V I E N N A, Austria, July 5, 2000 -- In the final days of World War II, panicked Nazis were seen dumping mysterious crates into the depths of remote Austrian lakes, high in the Alps.
At the center of the tale lies Lake Toplitz — protected on three sides by impenetrable cliffs. Local legend says that here the Nazis dumped crates of gold and other riches.
And now, an extensive mission — backed in part by the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center — is under way to find out just what secrets may be waiting hundreds of feet below the dark surface of the hidden lake.
Nazi High Command
Luftwaffe Commander-in-Chief Hermann Goering once had a villa not far from the lake, and often sat in the local bar and restaurant with none other than Adolf Hitler himself, communing happily with the locals.
Here, 60 miles from Salzburg, the Nazis thought they could hold out against the Allies. Vast holes in the canyon walls above the lake testify to the top-secret Nazi weapons testing facility that once sat on the lake’s shores, accessible to this day only by foot via a hazardous mile-long path.
At the top of that path now sits a small lodge called the Fischerhut (see Web link) — beyond that, the trail ends and there is virtually no shoreline. All exploration of the lake must be done by boat, a task complicated by the fact that the lake is frozen six months of the year.
Today, the same firm that found the Titanic is mapping the depths of the lake — and has identified hundreds of manmade objects lying at the bottom, 325 feet below the surface.
At least some of these are believed to be crates sunk by the Nazis as they scrambled to escape the Allied advance at the end of World War II.
The operation is nothing, if not thorough. The work is being carried out by Oceaneering Technologies, which has worked on the John F. Kennedy Jr. and Swissair Flight 111 search-and-recovery missions in addition to the exploration and discovery of the Titanic wreck.
“If it’s down there, we’ll find it,” vows Ridge Albaugh, senior project manager of Oceaneering.
Strange Conditions Under the Water
Albaugh’s divers are probing the depths of the lake in the “Wasp,” a cross between a diving suit and a miniature submarine, in which a diver can stay down for days. From the Wasp, recovered objects are to be guided into a cage, and then to the surface.
Their task is complicated by the strange conditions just beneath the surface of the lake. About 20 feet down, there is no oxygen. While that means that much of the water is devoid of life, it also means that whatever is below is perfectly preserved — including all the massive trees that have fallen in over the years.
Those trees can create an impenetrable and sometimes deadly barrier for those who comb the depths. Officially, five divers have been killed in the lake over the past decades. Unofficially, that number is probably higher.
Searching for Clues, Not Treasure
The Wiesenthal Center says it is looking for chests of documents on property confiscated by the Nazi regime in Austria and beyond, before and during World War II. Such documents could help establish claims to homes, land and art by Holocaust survivors and the families of victims.
Lake Toplitz has been in the headlines many times before, partly because of the discovery, in the 1960s and 1980s, of crates filled with forged currency, mostly British.
They were the remains of “Operation Bernhard,” in which Hitler hoped to flood allied countries with forged money and undermine their economies. Hitler used Jewish concentration camp inmates to make the counterfeit money.
The discoveries turned the lake into a favored spot of treasure hunters. But after several deaths in the lake, diving was banned. That ban has led to whispers of conspiracy — that the Austrian government is not trying to protect its divers so much as its Nazi past.
For the record, Vienna welcomes the latest expedition.
Whispers of Gold
The legend of the gold, however, was resurrected after a mysterious fax to the expedition, ostensibly from a man who had seen precise plans of exactly where the Nazis hid their gold. He claimed to have seen these plans in South America, the last known refuge of many Nazis on the lam.
According to the author of the mystery fax, the gold is hidden in four lakes. There, the Nazis blew holes in the rock walls, hid their treasures, and then sealed the holes up.
The maps, he says, have now disappeared.
While all the experts — and they are legion — quickly dismissed the claim, the story has taken on a life of its own.
Expedition spokeswoman Jutta Fuehrmann is playing it cool. “We have taken note of it,” she says.
Nevertheless, Austrian tabloids rushed to press with blazing headlines on Tuesday proclaiming, “It’s about Nazi gold after all!”
Austrian television quickly jumped into the fray, broadcasting live spots each day from the site. U.S. network CBS is also there, fronting much of the cost for a fall television show.
The Last Secret Lake
In the other three lakes — where the government never banned diving — there are several diving schools. Many specialize in “extreme diving” — diving under ice and in caves, the most dangerous and daring of all missions.
Divers have combed the other lakes from end to end and have found plenty of relics, some dating from neolithic times, as well as bundles of forged fivers, vast quantities of ammunition and even antique stoves — but no Nazi gold.
Local legend has it that some gold was found in the 1940s by future legend Jacques Cousteau in nearby Lake Wolfgang. He was working for the French occupation force at the time. The gold, some divers say, was used to finance his most famous ocean explorations.
So far, Oceaneering may have found up to 200 manmade objects on the lake bed. But only a few of the most promising will be brought to the surface — there is neither money nor the time for more.
Whatever other mysteries the lake holds will remain in the depths — for now.