The buried gold of pirate stories is the dream of every 8-year-old kid, but historians say pirates were not particularly prone to putting their plunder in a hole and covering it. It’s documented to have happened a few times, though the goods were not commonly buried and left behind unguarded. Burying helped obscure the holdings until the diggers could return for their booty, preferably before the authorities could get wind of the stolen treasure’s location and reclaim it. The legend of long-buried pirate treasure is more of a literary plot device than a reality, and most grown-ups have given up on the idea of finding such a dazzling hoard.
A grisly treasure: piles of gold rings like these found in Breslau were taken from concentration camp prisoners and melted down by Nazis to make gold bars.
For some, however, the hopes and dreams of that 8 year old just won’t die, and tales of secreted loot drive very real efforts to uncover it. Such is the case with a persistent legend of a more recent vintage involving a group with a reputation even worse than that of the pirates of yore. As World War II moved into its later days, the Russian army approached parts of Nazi Germany previously thought to be secure. The story goes that in an attempt to safeguard German riches (much of it stolen from Jews and others considered unacceptable to the pure society they envisioned), the valuables were packaged up and put on a train. This was no measly pirate’s chest with a few armloads of riches. Several tons of gold, plus jewelry, art treasures, and a cache of weapons were all said to have been included in the cargo. Where then did the train travel for safekeeping? Not to a remote, undisclosed corner of some distant country, but underground, into a maze of mountain tunnels in what is now southwest Poland, to be sealed up and supposedly retrieved at some later, more stable time.
Part of Hitler’s massive Riese tunnel system.
It is known that the Nazis dug tunnels and caves during the war, using the labor from concentration and POW camps, in the Owl Mountains, in a region called Silesia. Whether the excavations were for housing for clandestine weapons development or as safe refuge from Allied assault is not certain. In early 1945, a treasure train was said to have traveled from Breslau (now the Polish city of Wroclaw) toward Waldenburg (now Walbrzych). This supposed train was enroute but never arrived. The suspicion is that it was diverted into a secret tunnel near Ksiaz Castle in the vicinity of Walbrzych, and was safely sealed up. Hitler did have a huge operation called “Riese” or “Giant,” creating large tunnels near the castle for unknown purposes, and though they were never used for anything, workers reported seeing a train being rolled into one after digging operations had been abandoned. This may have been the seed of the treasure train rumor. Covert tunnels have indeed been located and opened up in the past, and although none contained riches, the possibility of such a store remained and has fueled the dreams of treasure hunters.
The Nazis liked to safeguard riches underground: Here museum art and other wealth from Berlin were found stored in a salt mine in Merkers, Germany.
These fortune hunters no longer rely on yellowed and brittle treasure maps to locate their quarry—at least not exclusively. As with everything else, treasure hunting has gone high-tech. Seventy years on, in 2015, seekers using ground-penetrating radar, thermal imaging cameras, and magnetic field detectors focused on a tunnel that had been sealed with rocks brought down with explosives. The original “finders” revealed the location where they thought there was a buried train in exchange for a hoped-for 10 percent share of the wealth. Unfortunately, all this technology actually poked a hole in the theory that the train had been found. There was a buried tunnel all right, but the data weren’t consistent with the results a buried train would produce. Further, the gravitational anomalies were too shallow to match the supposed depth at which such a train was thought to be buried. Facts were not to get in the way of the two original “discoverers'” dreams, though, and they insisted their data showed distinct shapes unlike any they had found in other locations they had searched. It was up to the local authorities as to whether to do some digging and send cameras underground to have a look-see. At length this was done, and it only confirmed the earlier conclusion. No train.
These railroad tracks near Walbrzych may have carried the Nazi Gold Train….or not.
If the storied treasure train is ever found, it could be a mixed blessing. Those familiar with secreted stores of wealth say it would probably be protected passively in some way, such as with explosive mines. An opened tunnel might also be filled with methane gas, another explosive hazard. If artworks and jewelry were found, there is the possibility that the original owners or their descendants would make claims on the treasure, and endless legal complications could wind on. It seems the only certainty about the whole affair, and the only real treasure to be found, came from the armies of media and experts and tourists who flocked to the Walbrzych area during the investigations. Millions of dollars of free publicity were generated, and commercial sales in the community took a big jump thanks to the money the visitors dropped in the local economy. And it’s likely the search for Nazi gold isn’t over yet, because the only thing more real than those tourist dollars is the fervor of diehard treasure hunters hungry for what might be hidden below the earth’s surface.
Interested in World War II history and the shifting borders between Germany and Poland? Get this National Geographic map from 1944 showing borders in 1938 and 1939. And Maps.com offers other fascinating historic mapping of Germany and all of Europe during the war years. Click here:
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caption: A grisly treasure: piles of gold rings like these found in Breslau were taken from concentration camp prisoners and melted down by Nazis to make gold bars.
caption: Part of Hitler’s massive Riese tunnel system.
source: Wikimedia: Chmee2
(CC by SA 3.0)
caption: These railroad tracks near Walbrzych may have carried the Nazi Gold Train….or not.
source: Wikimedia: RafalSs
(CC by SA 4.0) -cropped
caption: The Nazis liked to safeguard riches underground: Here museum art and other wealth from Berlin were found stored in a salt mine in Merkers, Germany.
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