In April of 1945, the central part of the Czech Republic was the last battleground of WWII. One million strong, the German Army under the leadership of General Schorner, was fresh and well-equipped. Fearing harsh treatment from the Red Army led by Field Marshal Konev, German forces began moving south to surrender to the Americans. Despite imminent defeat, close members of Hitlerís inner circle, Borman and Miller, drafted plans to salvage what was left of the crumbling empire in hopes that someday the Third Reich would rise again. Top secret archives and stolen treasures, that were once kept in Hitlerís Chancellery, were now hurriedly being transported from Berlin to the protection of Scornerís army. Since the beginning of February, 1945, main access roads and railways in most of the central and south-east parts of the Czech Republic were under direct attack by the planes of the 8th, 9th and 15th U.S. Army Airborn Divisions. By April 18th, Allied troops had successfully taken control of Austria and had crossed the Czech border.
From an authenticated document, we learn that on April 21, 1945 the German Supreme Commander of the occupied Czech Republic, K.H. Frank, received a telegraph message from Berlin headquarters, changing the order to direct this closely-watched cargo towards the Austrian border. An earlier document says: "In his report to SS-Obersturmbannfuhrer Fischer dated June 1, 1943, Captain Rin-nebach announces the completion of the first stage of the inventories compiled at castles in Bohemia and Moravia. In his conclusion he states that "a large depository has been set up at Zbraslav castle to receive valuable museum pieces from Czech and Moravian castles and a large proportion of these cultural treasures from the Czech-Moravian environment (Konopiste and others) has already been installed here." Another report from June 16, 1943 further states that "approximately 3,500 paintings, miniatures, sculptures, copper-engravings, pieces of furniture, and roughly 1,000 weapons, books and documents from libraries and archives have been transferred to the Regional Gallery and other institutions". The report also contains information about some 85 paintings, tapestries and graphics (Durer, Rembrandt, Breughel, van Dyck, Lucas Cranach, Paolo Veronese, Pettenkofer, Moritz von Schwindt, Spitzweg, Waldmuller and many others) from the castles of Oslavany and Habrovany which were moved by the Karl Herzig company to St Luke's Gallery in Vienna. The report ends with a note specifying that approximately 50 objects were to be included in the relevant inventories at a later date.
Situated only 30 miles from Prague, the quiet and secluded village of Stechovice had become the training grounds for the SS weapons engineering school during 1943-45. It was headed by an injured veteran of Hitler`s 1942 Russian campaign, Oberfuhrer Emil Klein. A concentration camp was established nearby to provide a labor force for the construction of underground tunnels and bunkers. German commander Frank visited the area several times during that period. On April 22, 1945, he met with Emil Klein at the Czernin Palace in Prague and ordered him to transport the crates (temporarily stored in the palace`s large cellars) to Stechovice. Commander Frankís personal servant later confessed that he supervised delivery of at least 56 crates through the SS base at Konopiste Castle to the crossroads outside Stechovice.
In February 1946, a year after Czechoslovakia inadvertently fell into the anonymity of a Soviet satellite country, the Control Mission of the U.S. Military Command in Germany (USPET) dispatched a special intelligence unit on a daring raid deep into Soviet occupied territory, near Prague.
It was headed by Captain Stephen M. Richards, one of the U.S. Armyís most experienced explosive experts and by captured SS officer Gunter Aschenbach, whom Americans discovered at the POW detention camp in Mulhouse, France. During a routine interrogation, Aschenbach admitted to supervising the construction of some of the underground bunkers in Stechovice. Ten Americans and two French intelligence officers disembarked from Nurnberg on February 10. With the assistance of Major Charles Katek, head of the U.S. MIlitary Mission in Prague, they were granted a two-week-long permit to enter the Czech Republic. They claimed they wanted to recover a body of an American pilot shot down over Stechovice during the war. During a swift operation which took place between the 11th and the 12th of February and lasting only 36 hours, the commandos guided by Aschenbach managed to locate one of the bunkers. After dismantling an intricate and protective explosive system, they carried away 32 crates. The crates measured approx. 100 x 80 x 70 cm and each of them weighed a minimum of 400 pounds. Photographs show members of the unit lifting heavy wooden boxes from a snow-covered bunker, loading them into waiting trucks and searching the grounds with mine-sweepers.
When three of the officers were discovered by Czech police, on the night following the operation at the Alcron Hotel in Prague, the crates were already safely situated in the American occupation zone in Germany. The three American officers were arrested and held until March 3. Following a public outcry and sharp protests from the Czech government, the crates were ultimately returned to Prague. Lionel S. B. Shapiro, a correspondent of the North American Newspaper Alliance (NANA) was the only participating civilian. He wrote that among the materials found, the Americans discovered K.H. Frank`s daily journals (1940-1945); Gestapo reports from the same period; a list of 60-70,000 Czech Nazi collaborators; guidelines for secrecy measures used during German research projects, and a complete inventory list of all significant Czech antiquities and state treasures -- including the coronation objects of the Czech kings. It is believed that the most valuable part of the documents remained in American hands. In 1946, only Gunther Aschenbach and Emil Klein could provide information leading to the discovery of the remaining crates. All of the other possible witnesses: SS personnel and the concentration camp inmates were assumed to have been eliminated.
Shortly after the end of the War an inquiry was set up to discover the whereabouts of lost and displaced objects from the period of the occupation. The most reliable reports have so far been ascertained from documents kept at the Military History Archives in Prague. A repatriation (restitution) commission was founded at the end of June 1945 comprising representatives from the Ministries of Foreign Relations, Defense, Education and Culture. Generally speaking, these institutions conducted their investigations almost independently in their efforts to compile lists of misplaced objects and subsequently to discover their location. The first practical steps towards the restitution of cultural heritage were taken by the Defense Ministry headquarters in cooperation with the Military History Institute, the Military History Museum (lieutenant colonel Vrecko and the department for Allied Army Relations (captain Suk). The first restitution mission - comprising Vreeko and Suk - left for the American occupation zone on September 21, 1945, a trip which resulted in the recovery of historical weapons from Banz monastery and nine paintings by the Master of the Vyssi Brod Cycle from Munich which were brought to Prague on October 13. The most valuable gain from the first trip, however, were the contacts established with American occupation bureaus. During the second trip made by the two men in November 1945, the purpose of which was to discuss with American organizations the draft of the "Plan for practical procedures to be undertaken for the restitution of Czechoslovak cultural effects", talks were also held with view to sending a Czechoslovak government representative delegated to the American command. On the basis of this agreement and a further request from the American bodies that Czech delegates be sent out, a five-member mission from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was dispatched on January 17, 1946 which included Dr Winkler from the Ministry of Education (art historian) and captain Suk. This journey signified the launch of the Czechoslovak Mission for Restitution to the CSR whose task was to gather information on stolen works of art in Germany and to request repatriation papers from the relevant Czechoslovak institutions, essential for the issue of the recovered objects. This mission worked closely with the American organization MFA&A (Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Section) which operated within the American secret service. Vrecko's team continued with the restitution program in 1946. In May Vrecko brought to Prague the Zavis Cross from Vyssi Brod and part of the Konopisti collections: Renaissance weapons and arms, tapestries and paintings filling a total of 42 large crates. 14 of these crates were found in the salt mines in Alt-Aussee and 28 were discovered in Salzburg. In July Vrecko's team arrived in Prague from Vienna with 22 crates and 17 parcels of additional art works from the Konopiste collection.
COLD WAR SEARCHES
At the end of 1945, the Czech government established a special investigative team, led by General Ecer, who combed most of Germany for Nazi war criminals and the stolen property. The Soviet Red Army, the NKVD (predecessor to the KGB) and Soviet military intelligence each focused their searches mostly in the areas near Austrian and German borders, where they expected to find valuables that the German army tried to hide before surrendering to the Allies. Two MOSSAD agents were apprehended while surveying various locations near the Stechovice dam in 1950. Israel always claimed only interest in finding the names of those responsible for WWII. atrocities committed against their people, but one wonders? When the Czech Intelligence Service (CIS) managed to recruit captured war criminal Werner Tutter in 1948, as a communist agent, he warned that potential discovery of the archives would lead to the implication of several top ministers of the Soviet-installed government as having been Nazi collaborators. As a result, military intelligence, the Federal Criminal Police, and the Ministry of Interior did not resume their search activities until the late 1950s. Their effort was aided by East Germany, which provided Czech authorities with a list of approx. 25 locations suspected of sheltering Nazi documents and valuable loot. Although different teams conducted clandestine operations at several of these sites, they were usually impeded by internal conflicts within the communist administration. But the Stechovice region remained a top priority since the successful American raid in 1946. Emil Klein, sentenced after the war by the special peopleís court in Prague to a 20-year long imprisonment, was a key to the mystery of the missing crates. However, according to his frustrated Czech captors, he behaved: "...as a duty-bound Prussian" and refused to co-operate in spite of severe physical and psychological torture. Each time he was escorted to the former SS training grounds, he would draw yet another elaborate false plan of the underground corridors and bunkers that he and his men supposedly built. In 1962, a Soviet KGB agent in Vienna gave the CIS a promising lead. With a renewed interest in the case, the interrogation of Klein was resumed. But Klein, now aged and sickly, stayed silent until his release to West Germany in December, 1964. His release strangely coincided with a new discovery of 15 steel boxes found at the bottom of Black Lake, located near the Czech-German border. They were filled with SS documents, describing in great detail Hitlerís successful assassination plots against several European opposition leaders. A well-known Czech psychic, Dr. Rejdak, was called to Stechovice in 1967 to test his considerable detection skills. But aside from discovering part of a German-built labyrinth of underground corridors, he couldnít provide any further proof that more than 500 crates were still hidden. In June of 1968, Hollywood director John Guillermin decided to shoot some of the key scenes of his WWII. epic ĎThe Bridge at Remagení in Stechovice. He chose an area in close proximity to the bunker once raided by the American commandos. Popular speculation had it that his multi-million dollar production was just a cover for a C.I.A. sponsored attempt to take away whatever was left of the Nazi treasure. Shortly thereafter, the Warsaw Pact invasion not only abruptly ended the ill-fated film production, it also quieted all conspiracy theories connected with it and effectively postponed any plans for new searches in Stechovice for several years. In 1975, a team of at least one dozen military draftees equipped with picks and shovels, supervised by officers from the Ministry of Interior, was brought back to Stechovice and permanently stationed there.
Konopiste Castle, serving as an SS-headquarters during the war, became another target under special scrutiny by the Ministry of Interior. Following the end of WWII., several medieval manuscripts traced to Kievís ĎLibrary of Old Russia,í were found scattered in the woods near the castle. On March 25, 1969, a scene reminiscent of a spiritual session was conducted in the castle cellars by Mr. Frantisek Karabina, renown for his healing powers. He concluded, that one of the cellar walls wasnít a part of the original structure. Sensitive to colors and their aura, he speculated that the wall was erected only a few decades before and that behind the wall were hidden several art objects. Seven Russian icons were discovered when the wall was torn down. The Czech police scored big in 1985. Under dramatic circumstances, they discovered a 12th century Reliquary Box of St. Maur -- one of only five existing in the world. This precious piece was buried by Nazi collaborators, an aristocratic family called: the Beauforts. They buried it under their private chapel floor in Becov Castle, in March of 1945, shortly before their escape from the advancing Red army. In the fall of 1989, at the very end of the communist era, an American team of scientists, supposedly from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA and in close cooperation with the largest Czech weapons exporter, Omnipol, carried out an ambitious project in Stechovice hills under a veil of top secrecy. Continuously and around the clock, trucks loaded with tons of excavated dirt were seen leaving the closely-guarded and fenced-off compound. Mr. Z.H., was invited to the site as an explosive expert, but he got only a sketchy picture of the purpose for this undertaking. All activities were suddenly ceased in just a few weeks following the installation of the Havel democratic government, when the projectís main organizer, a son of the Communist Party General Secretary (Mr. Jakes, Jr.) escaped to Germany.
1990 - 2000 Since the 1989 fall of the Iron Curtain, which opened Czech borders to the West, new treasure hunting speculators have emerged in the Czech Republic...Russian President Boris Yeltsin further raised the stakes of the race for Nazi treasures, by announcing during a state visit to Germany, that he had exclusive information on where perhaps the most valuable of all the missing war items was - The "Chamber of Amber".
HELMUT GAENSEL: THE CHECH/GERMAN AMERICAN
Helmut Gaensel, originates from Sudetenland, a mostly German populated western part of the Czech Republic, before WWII. Since his defection in the mid 1960īs, he became a U.S. citizen and started a Miami based mining company prospecting for gold in Nicaragua and Bolivia. According to Gaensel, in 1962 and upon his return from a brief imprisonment, he was approached by the Czech Intelligence Service (CIS) officials and was offered a tough, but exciting and lucrative job. Posing as a captured West German spy, he was going to spend a period of time in Valdice, one of the toughest prison facilities in the country. His job was to befriend a former SS-officer Emil Klein, who was serving a 20-year war crimes sentence. This ambitious, bright young man was the CISís last hope to achieve what even a shrewd communist police apparatus failed to do: to lure Klein into revealing his Stechovice secret. When Gaensel accepted, a plan code-named "Opera" was jointly devised. The CIS briefed Gaensel for two weeks before escorting him to the Valdice prison. On his secret - overnight trips to Prague, he kept his superiors informed of the latest developments. But, months passed without any progress. Although Klein seemed to open-up in the company of this "anti-communist" compatriot, a year later, Gaensel, still hadnít made any headway. When he eventually revealed to the already suspecting Klein his true identity, the old officer promised to co-operate in exchange for an immediate release. Since the Czechs had decided to release two German POWís, as a means to assuage the West German government, non co-operative Klein was already being considered for release. The CIS sanctioned Gaenselís trip to DŁsseldorf, where he met with Kleinís Nazi party contact: Major Von Dressler, the treasurer of "Odessa" -- a support network for former party members. On his own (unauthorized) initiative, he collected 150,000 DM to secure Kleinís release. On Christmas Eve of 1964, seventeen years after his arrest, Emil Klein walked-out of Valdice prison a free man. Gaensel had visited him at his new home in Nuremburg at least three times between 1964-67. A tentative friendship developed between two former adversaries. Following the West German governmentís rebuff of Kleinís offer to reclaim the treasure, this disillusioned officer supposedly revealed his secret to Gaensel. Jaroslav Klima, Deputy Minister of Interior and one of the most powerful men in communist Czechoslovakia during the 1960īs, was in charge of Kleinís case. In a recent interview he said that he found Gaenselís story quite plausible. Gaensel briefly returned to Prague during Dubcekís Prague Spring in 1968. He negotiated and got the Czech Governmentís approval to start the Stechovice expedition in September. Shortly before the Soviet tanks rolled to Prague in August, Gaensel left his homeland for good.
In 1991, more than thirty years after obtaining his exclusive information from Klein, Gaensel appeared in Stechovice ready to claim the buried treasures. He brought with him a team consisting of psychotronics, professional treasure hunters, geologists, explosive experts and his Dutch investors. During his first three-year sojourn through Stechovice, he had established a base at the local hotel "Mandate" and started a life of luxury not common in this bucolic village. At a considerable cost, he rented 39 acres of land in six different locations to conduct his search. Some of the locations were said to be used as decoys. Gaensel complained bitterly that local residents were exploiting his status as a wealthy American. He blamed a local municipality for delaying his efforts by holding-up the approval of construction permits to start the excavation. It was assumed that the city fathers were trying to find a way of capitalizing on any potential discovery. Since1994, large areas of a popular Czech recreation resort were turned into a military-like compounds, complete with barbwire fences, armed guards and watchdogs. Heavy mining and drilling equipment were brought to the scene. As the shafts grew deeper, a gold digging fever caught on all over the Czech Republic. Gaensel, "the true American," used to throw Thanksgiving bashes that were attended by scores of journalists and VIPs, but also by the very envious competition. By 1995, four years after his return to the Czech Republic and two years since he started his excavation, Gaensel had to admit that his initial expectations were "too optimistic" and that he was in for a long haul. Meanwhile, the Dutch investors came and left, soon to be replaced by others. One William "Big Bill" Turner and a self-proclaimed Florida investment banker, Graham Smith, took over and pumped some more badly needed capital into the venture. By then, the expedition cost was estimated to have reached approx. 1.8 million U.S. dollars. The Czech government, exhausted by the constant flow of Gaenselís requests and swamped by numerous complaints and appeals from peace movement activists, environmental groups and victims of the Holocaust, finally stepped aside and conveniently shifted responsibility for overseeing the operation down to a municipal level. Due to unverified reports that tons of "live" explosives guarded the access to Stechovice underground, Gaensel was forced to hire two pyro experts appointed by the city and he was often accosted with anonymous life threats if he continued. In the Spring of 1996, while the men from Gaenselís mining company were cleaning out the bottom of a 15 meter deep, old shaft called "Bingo", they discovered an entrance to a German-made tunnel, leading in the direction of Stechovice dam. Scattered on the floor were pieces of electrical cable, detonators, a torn SS-uniform jacket and small wooden cases partially filled with explosives. It wasnít much for three-years of strenuous work, but it was enough for the municipal "watchdogs" to stop Gaensel from proceeding any further for another few months. In the Fall Gaensel brought over two older men whom he introduced as friends from his "Bolivian days". Amongst them a Mr. Carlos Hernandez with a heavy German accent. Gaensel spent part of the winter vacationing in Israel with his three children. He returned to Stechovice in the Spring of 1997 with new hopes. After a German TV program aired a spot from his treasure hunting in the Czech Republic, three people called in stating that they lived in Stechovice at the end of WWII. One woman viewer said she saw German soldiers coating wooden boxes with creosote near the Schlemin Creek -- not far from one of Gaenselís leased sites. When his crew followed up, they managed to dig out a stove that the soldiers apparently used for melting the water resistant material. Gaensel figured that the boxes had to be hidden nearby and shifted all his excavation efforts nearer to the creek. Again, he was stopped. This time because of ecological concerns. The dig site was the home of a rare flower called Dogís Tooth. Gaensel and his lawyers argued their case against environmentalists until February of 1998.
Walking around his various excavation sites, Gaensel now looks more like a retired Florida businessman than a former prison inmate/secret police agent. But, while pursuing these treasures, he most probably double-crossed both Kleinís Nazi connections and possibly that of the Czech Intelligence Service. He hasnít been without enemies, and rumors persist that he is a marked man.