By Priscilla Rhoades
Does a treasure-laden Nazi train lie buried inside a secret, underground tunnel in Poland? No one knows for sure but signs point to “yes” and the dig for it began today.
Last year, city authorities in Walbrzych granted permission to two teams of fieldworkers attempting to locate the train, believed to have been carrying guns, gems, and gold, perhaps up to 300 tons of the precious metal. The site of the train, missing since 1945, is thought to be off a railway route between Walbrzych and Wroclaw. Both cities were part of Germany’s conquered territories during World War II.
Local legend says that in the summer of 1945 an armored train full of looted treasure, fleeing the Soviet Red Army advancing from the east, traveled from the city then known as Breslau (now Wroclaw) into an underground tunnel near Ksiaz Castle. The tunnel was part of seven such structures built by forced labor as part of Hitler’s Project Riese (meaning “giant” in German). Begun in 1943 and located in the Owl Mountains, the construction work was done by 13,000 prisoners of war, including children as young as 10, who lived in unbearable conditions. In 1943 and again in 1944, an outbreak of typhus spread among the prisoners, sickening many. At least 5,000 laborers died during the tunnel construction phase of Project Riese.
Two men who made international news in August 2015 when they announced the discovery of the train’s location: Piotr Koper of Poland and Andreas Richter of Germany. The duo learned the hiding place of the treasure during a “deathbed confession from a person involved in concealing it,” according to Polish Deputy Culture Minister Piotr Zuchowski.
In a press conference, Zuchowski confirmed that he had seen geo-radar (ground penetrating) images of the 325-feet-long train. “The fact that it’s armored indicates it has a special cargo,” Zuchowski said. “We do not know what is inside the train [but it’s] probably military equipment but also possibly jewelry, works of art and archive documents.”
Stanislaw Popiel, Senior Lecturer in Chemistry at the University of Technology, Warsaw warned that it is still possible that tabun—a clear, colorless, and tasteless nerve agent—could be among the weapons on board the hidden train. Tabun is one of the most toxic agents ever developed by man; even minute quantities are capable of causing an agonizing, lung-blistering death within one to 10 minutes if inhaled and two hours if exposed by skin contact. It was manufactured at a plant in Dyhernfurth, Poland (now Brzeg Dolny) by IG Farben, Nazi Germany’s biggest industrial conglomerate and the producer of the Zyklon B gas used in Auschwitz.
But teams of fieldworkers believe the site is safe for exploration. Zuchowski said he is “99 percent certain” that this is the actual location of the armored car. “We will be 100 percent sure only when we find the train,” he said. Jaroslaw Chimielewski, the lawyer representing Koper and Richter, stressed the importance of this event. “This is a find of world significance,” he said, “on a par with discovering the Titanic.”
Winston Churchill called it the unnecessary war. In 1939, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was still trying to convince his fellow Americans that Adolph Hitler posed a threat to world peace. Meanwhile in the United Kingdom, Brits were listening to their ineffectual prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, who refused to see the Nazi Party as the danger it was. The French had an equally myopic prime minister in Edouard Daladier. In the Soviet Union, the Russians had fallen under the tyrannical rule of Joseph Stalin, who was busy exterminating his enemies and making himself Tsar.
While Europe slept, Hitler’s troops invaded Poland. On Sept. 1, 1939 Hitler ordered a blitzkrieg (lightning war) against that peaceful neighbor using a formation of armored cars and tanks on the ground and the Luftwaffe, the aerial branch of Germany’s armed forces, dropping bombs from the air. On Sept. 17, in keeping with a secret treaty of non-aggression between the Soviet Union and Germany (the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact), Stalin’s Red Army followed Hitler’s lead. It took only one month and five days for Poland to be conquered. At Brest-Litovsk, the two powers divided the spoils of war: the western part of Poland went to Germany; the eastern to the Soviet Union. To his growing empire, Stalin soon added Lithuania, Esthonia and Latvia. He tried to conquer Finland, too, but the stubborn Finns stood firm, becoming the only enemy of Stalin to successfully resist his aggression.
In October 1939, the Nazis began a program of euthanizing the sick, disabled, mentally ill, and elderly in its infamous gas chambers. The genocide soon expanded to include gypsies, Poles, homosexuals, and other groups the Nazi considered “life unworthy of life.” Jews were targeted as a special class of undesirables in the Holocaust of Hitler’s “Final Solution.” At their peak, the “killing centers” were gassing 6,000 victims every day. Approximately six million Jews died.
By the end of 1940, Hitler had conquered France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. In September, Nazi Germany signed the Tripartite Axis Pact with Japan and Italy to officially recognize “the leadership of Germany and Italy in the establishment of a new order in Europe” while granting Japan “lordship over Greater East Asia.”
On May 10, 1940, the British parliament forced Chamberlain to resign. Winston Churchhill became Prime Minister, vowing that “we shall never surrender.”
In April 1941, Greece and Yugoslavia fell to the Axis powers. Despite their 1939 pact, Hitler had no intention of sparing Russia from his plan of creating a new world order. Hitler considered Slavic peoples like the Russians “subhuman” and “degenerate.” In June, Hitler’s armed forces began Operation Barbarossa, Nazi German’s invasion of the Soviet Union.
On Dec. 7, 1941 the Japanese made a strategic mistake by bombing Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor. At last, President Roosevelt was able to persuade the U.S. Congress to act. On Dec. 8, the United States declared war on Japan. Three days later, Hitler responded by declaring war on the United States. China sided with the Allies against its long-time enemy, Japan. In France, the resistance movement followed the “Leader of the Free French,” Charles DeGaulle. Suddenly the whole world was at war.
The turning point came in 1942 on four fronts. In the Pacific in June, the Japanese were stopped at the Battle of Midway. In the Atlantic that same summer, Nazi German’s “U-boat threat” was neutralized. (“U-boat” is what Americans and the British called the unterseeboot, Nazi German’s submarine fleet.) In North Africa, the Axis forces there under the leadership of Germany’s Erwin Rommel (“the Desert Fox”) and Hans-Jürgen von Arnim were cornered into submission on May 13, 1943.
On the Eastern Front, the Germans suffered a humiliating defeat at the Battle of Stalingrad. Many historians consider this be “the turning of the tide.” The Germans were driven out of Russia, with the Soviet Red Army hot on their heels. The Nazis fled through Poland, sometimes hiding looted treasure along the way.
In the end, the number of fatalities was staggering: more than 45 million civilians in the Allied countries lost their lives. At least 16 million Allied military perished. In the Axis countries of Germany, Japan, and Italy, more than eight million military and four million civilians died in the war.
It was a high price to pay. On August 14, 1945, World War II came to its official end. Four months earlier, Hitler had died by his own hand. The world had come perilously close to entering a darkness far deeper than the one that now holds an armored car full of treasure. In many ways, this buried train is a reminder of so much that has been lost.
Priscilla Rhoades is a freelance writer based in Asheville, N.C. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org