By Judy Ann Newton
It was February 1945 and World War II was in a death spiral for the Germans. Panic was at a fevered pitch and drastic dealings propelled the Third Reich’s power hierarchy to make escape plans from Berlin with their lives, incriminating documents and plundered treasures. Hitler’s master plan was to transform Bavaria into the last Alpine Fortress where Germany’s faithful combatants would hole up in the mountains with supplies enough to launch guerilla warfare against the Allies for years to come. But, as with many of Hitler’s grandiose plans, they depended on the survival of the troops. The powers of the Allied armies were too much for a bedraggled army without supplies, reinforcements, leadership or hope. The only ‘faithful combatants’ that would make the trek to the Alpine Fortresses would be the military leaders and Hitler’s most trusted, and their purpose was not purely for the defence of the Fatherland.
HITLER’S LAKE: Lake Toplitz (Toplitzsee in German) is burrowed between the steep limestone cliffs of the Totes Gebirge (Dead Mountains) in the Salkammergut Lake District of Austria. The lake is 1.8 kms long and 103 metres deep. At the depth of 20 metres, the lake becomes void of oxygen and any life, save a few species of bacteria and worms. But this oxygenless state also means that nothing will rot or rust. The murky waters, silt and piles of submerged logs add to the anomaly of this alpine lake. The lake is virtually impenetrable, making it the perfect hiding place for German military experiments. Between 1943 and 1945 the German army used Lake Toplitz as a proving ground and development centre for underwater dynamite and sophisticated submarine-launched rockets. (After the war, the same plans would be used by the USA to develop the Polaris missile system.) The stone faces surrounding the lake were blasted out to create secret tunnels for weapons development and then blasted again to seal the evidence.
Early 1945 the decision was made to transport the wealth of the German Central Bank, the Reicshbank, for safekeeping. Treasures stolen from conquered peoples and nations during the war had been secreted in Berlin. The gold and jewellery taken from those deported to the concentration and death camps had been melted down, cast into bars and stamped as property of the Reichsbank. The President of the Reichsbank ordered the dispersal of the gold reserves to a potassium mine in Merkes, about 200 miles south of Berlin, in February 1945. The site was already a favourite stockpile for stolen loot because the lack of humidity protected the priceless art treasures purloined from museums and churches all over Europe. Other shipments of Reichsbank reserves were sent to various locations in Bavaria, including Lake Toplitz.
Early one April morning in1945, an Austrian farmer girl, Ida Weisnbacher, was ordered to hitch up her wagon and horses. With few orders, she was led to an awaiting convoy of German trucks and watched as large wooden crates were loaded into her wagon. Through trails too narrow for vehicles, a caravan of horse-drawn wagons inched through the thick woods to the edge of Lake Toplitz. The crates were offloaded into row boats and rowed to the center of the lake, where the crates were dropped down into the frigid depths of the lake. Lake Toplitz had become an emergency dumping ground and now held the wealth of a vanquished government, but also secreted the evidence of evil. Although there is no hard evidence to support the theory, it is believed that documents and passwords leading to Swiss bank accounts were placed in plastic tubes and dumped into the lake for retrieval at a later time. It would also be a safe deposit vault for any survivors in need of serious finances to escape Europe after the war.
THE LEGEND IS BORN: Before the war was over the legends of Hitler’s hidden treasures evolved. In April, General Patton’s US Third Army troops discovered the main stockpile in the Merkers potassium mine after directions from French civilians who had worked in the mines. Stories of other stashes leaked from locals and led to the speculation that only the tip of the iceberg had been found. Eventually the focus of treasure would turn to Lake Toplitz.
Just as the sea, the depths of lakes do not easily give up their dead. In 1947, a US Navy diver sent down to investigate the depths of Lake Toplitz became entangled in debris and died. He would be just one of many who would die in the attempt.
In 1959, a dive team financed by the German magazine Stern retrieved Â£72-million in forged sterling currency, and a printing press. It was the first evidence of Hitler’s secret counterfeiting operation, Operation Bernhard. Skilled Jewish printers and graphic artists had been forced to create counterfeit money in a plan to finance the German war effort and destroy the economic backbone of the British and Americans.
In 1963, Albert Egner, a German sport diver from Munich was hired by two former SS officers to dive into Lake Toplitz to retrieve treasure and plastic tubes. Egner died in the attempt and the former SS officers departed without the valuable links to the Swiss bank accounts. Records assimilated by Allied forces suggested that over $3 million (1945 values) of gold had never been recovered and all indications led to Lake Toplitz as the likely hidey-hole. The Austrian government closed the lake to private divers and set up their own exploration of the lake. For the next 19 months governmental divers brought to the surface 18 crates of counterfeit money along with the printing plates, rockets, projectiles, mines and other experimental weapons.
German biologist Professor Hans Fricke received permission from the Austrian government in 1983 to study the oxygen-starved depths of the lake. In the process of his explorations, he discovered more forged British pounds, German U-Boat research, numerous extinguished rockets and missiles, plus new specie of worm and bacteria. But the discovery of the counterfeit pounds revitalized the legend of Hitler’s lost treasure.
THE SEARCH GOES ON: A three-week dive mission in 2000 recovered a crate of beer lids, supposedly dumped as a joke for treasure hunters.
A collaborative effort by American television network CBS and the World Jewish Congress in 2000 sponsored a remote-controlled submarine search of Lake Toplitz. Oceaneering Technologies perused the lake bottom inch-by-inch during their allotted time, but came nowhere near to exploring the total of the lake’s murky depths. Hampered by debris, towers of trees and thick silt, much of the lake’s floor remained illusive. A crate was discovered and photographed but due to its location and condition, the survey team was unable to retrieve the crate or ascertain the contents. A manned submarine went down to investigate the crate and located more forged British bank notes, but no gold.
In 2005, Bundesforste AG, the state controller for Toplitzsee, had a three-year contract with American Treasure hunter Norman Scott. Any found treasure will be divided between the Americans and the Austrian government.
It is said that the lake is cursed. To date, at least five divers have perished in Lake Toplitz searching for Hitler’s Gold. It is not the known that continues to draw treasure seekers to the formidable bastion, but rather the unknown and the legend. Although presence of gold has not been confirmed, it is the possibility that allures. Although there is no reason to assume that the long-lost treasure of Russia’s Amber Room is crated at the bottom of the lake, it is the prospect that entices. It is the expectation of discovering documents that could help survivors with claims of land, art and money that calls out. It is the hope of finding the papers that will provide answers to the millions of missing from the Holocaust that magnetizes the souls of so many.
Facts about the Toplitzsee:
ALTITUDE: 718m; WIDTH; approx. 250m; LENGTH: 1.8km; DEPTH: 103m. Starting at a depth of about 20m, the water contains no oxygen. At that depth no organic life is possible. The water under 20m does not renew itself and is salty. Its Saline content of about 0.75% comes from the Hasel Mountains. The conductivity of the water changes with the depth, due to differences in the density of the water. Starting at about 85m, there is sulphur and iron bacteria in the water. The water temperature of the lake is abnormal. Its basic temperature is about 5.8oC, which is about 1.8oC warmer than other lakes of this type. The name Toplitzsee probably comes from the Czech word ‘Teplice’ which means ‘warm spring’.
The following treasures have been found so far in the Toplitzsee:
50 crates of gold
a stamp collection
50kg of refined gold
five diamonds from Kaltenbrunner
chalices stolen from Jews in Hungary
22 crates from Skorzeny
20 crates of gold coins
3 crates of gold bullion from the Tartar Treasury
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