertisement. In any event the Reichsbank did not own or operate any trains. The train was said to have been carrying 300 tonnes of gold. That caught everybody’s attention. In fact over 90% of Germany’s remaining Gold Reserves (including bullion stolen from occupied European nations) was recovered by the US Army in a mine at Merkers, Germany in 1945. It weighed around 100 tonnes, needed 13 railway flat cars to transport the bars and 72 hours to unload them and transfer them, in twenty 10-ton trucks, to a special vault in another mine. Some reports suggest that the armoured train was heading to Walbrzych (previously known as Waldenburg) from Wroclaw ( previously known as Breslau) when, about three miles from Walbrzych, it diverted along the branch line that led to its eventual entombment in the tunnel complex. Unfortunately nobody has mentioned any dates when this might have happened and it is important. Wroclaw, 83 kilometres from Walbrzych, was besieged by the Red Army in February 1945 until it finally surrendered on the 6th May 1945. The possibility of a train (even an armoured one) breaking through the Soviet lines would have been, in my opinion, remote. Other reports have the train going in the opposite direction towards Wroclaw before it turned off into a siding. The Germans did not operate many armoured trains and those that they did were invariably much longer and restricted in use to battle areas. To imagine that an armoured train would have been used for the transportation of ‘important documents’ or a high value cargo with the Red Army on the doorstep flies in the face of credibility. Even if that were the case to think that a Wehrmacht commander would drive towards the oncoming Red Army to conceal an armoured train is ridiculous. Depending on when this alleged movement took place the only credible destination would have been the areas still in German hands. That would have meant heading westwards to try and get to Bavaria or heading southwest through Czechoslovakia. The construction of the tunnel complex where the train is allegedly to be found was code-named Operation Riese. It included some narrow gauge rail connections but construction work had ceased by February 1945 when most of the surviving construction workers were evacuated. The report cited by the government spokesman only appears to mention ‘a train platform and cannons’. Presumably he also meant to say ‘and a train’. However the credibility clue this time is ‘a blurred image’ and that presumably was supplied by the two treasure hunters. I am not sure what gauge an armoured train used but I very much doubt if it could easily and quickly have been adapted to run on the narrow gauge system incorporated into Operation Riese. However that aside I will turn to the ‘deathbed statement’. These are actually quite common in Nazi treasure hunting circles. The government spokesman has cited this as evidence of the existence of the train although this information has presumably been supplied to him by the treasure hunters and he appears to have accepted this as fact. Another traditional Nazi treasure hunting scenario is the ‘little old man’ who was involved in the transport of the treasure or just witnessed the burial from behind a tree and didn’t actually bother to mention it for 50, 60 or 70 years. One might wonder why somebody would keep that information to himself for all those years only to pass it on, usually, to people he didn’t even know. Another variation is to provide a hand written map with ‘x’ marks the spot. However in this case the deathbed confession apparently originated with somebody who had allegedly been on the train. However there is no mention of anybody having asked him a few more detailed questions. Whatever the circumstances, if there was a train of any sort there would have been many, many people involved. It defies belief to think that anywhere between a dozen to several dozen men would have maintained total secrecy after the war was over. So far I have not come across a case like that. If there is a train, and I really don’t think that there is, I am sure I can guarantee that there will be nothing of value on it.
In February 2008 the mayor of the German village Deutschendorf received a ‘tip off’ which indicated that a hoard of Nazi gold, diamonds, and quite possibly the Amber Room, had been hidden in a nearby underground cavern. The information originated from a former Luftwaffe officer. His son had now found the documents his late father had hoarded. These contained the co-ordinates that would lead to the treasure which had been hidden at the end of the war. The mayor decided to join forces with the officer’s son. His first public statement was “ I’m well over 90% sure we have found the Amber Room”. Press reports stated that the find had been confirmed with an electro-magnetic detector which had determined that the gold lies somewhere beneath the surface of the East German mountainside probably about 60 metres down. ‘The team (the mayor and his new friend) estimate a find of about 2 tonnes of gold and they believe the discovery includes the Amber Room’ the press report continued. The village has seen an influx of treasure hunters in the last few days. It was believed that the stash was booby trapped. ‘In the midst of all this treasure hunting’ another report commented ‘the question arises –If they find Nazi Gold do they get to keep it? When wartime loot is recovered to whom do the spoils belong?’ Not something I fear that the Walbrzych parish council is going to be troubled with!