Throngs seeking Nazi loot Czarist treasure missing since war

December 24, 1991|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,Special to the Sun

WEIMAR, Germany -- A loose word from Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin has sent hundreds of treasure hunters to southeastern Germany in search of legendary jeweled room panels that vanished at the end of World War II.

The publicity surrounding the possible rediscovery of the Nazi war booty has captured Germany's imagination but also has brought unfavorable attention to Weimar, a city that prefers to be known as the home of German poets rather than of World War II palace robbers.

At the center of all the attention is the Bernsteinzimmer, or Amber Room, a glittering, rococo-style chamber lined with amber-studded panels that was the centerpiece of the Russian czar's Katherine Palace in Pushkin, formerly Tsarskoye Selo.

The room was dismantled by conquering German troops in 1941 and sent back to Koenigsberg (now Kaliningrad), where it was reassembled and put on display for four years until advancing Soviet troops prompted the Germans to pack it up again and send it to Weimar for safekeeping.

But the room's contents, which are valued at a minimum of $150 million, had hardly been stored in Weimar when the U.S. Army pushed toward the city. The Germans ordered that the crates of panels, chandeliers and ornaments be moved, but in the chaos at the end of World War II the shipment disappeared, along with treasures stolen by an infamous Nazi area commander.

Weimar fell under Soviet and later East German control, and both governments, as well as Polish, British and U.S. experts, searched for the Amber Chamber for years. The East German Stasi secret police put one officer on the case for five years, but even the Stasi eventually gave up. Many people said the chamber was destroyed in transit or lost forever in some water-filled bunker.

But not everyone gave up hope. Hans Stadelmann, former head of the Weimar city construction department, and writer Wolfgang Schneider continued to slog through mountains of documents, shipment orders, Nazi plans for a massive bunker south of the city and underground storerooms that had been cemented over at the end of the war.

They felt they were slowly getting closer to finding the treasure when Mr. Yeltsin came to visit Germany last month. In a coy aside, Mr. Yeltsin said the return of German art stolen by Soviet troops would be made easier if the Germans returned the Amber Room. Asked where it was, Mr. Yeltsin said he knew but would not say.

An aide later said that Mr. Yeltsin did not know where the room was but assumed it was buried somewhere in the state of Thuringia.

"I don't think he knew what he was starting when he said he knew where it was," Mr. Stadelmann said.

What he started was a stampede of treasure-hunters, would-be Indiana Joneses wearing floppy hats, toting backpacks and preparing to battle Thuringia's cold, damp forests.

"What will we find? Maybe the Amber Room, probably nothing. But it's still great fun," said Piet Bruck, 32, a Dutch engineer who drove 10 hours to Thuringia to try his luck.

The main site that Mr. Bruck and others have focused on is TTC Jonastal, a valley southwest of Weimar that is the site of a half-finished bunker built for the Nazi leadership. Only about a dozen of the 150 tunnels are accessible to the scores of hikers who have descended on the valley, so any of the others could hold the treasure.

Mr. Stadelmann, however, said an underground network of storerooms in central Weimar is a more likely site, especially because there are clear signs that many of the rooms were cemented over in the closing days of World War II.

"To me it shows how little the Stasi and Russians cooperated, that they never even bored through the walls. Any thorough search would certainly include the closed-off rooms," Mr. Stadelmann said.

In an effort to coordinate the hunt, the Thuringia state government has organized a task force charged with searching carefully through all the underground vaults in and around Weimar. The search is expected to take months.

One reason for the difficulty in finding the treasure is that the person who probably best knew where it lay -- Erich Koch, the East Prussian area commander -- refused to disclose its location before dying in a Polish prison in 1986. Mr. Koch did say, however, that art treasures he looted were sent with the Amber Room to Weimar.

"Find my treasure and you'll find the Amber Room," Mr. Koch reportedly told Polish investigators in 1984.

Weimar was chosen as a storage depot for the stolen art for several reasons, including its identification as a center of classical German culture and its position between the advancing Soviet and U.S. armies. But another reason was that Weimar was also a Nazi stronghold that was run by compliant civil servants and was close to the Buchenwald concentration camp.

Not only did Buchenwald prisoners build the bunker system south of Weimar, but the gold fillings that were wrenched from their teeth before they were killed also disappeared in Weimar, and some think the gold is in the paved-over storage vaults under the city.

"I'll tell you why some people would prefer all this attention to die down," Weimar spokesman Joachim Vogel said. "It's because they may find something, but it may not be the Amber Room. It may not be a nice thing at all."

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