Hunt continues for SS loot

The Sunday Herald 4 June 2006
Gabriel Ronay

A fairytale castle in the Czech Republic – complete with secret medieval tunnels and hidden treasures – finally looks set to give up a hoard of goods looted by the Nazis during the second world war.

Researchers at Zbiroh Castle in Western Bohemia have discovered that the 550ft (165m) well has a concealed false bottom built from reinforced concrete.

The concealed entrance covered with jasper, a locally quarried gemstone, has also been booby trapped by retreating German forces.

The series of hidden passageways running off the well is familiar to Czech treasure hunters, and rumours of hidden artworks overshadow the brooding neo-gothic beauty of the castle. Unlike some castles in the Rokycany district, visitors are not drawn in by the medieval grandeur, but by the tales of SS secrets hidden underground.

The first attempt to explore some of the secret passageways linked to the well was made in 1965. But the Czechoslovakian military divers failed to notice the concealed tunnel entrance at the bottom of the well. They retrieved from a higher tunnel a chest full of Nazi documents and records of a secret outfit that had occupied the castle. Later explorations yielded more wartime Nazi documents and indications of other hidden passageways. But the tunnel beneath the well’s false bottom continued to elude them.

According to retrieved documents, the chateau had served as headquarters for a secret SS unit which monitored all radio traffic during the war.

As the war drew to an end, the Nazis looted Europe from east to west with astonishing zeal and thoroughness. Countries overrun by the German army were systematically stripped of their wealth.

The treasures of museums, banks and ordinary people were mercilessly looted. The SS even set up a specialist unit, including top art experts, charged with the task of scouring the continent for old and new masters and art works coveted by the Nazi elite.

At the end of the war the looted treasures of Europe were hidden by the SS in mines, caves, deep Alpine lakes and secret underground passages. Zbiroh Castle appears to have been one such hiding place.

A recent excavation of two of the castle’s secret passageways indicated that the treasure hunters were on the right track. Last month’s exploration of the murky depths of the well established that, at 550ft, there was definitely a false bottom concealing an entrance to a secret tunnel.

As the divers cleared part of the bottom, they found hand grenades strewn about and indications of booby traps. The explosives were concealed, making it almost impossible to defuse them under the tremendous water pressure and in the narrow confines of the well. Thus the main prize once again eluded researchers.

But Maria Slavkovska, spokeswoman for SCSA, a Czech treasure hunters’ consortium which is conducting the present explorations, said that there were positive finds and that the search for the looted treasure was continuing.

“Last month, we found German Army documents, which confirm that the bottom conceals a secret passageway used by the Nazis to hide looted treasures,” Slavkovska said. “Incongruent stuff has also been retrieved from under Zbiroh Castle during the search of a secret passageway.

“The hoard includes a cache of looted 17th-century weapons. We hope that when the retrieved German army documents are studied we will find something more valuable.

“The Germans were not stupid. They wanted to make sure that nobody would have access to the tunnel and they made a very professional job of it. So now we’re doing everything possible to neutralise the danger at the bottom. We are calling in a specialist underwater bomb-disposal team to get us past the explosive false bottom.”
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