Whether it's a hoax, wishful thinking or a bombshell discovery, the claim of two treasure hunters to have found a legendary Nazi train laden with gold is stirring up excitement in western Poland.
Residents of the Owl Mountains area southwest of Wroclaw have traded tales for decades about a train with Third Reich markings passing through in early 1945 as the Nazis sought to carry off looted gold and other valuables ahead of the Soviet Red Army's advance.
Historians are throwing wet blankets on the claim, pointing out that there has never been any evidence found in the Nazis' usually detailed documentation of operations to give credence to the myth.
But local officials in the town of Walbrzych, near the Czech border, seem to be taking seriously the claim of the two men, a Pole and a German, who have retained a Wroclaw attorney to negotiate their offer of information on the train's location in exchange for 10% of the value of its cargo.
"This is a find of world significance, on a par with [discovering] the Titanic," attorney Jaroslaw Chmielewski told Radio Wroclaw.
Chmielewski took his unidentified clients' claim to Walbrzych officials last week and has managed to convince them that the offer is worth passing on to Polish national authorities. Under Polish law, any valuables found from that era would be state property.
Walbrzych Deputy Mayor Zygmunt Nowaczyk told journalists Wednesday that he was referring the men's claim to the relevant officials in Warsaw.
"We believe that a train has been found. We are taking this information seriously," said another city official, Council Member Marika Tokarskai. "We assume they know what is inside."
Local lore has it that the train was taking the treasure -- most of it gold jewelry and fixtures seized from Eastern European Jews and melted into ingots -- to German territory farther west to prevent its falling into the hands of the Soviet troops who would overrun the area within weeks. The train was said to have left Wroclaw, then known as Breslau and part of the Third Reich, and traveled through the Project Riese area before it went missing.
Riese, which means "giant" in German, was a vast complex of tunnels and storehouses under the Owl Mountains being constructed by slave laborers in the late months of World War II. It was never finished, but survivors of the Nazi work camps told tales of massive bunkers and passages cut deep into the mountains, stoking the legend and rumors that the gold-laden train pulled into one of the underground recesses for safety from aerial bombardment, or to hide the loot from the advancing Allies.
Public safety officials in the area around Walbrzych have called in reinforcements to guard against treasure hunters thronging the tunnel network, some of which is open to the public as a historical site, but much more sealed off and never explored.
The train, if it exists and is hidden deep in the mountains of Lower Silesia, probably would have been fitted with explosives to deter intruders, Walbrzych Council Chairman Jacek Cichura told the daily Gazeta Wyborcza.
"We are on alert should we need to take any specific security measures," a police spokeswoman told Poland's TVN24.
Local media report that speculation is rife among the excited residents and throngs of foreign explorers and journalists that the mystery train is somewhere near Walim, a village about 12 miles west of Walbrzych.
Walim was the site of unauthorized drilling and georadar testing in May that left six large holes in the ground, Mayor Adam Hausman told Polish and British journalists after the reported discovery last week.
The claim has also rekindled theories on the fate of the long-lost Amber Room panels that were plundered by a Nazi army force from Catherine's Palace outside Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, in 1941. The panels were taken to Koenigsberg Castle and reassembled within weeks, but Adolf Hitler ordered all valuables removed from the Reich's eastern edge in January 1945.
The Amber Room at Catherine's Palace has been restored with new panels and sculptures. The whereabouts of the priceless 18th century originals remains a mystery.
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