Tales of lost treasures and priceless artifacts have a certain mysterious charm and mystique to them that have enthralled humankind for centuries. The idea that somewhere out there is a trove of priceless treasure just sitting there gathering dust is irresistible, launching countless discussions and attempts to find them. Among the many modern legends of lost treasures a good number originate in the battlefields of World War II, during which chaos reigned supreme in many parts of the civilized world. During all of the bloodshed and war, some intriguing artifacts and other treasures seem to have just faded away, vanishing to leave deep mysteries that have gone unsolved to this day, and which many still find themselves obsessed with finding.
Many of the legends of lost World War II treasure revolve around missing Nazi gold. Throughout the years of the tumultous war, in addition to stealing countless priceless pieces of art and artifacts, the nefarious Nazis also straight up pilfered massive amounts of gold, much of it which sort of just disappeared in the years after hostilities came to an end, and which in many cases has gone on to birth various shadowy legends. One of the more well known of these is the story of the vast hoard of stolen gold supposedly sunken to the bottom of Lake Toplitz, deep within the remote and scenic Austrian Alps. The lake itself is rather small but deep, just one mile long and 300 feet deep, and is nestled among sheer, steep limestone cliffs in the Salzkammergut region in Austria, making it a breathtakingly beautiful, but very inaccessible and isolated locale. Yet it is here where Nazis would allegedly dump a veritable fortune of gold and other valuable items in the last days of the war.
The story of the Lake Toplitz gold begins in 1945, in the final months of the war when a desperate and defeated Nazi regime was taking its last, dying gasps. They still had massive amounts of gold, having melted much of it down to make into bars stamped with the mark of the German central bank, the Reichsbank, and they were keen to make sure that this vast wealth did not fall into Allied hands. In their opinion, it was better to make the gold just disappear rather than let the enemy have it, and to this end in February of 1945 the president of the Reichsbank ordered a huge cache of the amassed treasure to be laboriously moved through the mountains to the small village of Merkers, to then be hidden in an enormous underground cavern that was the remains of a potassium mine. Unfortunately for them, the Americans would find it and confiscate an estimated $520 million dollars of loot, but this was not all of it.
Desperate to move the remaining stash and hide whatever gold was left, it was sent out all over Europe, and in this case the Nazis had horse drawn wagons loaded with boxes of it sent out through lonely, frigid mountain passes to the remote Lake Toplitz and its sweeping cliffs, where soldiers then proceeded to dump box after box into the crystal clear waters. The rumors of this lost gold spread, bolstered by the testimony of a peasant woman named Ida Weisenbacher, who had seen them dumping it with her own eyes, and thus would begin an ongoing treasure hunt that has continued to this day. Over the years there have been many expeditions to the freezing, crystal clear azure waters of Lake Toplitz, and this has proven to be a rather dangerous proposition even for the most experienced divers considering the forbidding inaccessibility of the lake, the harsh conditions, its incredibly frigid water, and its numerous craggy caves and steep drops.
In most cases nothing has ever been found here, certainly no sign of any lost gold at all, but there have been some curious discoveries made in the lake nevertheless. In 1959, divers found some mysterious wooden crates hidden away on the deep bottom that were found to contain an enormous amount of fake British currency, along with the printing press that had been used to counterfeit it all. This was a remnant of the German Operation Bernhard, which had seen the Nazis produce a total of the equivalent of around $4.5 billion of counterfeit British currency for the purpose of disrupting the enemy’s economy and helping them to illegally pay for the war effort. While this is all very interesting, there are still those who insist that the actual Nazi gold is down there somewhere in those depths and the search has continued, claiming the lives of at least seven divers in the process and producing no gold whatsoever.
Over the years there has been found more counterfeit money, as well as various pieces of abandoned weaponry such as rockets, projectiles, gun, and mines, yet no sign of the fabled gold. In 2000, the news organization CBS funded a massive, large scale search of the lake using a submarine and sophisticated mapping equipment, but although they scoured every inch of the lake it was hard to ascertain whether there was any gold hidden there, as it was found that the bottom of the lake was littered with piles upon piles of fallen trees that had plummeted into the water from above over the decades, piling up to 60 feet deep in some areas. Considering this and the difficulty of navigating the treacherous lake bottom with the sub, the expedition failed, leaving them with no gold but also with the conclusion that it could be down there buried beneath the trees. There are many who are still convinced of the reality of Lake Toplitz’ lost gold, and sporadic expeditions to look for it have gone on to this day.
Speaking of Nazi gold, there is also the persistent tale of what has come to be known as the The Nazi Gold Train. In April of 1945, as the Soviet army closed in on them, the Nazis supposedly loaded up an armored military train with hundreds of millions of dollars of gold, gems, and various looted Jewish treasures, and sent it barreling off into the secluded Owl Mountains of southwestern Poland, where it just sort of careened off the face of the earth, leaving mystery in its wake ever since. Skeptics have argued that the train may have never existed at all outside of the imagination, and that it is just a war legend, but there are plenty of people who insist that it was real, and have even claimed to have located its probable location. One of the main theories is that is was sequestered away within a secret Nazi facility in the mountains called Der Riese, and there are other ideas that it was intercepted by the Allies and stolen, but despite numerous efforts to find the lost Nazi gold train and even unconfirmed claims to have located it, it remains elusive and almost mythical.
One of the most spectacular Nazi lost treasures was a whole room crafted from immensely valuable amber and gold, which would go on to vanish into thin air. The Amber Room began its life in 1701, when it was designed by the German architect Andreas Schlüter, and construction on the ornate wall panels was begun at the Charlottenburg Palace in Prussia, which was the residence of the first King of Prussia, Friedrich I. The King’s wife at the time, Sophie Charlotte, had requested it be erected within the palace. The room was actually mostly built by an amber specialist by the name of Gottfried Wolfram, of the Royal Court of Denmark. Wolfram worked on the room until 1707, after which the two amber masters Gottfried Turau and Ernst Schacht continued construction and completed it in 1709.
The room was one of the most amazing masterpieces of 18th century craftsmanship and artistry, and must surely have been a spectacle to behold. Upon the walls of the room were enormous panels fashioned from tons of the purest Danish amber, which was encrusted with various gemstones and inlaid with gold. Upon these sweeping panels of gold and gem covered amber were installed ornate mirrors on gold fittings that were meticulously decorated with more gold and pieces of amber, as well as jewel emblazoned mosaics trimmed with even more gold. The overall impression was of a shimmering room completely made of gold and amber that was said to blaze into a fiery brilliance when lit up by the room’s 565 candles. It was purportedly such an awe-inspiring site that it was often referred to as “The 8th Wonder of the World.”
In subsequent years more gold, amber, and gems were brought in, and when renovations were eventually completed, The Amber Room was comprised of around 6 tons of amber and gems, was 17 meters (55.8 feet ) in length, and covered around 55 square meters with glittering beauty. It has been estimated by historians as having a total value of around 150 million dollars in today’s money. Truly this must have been one of the most breathtaking works of art in human history. The Amber Room was passed down to subsequent rulers in Russia, for whom it remained a priceless showcase of the palace and a source of pride until 1941, when WWII brought with it hordes of hostile Germans looking to loot and kill.
The last days of The Amber Room came with the beginning of Hitler’s Operation Barbarossa, which entailed the deployment of millions of German troops into the Soviet Union. What followed was the desecration and looting of tens of thousands of irreplaceable paintings, sculptures, and other works of art, jewels, and priceless artifacts. This was an orgy of looting unlike anything that had ever been witnessed, and massive amounts of cultural heritage were being devoured by the Nazi scourge at a frightening pace. This relentless ransacking force was soon at the doorstep of Pushkin, and the majestic beauty of the Amber room was imperiled. The curators and officials of the Catherine Palace realized the gravity of the situation. As bombs exploded throughout the city, they frantically tried to disassemble the Amber Room in order to move it elsewhere and therefore prevent it from being looted. As they did so, the amber panels began to crumble due to having weakened over the years.
Hesitant to cause further damage to the priceless artifact, desperate officials ended up hiding the panels under wallpaper, gauze, and cotton in a last ditch effort to keep it out of German hands. The ruse did not fool the marauding forces, who quickly discovered the famous prize. The Germans were extremely efficient in their ability to dismantle the Amber Room. Within 36 hours it had been packed into 27 crates and moved to the Baltic Coast city of Königsberg, presently Kaliningrad, and put on display. In 1943 it was stored at Königsberg Castle in a museum, where it became a favorite of the museum’s director, Alfred Rohde. Rhode had a fascination with amber, and reportedly spent a good amount of time studying the intricate craftsmanship of the panels.
As the end of WWII loomed, plans were put into place to pack the panels into crates and store them away from the approaching Allied forces. These efforts were apparently too slow, because soon there were Allied warplanes buzzing across the sky and pummeling the city below into rubble with their bombs. Königsberg Castle was smashed to pieces, along with most of the rest of the city, and so it was presumed that the Amber Room had been destroyed as well. The Amber Room has never been seen since. The official story is that the Amber Room had become just another casualty of war, and for many that was the end of that. However, over the years it was speculated that perhaps it had not been destroyed. Rumors abounded of people sighting the missing panels or knowing someone who had had a hand in their removal. What in fact happened to it in those final days of the war is a matter of opinion, and there are various theories on what the ultimate fate of the Amber Room was.
Besides the obvious idea that the room was in fact destroyed by Allied forces, others have speculated that the panels were indeed moved as originally planned. The plan at Königsberg Castle to pack the panels away was thought up at the end of 1943, and the castle wasn’t destroyed by bombing until August of the following year, giving the Germans plenty of time to have the Amber Room moved. The trail the panels may have taken is uncertain. Some speculate they remained somewhere in the city, hidden away from the destruction. Others think they were loaded onto a ship to be transported, after which the ship sank and brought the Amber Room to the bottom of the ocean where it still remains. Still others believe the panels were successfully moved out of the city to join the myriad of other looted treasures, many of which are still missing. Other bizarre theories include the idea that Stalin had made a fake Amber Room which is the one the Germans stole while the real one remained untouched. Others say that the room simply got misplaced, and is sitting in its crates in some anonymous warehouse somewhere, lost and forgotten, with no one being none the wiser. It has also been suggested that some secret cabal has taken possession of the room and guards it from scrutiny to this day. Whatever it was that happened to this priceless treasure, it has never been seen in public again and its whereabouts remain a mystery.
Experts have ascertained that the fragile nature of the materials used in the Amber Room’s construction mean that it has certainly deteriorated and decayed into an unsalvageable state by now. Even before it was stolen, the room had allegedly fallen into a state of disrepair, with many of the pieces and designs falling out or otherwise degraded and in need of restoration. It is believed that even if it were to be found, it would be in a state heavily in need of restoration, possibly unsalvageable, and certainly unworthy of being displayed in its former glory. Nevertheless, since the Amber Room’s disappearance, there has been sporadic tantalizing evidence of it throughout the ensuing years in the form of pieces and shards allegedly from the panels. One of the more promising of these came in 1997, when German art detectives heard that someone was trying to sell what they claimed to be a piece of the Amber Room. When the office of the suspicious party’s lawyer was raided, detectives uncovered a mosaic panel from the room. The seller of the item claimed that he had had no idea as to the object’s origin. It was later found that the seller’s father had been a German soldier during the war, so it is likely that the pieces were stolen by the man at some point during the Amber Room’s removal by German forces or transit to its new location.
Several large scale searches for evidence of the Amber Room’s continued existence have been launched over the years, which while offering up sometimes tantalizing clues have all failed to actually produce any of the missing panels. One of the more recent searches that has actually claimed to have found it is that of a group of German treasure hunters who claimed to have tracked its location down to an underground bunker in the German city of Auerswalde that was originally designed to house huge, railway mounted cannons that were among the largest ever made. The team claims to have found documents showing that the bunker was the destination for a highly secretive, clandestine shipment involving a large amount of transport trucks and originating in Königsberg, the last known location of the Amber Room. The document allegedly details how over one hundred Soviet POWs were assigned the task of unloading the trucks and moving whatever precious cargo it was down into the subterranean depths of the bunker. The team speculates that the mysterious shipment must be none other than the fabled missing Amber Room. The team managed to pinpoint the location of the bunker through the presence of a ventilation shaft leading down to it. Although the bunker has yet to be opened and examined, the treasure hunters are confident they have finally cracked the mystery. It remains to be seen how much truth their story holds.
The hunt for the Amber Room has had other bizarre attributes over the years. It is said that a curse surrounds the lost relic, and that all those who attempt to locate it will be beset by death and misfortune. There have indeed been accounts of those concerned with the Amber Room meeting untimely ends. A Russian intelligence officer by the name of General Gusev died in a horrible car crash shortly after talking with a journalist about the supposed whereabouts of the Amber Room, and in 1987 an avid Amber Room hunter by the name of Georg Stein was viciously murdered in a Bavarian forest after spending years trying to track down its location. The murder has never been solved. Is this all just coincidence, or are there darker forces at work?
The Amber Room does exist presently, in a sense. In 1979, efforts to reconstruct the magnificent room were begun at Tsarskoye Selo. Over 25 years, the room was meticulously recreated in as much detail as was possible. Great efforts were made to duplicate the original using illustrations and old photographs of the room. Millions of dollars were spent, and Russian craftsmen spent decades working on the project until in 2003, when it was inaugurated at the Catherine Palace in St. Petersburg, Russia. As to what happened to the original, though, no one knows, and it has remained one of the most fascinating and perplexing mysteries of lost treasure in World War II.
The Nazis are not the only ones to have their mysterious lost treasures, and one legendary missing load of mysterious loot was lost by the Japanese. On March 28 of 1945, the Japanese ocean liner the Awa Maru departed from Singapore on a humanitarian mission. Although originally a passenger liner and then retooled into a ship for the Japanese Navy, the vessel was at the time involved in work for the Red Cross as a relief ship. It’s duties included ferrying merchant marine officers, military personnel, diplomats, and civilians from place to place, as well as providing supplies for relief efforts for Allied prisoners of war. Due to this benevolent mission, the Awa Maru was not considered a target, and was supposed to be guaranteed safe passage by Allied forces as it made its way out to sea towards Tokyo with more than 2,000 Japanese civilians and medical supplies on what was to be its final journey.
Despite its status as being granted safe passage, the vessel was engaged in the Taiwan Strait by the American submarine USS Queenfish (SS-393), which had mistaken it for a Japanese destroyer. The Awa Maru was subsequently sunk by a torpedo, taking it and everything and everyone aboard to the bottom of the sea. In the years after its tragic demise, rumors began to surface that the Awa Maru had not been what it seemed, and had in fact been used to carry Japanese contraband under the guise of a peacekeeping vessel. It was said that on this doomed mission it had been carrying not medical supplies, but rather a load of platinum, diamonds, gold, and silver to the tune of an estimated $5 billion, as well as in some stories a stash of very rare fossils called the Peking Man, all secretly stashed aboard during its docking at Singapore or somewhere along the way.
This was all disputed by officials, who stated that at the time of its sinking it had already unloaded its medical supplies en route, and had been carrying a new cargo of nothing more than rubber, lead, tin, and sugar. Although this was the official consensus the rumors of a lost trove of valuables would not abate, and there were even numerous eyewitnesses claiming to have seen the ship being loaded with treasure disguised as bags of rice, and this was further fueled by a cryptic note written by the only known survivor of its sinking on his death bed, which seemed to suggest that the treasure was real. This was enough to cause droves of treasure hunters to descend upon the area in search of the lost loot, and one of the biggest efforts of these was carried out by the Chinese government in 1980. After successfully locating the wreck site of the Awa Maru, they proceeded to spend the next 5 years and around $100 million trying to glean from it the gold and treasures they were convinced were buried down there, but the search was called off before anything of any real value could be found, if it was ever there at all. Even declassified U.S. government documents in 1981 explicitly proclaiming that no treasure was ever aboard the Awa Maru did not staunch these efforts, and numerous hunts for this purported lost gold have continued right up to the present. Was there ever a vast treasure trove aboard the Awa Maru? Who knows?
Besides hoards of gold and priceless artifacts, there have been other miscellaneous lost objects from World War II that are every bit as mysterious. One well known example is an enormous globe with a wooden base, often called “Hitler’s Globe” or the “Fuhrer Globe,” which Hitler kept in his office and was considered to be one of his most prized possessions. Hitler apparently loved that globe, and it was prominently featured in many photographs and newsreels, yet in the aftermath of the war it sort of disappeared, inciting speculation on its ultimate fate ever since. One theory that was long popular was based on hint connected to a story that a Soviet officer had once shot the globe to leave a hole where Germany should be, and that a globe held at the Deutsches Historisches (German History) Museum in Berlin had a hole exactly like that in it. Case closed, right? Well, apparently not really.
One historian and globe-enthusiast named Wolfram Pobanz has said that the globe in the museum is not the real Hitler’s globe, pointing out that the bases are obviously different, and that it is merely a copy created for the Nazi foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, part of a limited series of similar globes created for top Nazi officials. Two of these recreations are kept in museums in Berlin, but according to Pobanz neither one of them is the real Hitler’s Globe. Other globe hunters have spent years trying to track down the whereabouts of Hitler’s Globe as well, often tracking down promising specimens in the hands of private collectors, but the real one has persistently evaded discovery. There are theories that Hitler’s globe ended up in Moscow, that it was stolen by Allied forces, or even that it was destroyed, but it has never been found and remains an odd little mystery.
Another of Hitler’s lost artifacts is a flag that was crafted before the Third Reich even rose to prominence, originally as a banner for the fifth Sturm of the Munich SA. Called the Blutfahne, or “Blood Flag,” it was the first real prominent appearance of the swastika, and was reportedly stained with the blood of the Nazi Brown Shirts shot by police during the 1923 fighting of the the Munich Putsch, which found Hitler locked up in jail. When he got out the flag was waiting for him, still bloodstained and held high as a symbol of his new movement. From then on, the Blood Flag was frequently used at Nazi marches, ceremonies, and rallies, becoming such a sacred, important artifact that it was even assigned an official attendant in an officer named Jakob Grimminger, and was kept under lock and key at the Munich Nazi Headquarters, complete with its own armed honor guard contingent. The flag was even used to sanctify other flags by touching them with it.
Considering this reverence, a great many replicas were reproduced over the years of the war for official occasions, and somewhere in all of this, in around 1944, the original just sort of disappeared, and no one is quite sure where it went. It is mostly believed that the last official public appearance of the real Blood Flag was on October 18, 1944, during the Volkssturm induction ceremony for the notorious Heinrich Himmler in Munich, but after that its whereabouts are rather murky. Theories of course abound, such as that it was destroyed during Allied bombing of Munich or that it was sequestered away and simply forgotten about or even stolen by an American GI as a keepsake, but no one really knows for sure. Over the years there have been many who have claimed to be in possession of the lost Nazi Blood Flag, but none of these have turned out to be concrete, and one of the Nazis’ most prized and sacred objects remains lost to the mists of time.
Considering the chaos that was enveloping the world at the time of the war and the sheer amount of time that has passed, it seems more and more unlikely that any of these treasures will ever be found, and this has only added to their allure and further elevated them to a sort of legendary status. As such, it is often difficult to disentangle the facts from the fiction, and this only serves to muddy the waters and make it nearly impossible for us to deduce what parts of the tales to believe or in some cases even whether these treasures even ever existed in any form at all. Where did they go? What happened to them? Do you have them? I know I don’t, but I sure wish I knew who did. No matter what the case may be, lost treasures hold a compelling, irrististable allure for many. Throw in a dash of action, adventure, and some good old fashioned Nazi lunacy and you have a recipe for intriguing mysteries that will no doubt be pursued for the foreseeable future.