Deep in the Austrian Alps early one morning in 1945, Ida Weisenbacher answered a knock at her door. The 21-year-old Austrian farm girl found herself confronted with a Nazi officer.
"Get up immediately," he told her. "Hitch up the horse wagon. We need you."
Weisenbacher did as she was told and pulled the family wagon up next to a military vehicle. Soldiers then loaded heavy boxes onto the wagon. Each was marked with a series of letters and numbers that gave no hint as to the contents. When the wagon was loaded the officer told the girl to drive it to nearby Lake Toplitz. Once she was given the destination the need for the wagon became obvious: The road did not go all the way to the lake. Only the horse-drawn wagon could take the cargo over the final distance.
It took three trips to transport the whole load to the lake. On the final run Weisenbacher saw that the soldiers were out on the lake and that the boxes were being dropped into the water. They quickly sunk out of sight. Weisenbacher wondered what the boxes contained that they had to be sunk to the bottom of that deep, dark, cold place. What secrets did they possess?
"The Largest Robbery in History"
During World War II German troops invaded numerous countries across Europe. As they did so they looted the bank reserves of those countries and took the gold back to Germany. Victims of the holocaust were also stripped of any valuables they had, including gold jewelry. The gold from these sources was then melted down and cast into bars with the mark of the German central bank, the Reichsbank, imprinted on them. Much of this loot was used to pay for the war effort, but a large portion was still intact and in Nazi hands as the end of the war neared.
In February of 1945 the President of the Reichsbank ordered that the majority of the gold reserves be sent to the village of Merkers some 200 miles south of Berlin. There it was concealed deep underground in a potassium mine. The mine was also used to store many art treasures, some belonging to German museums, others looted from conquered nations.
In April Merkers was captured by the U.S. Third Army commanded by Lieutenant General George Patton. French civilians who had worked at the mine told the American military what was hidden there and the hoard was soon in American hands. A tally of the treasure showed that there were 8,198 bars of gold bullion in the mine along with gold coins, silver bars, and paper money. The total value (in 1945 dollars) was estimated to be over $520 million . This constituted the bulk of the Nazi loot, but not all of it. Some of the gold and other valuables had been left in Berlin.
By April of 1945 the Allies were closing in on the German capital and Nazi officials decided to move the remaining contents of the Reichsbank to Oberbayern in southern Bavaria. There, in the mountains, the Nazis hoped to hold out and try to regroup. At least nine tons of gold were sent to Oberbayern along with bags of foreign currency and coins. This treasure, including 730 gold bars, was thought to be hidden around Lake Walchensee. After the end of the war U.S. soldiers were able to find and account for $11 million of that final hoard. Over $3 million was never found, however. Some small portion of it might have been smuggled out of the country by escaping Nazi officials, but what happened to the rest of the missing gold?
The disappearance of this treasure was listed by the Guinness Book of World Records as "the largest robbery in the history of the world."
Lake Toplitz is one mile long and lies between steep limestone cliffs in the Salzkammergut region in Austria. It is a beautiful, but remote place. The water is over 300 feet deep and oxygenless. Without oxygen nothing can live in the lake except some specialized bacteria and one specie of worm. With its dark, deep recesses and isolated location, the lake seems the perfect place to hide something.
Were those boxes seen by Ida Weisenbacher filled with some of the missing gold? A lot of people thought they might be. In 1959 the German magazine Stern sent divers to the lake to investigate. What they found was not gold, but crates of counterfeit British pounds, secret documents and a printing press.
It was learned what that had found was remnants of a secret German project called Bernhard. The idea for the operation had come from Adolph Hitler himself. Skilled printers were recruited from concentration camps and given the best printing and graphic equipment available. Their assignment was to counterfeit enemy currency. It would be used to pay for the war effort and at the same time weaken the enemies' economies.
It is estimated that the equivalent of $4.5 billion was forged in operation Bernhard. Most of the false money were British pounds. The operation was so successful that at the end of the war the Bank of England recalled and redesigned all it's currency. The American dollar was also a target, but the war ended before any significant amount of United States currency could be made.
When operation Bernhard was moved out of Berlin, the S.S. apparently chose to hide the evidence at the bottom of Lake Toplitz. Was anything else also hidden down there?
In 1963 a German sport diver was hired to find out. Unfortunately he died in the attempt. The Austrian government responded by making it illegal to dive in the lake for the purpose of hunting treasure. They also started a search of their own. The operation located eighteen crates of counterfeit money on the bottom along with the printing plates needed to make forgeries. Rockets, projectiles, mines and other experimental weapons were also salvaged from the bottom of the lake. Apparently during the war Toplitz had been used to test torpedoes and even a missile that could be launched by a submarine from underwater.
By 1983 it was thought that the lake was completely cleaned of all Nazi material, but in that same year a biologist, Professor Hans Fricke, started diving in Toplitz and found even more items. Fricke hadn't initially been interested in treasure, but had obtained special permission to dive in the lake to research what kind of life might survive in its oxygenless depths. He discovered several types of bacteria and a worm that manage to live under the hash conditions. He also found more counterfeit British pounds along with additional military hardware. His discoveries sparked more speculation that the lake still hid gold bullion. If it did, though, Fricke never came across it.
The most complete examination of the lake came in 2000 when the American television network CBS, along with the World Jewish Congress, sponsored an exploration of the Toplitz by a company called Oceaneering Technologies. Oceaneering Technologies went over the bottom of the lake inch-by-inch using a remote-controlled submarine named Phantom. They found the floor of the lake covered with trees that had fallen off the surrounding mountains. In some places the wood was stacked as deep as sixty feet. This made using the submarine difficult. Its long tether, which connected it to the crew on the surface, was always in danger of being tangled in the dead branches and roots. When the robot submarine found what looked like the remains of a crate, Oceaneering sent down a manned submarine that found more forged British bank notes.
It would seem that with all this searching the reputation of Lake Toplitz as a location for lost treasure should be gone. This isn't the case. Some people continue to believe that the lake or others like it in Austria or Germany still hold millions in gold. Their speculation was strengthened in 2003 when an amateur diver discovered a solid gold cauldron at the bottom of Lake Chiemsee in Bavaria. The cauldron was decorated with Celtic and Indo-Germanic figures and is thought to have been commissioned by a top Nazi official who drew inspiration from such mythology. It is estimated that the cauldron, which weighs 23 pounds, is worth almost $100,000.