V I E N N A, Austria, July 11, 2000 -- The latest attempt to pry loose the deep, dark secrets of Lake Toplitz and its legend of Nazi gold has ended as mysteriously as it began.
For the past five weeks, a high-tech team from Oceaneering Technologies has combed the 300-foot-deep, mile-long lake bed from end to end searching for “Nazi treasures” and has recovered “significant man-made objects,” searchers said.
CBS, which has funded much of the project and has exclusive rights, has guarded its secrets jealously in anticipation of an October documentary.
Does the team have more than wads of old forged currency or a promising-looking box that turned out to contain nothing but old beer-bottle caps and a note saying “Sorry, not this time”?
Local residents sank that box as a joke back in 1984, ahead of a mission by a prominent German biologist. He used a mini-submarine to search, ostensibly, for a worm that could survive in the murky lake where oxygen runs out at 60 feet, preserving all below.
Ridge Albaugh, Oceaneering’s project manager, says he located that box of bottle caps. “We found it, he didn’t,” he says.
Albaugh earned his spurs exploring the Titanic and diving to resolve the sad mystery of what happened to John F. Kennedy Jr. when his plane plunged into the sea. His high-tech approach tells him, he says, that he now knows the bottom of that lake better than the back of his own hand.
While the local press has jeered, reporters perhaps have failed to spot what else was emerging from the depths.
This included wads of forged currency, the legacy of “Operation Bernhard” — Hitler’s plan to wreck Allied economies with a flood of forged currency. Some of it reached The United States and Italy while the rest, mainly British five-pound notes, ended up in Toplitz and other nearby lakes as the Nazis fled the Allied advance.
The isolated alpine Austrian lake, surrounded by cliffs, forests and much legend, was where Hitler’s retreating forces, panic-stricken, dumped their loot — which was rumored to include tons of gold.
Gold was not what the team was trying to find. Team members were after rumored boxes of old documents detailing property, cash and artifacts confiscated from mainly Jewish owners. The Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, the other backer of the project, is hoping for clues that will help Holocaust victims and their families get back all that stolen treasure.
Were they found? The ultimate mystery will be solved by a soft-spoken team of French conservationists who were on the spot, and who are taking the precious cargo of sodden paper back to Paris.
There they will freeze-dry the wads of paper, separate them out and see if there is treasure hidden among them. Any attempt to take a peek at them before that process, they say, would result in disintegration. Down in the depths without oxygen they remained intact. Up on the surface, they could dissolve to pulp within minutes.
The Toplitz mission is packing its bags. The caravan is moving on. The Austrian press is proclaiming a win for the lake that fooled the team into sinking a fortune into the bottomless pit without tangible results.
In fact, they had a license to explore for another week. They stopped because there was nothing left to find.
Diving had been banned in the lake since the ’60s, when several treasure-divers turned up dead. But several teams, including the Austrian government and the German press, have managed to explore it.
Old Toplitz-watchers believe that if there was treasure down there, it has long since been recovered and spirited away. That would have been possible in so isolated a region — the lake is frozen at least five months of the year, and much of the older local population still has a certain sympathy for swastika-related times past.
What remains in the lake for sure is a labyrinth of perfectly preserved tree-trunks, a death trap for divers. Oceaneering lost one remote vehicle in its grasping depths.
After that they brought in the WASP — a bright yellow cross betwen a diving suit and a mini-submarine in which the operator can stay down for 72 hours or more.
But the current expedition had to leave some of their finds behind in the lake. They are clearly identifiable boxes of Nazi munitions and the relics of the top-secret experiments with sea-to-air missiles which Hitler’s helpers conducted in the lake.
They would have loved to bring them up, but the explosives experts attached to the team judged it too much of a risk. Solving the ultimate mystery of Lake Toplitz and making a TV documentary are not worth the price of a single human life, they decided.
And so the mystery of Lake Toplitz, both stunningly beautiful and deeply sinister, will remain. It is guaranteed to fuel a chalet industry that will bring the visitors to the mysterious lakeside for years to come. And that may be where the real treasure is.