It sounded more like a Hollywood blockbuster than a news story.
A deathbed confession by a former Nazi soldier. An armoured train hidden in a secret network of World War Two tunnels. Tonnes of stolen gold treasure and priceless works of art, lost for 70 years. Treasure hunters descending on a sleepy town hoping to claim their share of the loot. It might sound like Quentin Tarantino’s latest pitch to Harvey Weinstein, but in fact, it was the most fascinating news story of last year.
In August 2015 two men, Piotr Koper and Andreas Richter, paid a visit to the Mayor’s office in Wałbrzych – a former coalmining town in southwest Poland. They claimed information from a dying German man had led them to the exact location of the mythical ‘Nazi Gold Train’: loaded with stolen gold and treasure and hidden by Nazi soldiers in what was then Waldenburg, Germany, as Russia’s Red Army swept across Europe from the East in 1945. Lawyers representing the men made a simple demand: 10 per cent of whatever was on board.
The story spread quickly: NAZI GOLD TRAIN FOUND. Nobody could deny it made an eye-catching headline – especially after Poland’s deputy culture minister Piotr Żuchowski fuelled enthusiasm by announcing he was ‘99 per cent sure’ the train existed.
International TV news crews, journalists and hundreds of amateur treasure hunters armed with shovels and metal detectors descended on this sleepy Polish town of 120,000 people. It was a 21st Century gold rush.
But with no evidence aside from one inconclusive radar image, the first news reports only produced more questions: Were the men telling the truth? If the train exists, what could be on it? How is it possible to hide an entire train? Did a visionary employee in the local tourism office cook up the entire story … ?
Local legend supported Koper and Richter’s claim. The myth of a hidden Nazi Gold Train had reverberated around the city for decades. Ex-miner Tadeusz Słowikowski popularized the story in the 1970s and has spent 40 years searching for the train he’s convinced is hidden in the region.
The Germans did build a network of tunnels in the Wałbrzych area during the Second World War. ‘Project Riese’ consisted of seven underground structures in the Owl Mountains: thousands of prisoners of war died during their construction. One Riese project is directly beneath the picturesque Kziaz Castle, seized by the Nazis in 1941 and apparently ear-marked as a future residence for Adolf Hitler.
The exact purpose of Project Riese is a matter for debate. But the extensive underground network would have allowed the Germans to hide a train. Once the treasure-laden train was in place, the track was ripped up and the open end of the tunnel concealed with dynamite. Or so the theory goes.
A vast array of art and treasure looted by the Nazis during the Second World War remains lost – that is not in doubt. The greatest missing treasure of them all is the Amber Room, presented by King Frederick William of Prussia to Peter the Great of Russia in 1717 – described as ‘priceless’ or ‘worth about $380million’ depending on which report you read. Stolen from a palace near St Petersburg in 1941, it was transported to Germany and never seen again.
After the Gold Train story surfaced last year it took on a life of its own. Treasure hunters were warned the train was likely to be booby-trapped or even contain Xyklon B, poison gas used by Nazis in WW2 concentration camps. On behalf of the Kremlin, a lawyer declared anything looted from wartime Russia must be ‘passed back to the Russian side’. The Polish government disagreed, insisting they would own anything that was found. One report said that instead of claiming their 10 per cent bounty, Koper and Richter might instead face prosecution.
Journalists and TV crews returned to Wałbrzych in force in December 2015 to hear the findings of two separate research projects carried out since August. Perhaps the whole thing was too good to be true. Professor Janusz Madej from the Academy of Mining in Kraków announced they had found no evidence of a train. A hidden tunnel, perhaps, but no evidence of a train – at least not where Koper and Richter claimed. But Koper remained defiant. “I am convinced we will prove its existence,” he told reporters from across the world. “We need a bit more time … we need to excavate.”
Impact on the city
Train or no train, Wałbrzych’s tourism and marketing departments were quick to respond to the opportunity. Gold Train t-shirts, imitation gold bars, Gold Train chocolates and local ‘Gold Train’ tours have all been created and marketed. A stream of offers from TV and film companies has flowed to City Hall: Discovery Channel agreed a deal to film the surveys by Polish scientists.
“All of a sudden we have been given a gift,” Wałbrzych Mayor Roman Szełemej told me back in December. “We had already been working to change the city’s image: dark, dirty, full of unemployment and other unwelcome results of the abrupt closure of the whole economy here.”
Coalmines had been the foundation of the region’s financial health and were closed decades ago. The recent stereotype of Wałbrzych, says the Mayor, has been deprivation and economic depression. But the Gold Train myth has given fresh impetus to his PR project. Szełemej terms the attention focused on the city since August 2015 ‘a kind of avalanche’.
“Of course, having a few tonnes of gold could probably solve some of my problems,” he jokes. “But seriously, it’s very interesting, it gives energy to people working on it. It’s something new, it’s revitalizing my staff. Why not?”
It seems to be in the city’s best interests to perpetuate the story because it’s obviously having a positive effect. Anna Żabska, Director of Stara Kopalnia (a former coalmine converted into a thriving museum and cultural center) agrees the effect on the city has been profound – not just in attracting visitors but for local morale
“It’s been very good for people who live in Wałbrzych,” Żabska says. “Now we don’t have to explain to anyone where we are from. We are proud of the city. We’ve had a traumatic history, and the reputation of the region was unattractive. But this is a new chapter. In a way, it’s made us famous.”
A current joke in Wałbrzych says it’s now impossible to buy a shovel in the city because treasure-hunting tourists have snapped them all up.
On a freezing, steel grey December day I visited the site specified by Koper and Richter – a stretch of train track close to the city known as ‘Kilometre 65’. The embankment next to the track does look large enough to house a tunnel and a train – that is the extent of my scientific research. There’s now precious little evidence of the huge global news story centred on this nondescript spot for the past several months.
Trees have been cleared from an area roughly the size of a football field to allow the detailed radar research. Ragged police tape sags from the trees surrounding the clearing. Apart from the steady stream of traffic on the busy road nearby, there is nobody in sight.
The lack of security suggests local authorities are satisfied that no unofficial treasure hunter would have the persistence or the necessary equipment to dig deep enough to discover what lies beneath.
Until Mayor Szełemej decides to excavate, this particular mystery will remain unsolved. Szełemej tells me any digging will have to wait until spring: “There is no rush.”
Neither is there a train, if you believe Professor Madej and his team of scientists from Kraków. But even if nothing is found at Kilometre 65, considering the extensive network of Nazi-built tunnels in the area and the myth which has existed in the city since the end of the Second World War, the book will not be closed.
It’s plausible such a train exists in or near Wałbrzych. Koper and Richter, the original treasure hunters who sparked a modern-day gold rush with nothing more than a blurry radar image and a convincing story, would doubtless agree and will not easily give up their search.
If it generates interest in the region and boosts the local economy, Wałbrzych’s hoteliers, restaurant owners and the people at City Hall will hardly be complaining, either. Like the Mayor they will ask: Why not?
For sheer drama, for a fascinating legend, for echoes from the increasingly romanticized Second World War, it’s a perfect story and one many of us want to believe. At the moment, it’s just a little short on evidence. But we’ve not heard the last of the Nazi Gold Train.