Gold In The Salt Mine
The salt mine had remained abandoned for quite some time, and a treasure trove of gold and jewels was there in one of the specially made secret vaults in that mine. Bundles of currency notes in sacks and valuable works of art, too, were there inside the vault, as well! The US Army discovered the treasures, looted by the Nazis from different parts of Europe over the years, towards the end of the Second World War.
The US Third Army had arrived in Berlin after the fall of Nazi Germany. Upon their arrival, they came to know that the German Army had hidden gold and other valuable items in a salt mine. General Dwight David Eisenhower (October 14, 1890 – March 28, 1969) and General George Smith Patton Jr (November 11, 1885 – December 21, 1945) of the Third Army reached the mine after receiving the information, and found the huge material looted by the Nazis. Later, they confirmed that the Nazis had looted gold, worth billions of US Dollars, from Central Banks of various European countries. They had even looted gold items, including jewellery and cigarette cases, from the Jews, apart from looting artefacts from different museums.
Even after spending billions of Dollars for purchasing weapons, the Nazis managed to keep the huge amount of treasure in the Reichsbank (the Central Bank of the German Reich from 1876 until 1945). However, the top Nazi officers decided to hide the treasure in different branches of Reichsbank immediately after they received the information that the Allied Forces were all set to invade Germany. The Allied Forces started bombing Berlin in February 1945, and destroyed the Reichsbank and its press. It was then the Nazi Authorities decided to move a large portion of the Reichsbank’s gold reserves, worth USD 238 million at that period of time, to multiple mines at Merkers in Wartburgkreis District of Thuringia. Numerous bundles of currency notes were also sent to the mine.
The Nazi officers seemed to have thought that the salt and potassium mines at Merkers would be an ideal place to hide the huge assets. The German Army used to manufacture arms in those abandoned mines, about 200 miles southwest of Berlin, before the Second World War. Bombings, during the War, destroyed factories near those mines, although the secret cells inside those mines remained intact. The B-17 bombers of the US dropped nearly 2,300 tonnes of bombs on Berlin within a week. The Nazi officers sent those valuable items from Berlin to Merkers in a train, which also carried 1000 sacks, containing 1000 million Reichsmark (the currency of Germany from 1924 until June 20, 1948 in West Germany, and until June 23, 1948 in erstwhile East Germany). There was also a huge amount of foreign currency, diamond jewellery, gold boxes, and one-fourth of the artefacts kept in 14 museums in Prussia.
These forms of treasure were taken to various mines by train throughout February-March 1945, and it continued till the fall of Germany. The German soldiers had almost done the job before the arrival of the US Third Army. The Easter holidays and the blowing up of a railway bridge interrupted the transportation of the valuable items. Realising that it would be impossible to move all the valuables, the German Army took another approach, and started taking bundles of currency notes from Berlin to other places. On April 2 (1945), they loaded 50 sacks of Reichsmark, worth nearly USD 200 million, and foreign currency notes onto Masburg and Halle-bound trucks. The Third Army reached Merkers within a week, and stationed guards at all the five entrances of the salt mine. On April 7, the Third Army troops, led by Lieutenant Colonel William A Russell, entered the mine. They were accompanied by some photo-journalists.
The US soldiers were surprised after going inside the mine through the escalator, as they discovered 550 sacks, full of Reichsmark, at the main entrance. However, the real treasure was kept inside a vault with a door worthy of a Central Bank that was covered with a three-foot-long brick wall. According to an American soldier, there was a door, made of steel, in the middle of that wall, and a huge lock, just like a bank vault, was there on that door. As the Third Army did not have the combination lock number, they blew up the wall with dynamite. The roof of the 150ft-long and 75ft-wide secret cell was 12ft high. There were 8,198 bars of gold bullion; 55 boxes of crated gold bullion; hundreds of bags of gold items; over 1,300 bags of gold Reichsmarks, British gold pounds, and French gold francs; 711 bags of US 20-dollar gold pieces; hundreds of bags of gold and silver coins; hundreds of bags of foreign currency; nine bags of valuable coins; 2,380 bags and 1,300 boxes of Reichsmarks (2.76 billion Reichsmarks); 20 silver bars; 40 bags containing silver bars; 63 boxes and 55 bags of silver plate; one bag containing six platinum bars; and 110 bags from various countries inside the cell. (Source: Appendix I, G-4 Functions in ETOUSA Operations)
Later, General Eisenhower mentioned: “Crammed into suitcases and trunks and other containers was a great amount of gold and silver plate and ornament obviously looted from private dwellings throughout Europe. All the articles had been flattened by hammer blows, obviously to save storage space, and then merely thrown into the receptacle, apparently pending an opportunity to melt them down into gold or silver bars.“
General Patton, too, stated that he had seen “a number of suitcases filled with jewellery, such as silver and gold cigarette cases, wrist-watch cases, spoons, forks, vases, gold-filled teeth, false teeth, etc., acquired by bandit methods“. The US returned those coins to various European countries in the summer of 1945. A Tripartite Commission was also formed to return the artefacts to different countries, and the Commission completed its job in 1996. The last gold of Merkers’ mines was returned to its owner that year.
Although the Commission completed the task of returning the huge property kept in Merkers, a debate is still going on regarding the status of the Nazi Gold. It is still not known how much gold and silver coins was melted down and merged with the bank currency. How much of the looted items should be received by the heirs of Jews persecuted by the Nazis? At least 15 countries relinquished their claim to those items, including nearly five and a half metric tonnes of gold, in 1997-98.
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