Lower Silesia, in southwestern Poland, is a land of treasure hunters. Until the end of the Second World War, the region—covered by mountains and deep pine forests with towering, arrowlike trees—was part of Germany. In the early months of 1945, the German Army retreated, along with much of the civilian population. The advancing Red Army killed many of the Germans who remained. Nearly all those who survived were later evicted and forced to move west. By the end of 1947, almost two million Germans had been cleared out.
In order to fill the emptied landscape, the newly formed Polish government relocated hundreds of thousands of Poles from the east. The settlers arrived in vacant towns, walked into empty houses, and went to sleep in strangers’ beds. There was furniture in the houses, but usually the valuables were missing.
The porcelain dishes, the silk dresses, the fur coats, the sewing machines, and the jewelry were gone, often hidden in the ground: buried in jars, chests, and even coffins. It was a hasty solution—a desperate effort to cache valuables as people were running for their lives. The owners of these possessions intended to return, but most didn’t. And so on steamy fall mornings, when the new arrivals dug in their gardens or tilled their fields, they unearthed small fortunes.
The stashes were ubiquitous, and everyone, it seemed, was a treasure hunter. The historian Sebastian Siebel-Achenbach, in his book, “Lower Silesia from Nazi Germany to Communist Poland, 1942-49,” writes that many Poles came to the region because they were “attracted by the supposed German treasures to be gleaned at little or no cost.”
There were so few consumer goods available that many of the new residents made a living by trading merchandise stolen from German homes. Siebel-Achenbach cites one report suggesting that as many as sixty per cent of those who resettled in the Wrocław district were such speculators.
There were also, perhaps, bigger treasures. During the latter half of the Second World War, after Germany’s defeat at Stalingrad, the Nazis still considered Lower Silesia to be safe ground. Factories were moved there, as were precious works of art. But, as the end approached and German troops departed, the military allegedly buried gold, jewels, art works, and even futuristic weapons.
The most famous story involves a German military officer named Herbert Klose, who worked as a high-level police official in the city of Wrocław. After the war, Klose was caught and interrogated by the Polish secret police. The Polish author Joanna Lamparska writes about Klose in her new book, “Gold Train: A Short History of Madness.” The record of his interrogation, which is labelled “Case 1491” in the secret-police files, is kept at the Institute of National Remembrance in Wrocław.
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