For decades the whispers persisted among the factory workers and lumberjacks of southwest Poland that a Nazi train laden with plundered gold, jewels and artworks had been hidden beneath the Owl Mountains since the waning days of World War II.
Legend had it that the valuables, stolen mainly from Polish Jews who had been dispatched to concentration camps, were hastily loaded into an armored military transport in early 1945 and shipped westward from the German city of Breslau to prevent the loot from falling into the hands of the advancing Soviet Red Army.
Historians long dismissed the story as folkloric, and Communist-era rulers who reportedly explored the labyrinth of tunnels and bunkers under the Walbrzych region found nothing to confirm the local lore that the train was last seen traveling toward the castle town's subterranean tracks.
But a claim by two treasure hunters last week to have located an armored train through ground-penetrating radar has swept the story from myth to giddy expectation after a top Polish cultural official's declaration of virtual certainty on the train's existence and the Warsaw government's plan to collaborate with the purported finders.
"This is an absolutely unprecedented situation," Deputy Culture Minister Piotr Zuchowski said at a news briefing Friday in the Polish capital at which he announced that the government would accept the finders' offer of precise location information in exchange for a 10% cut of any valuables found on board.
"There is a very high — more than 99% — probability that this train exists," Zuchowski said. He saw the images showing the shape of a train platform and cannons mounted on its 300-foot stretch of military-type wagons, he said.
His enthusiasm signaled that the Polish government, to which any recovered wartime-era property would belong, has bought into the finders' terms for leading police and munitions experts to the train.
Zuchowski also disclosed that the men who made their offer through a Wroclaw lawyer last week were tipped off to the train's hiding place in a death-bed disclosure by someone who had been involved with its secretive last journey.
Neither the two men who claimed to have located the train, nor the man who allegedly disclosed its whereabouts to them, have been identified.
The treasure hunters — a Pole and a German — provided the images of the train when their lawyer, Jaroslaw Chmielewski, presented the offer to the government in Walbrzych to exchange location information for a share of any recovered valuables.
World Jewish Congress leader Robert Singer issued a statement Friday in reaction to the mounting expectations of finding the train, reminding the Warsaw government that it should ensure that any property that was expropriated from Polish Jews is returned or put to use in Holocaust descendants' interests.
"If any of these items were stolen from Jews before they were murdered, or sent to forced labor camps, every measure must be taken to return them to their owners, or their heirs," Singer said. "In case no survivors or heirs can be found, any gold or other property that is found to have belonged to Jewish families or businesses must now inure to the benefit of Polish Jewish survivors as they have unfortunately never been adequately compensated by Poland for the suffering they endured."
Historians estimate that at least 80,000 art objects were looted by the Nazis in Poland, most from the homes of Jews rounded up after the Sept. 1, 1939, German invasion.
Police and security officials in Walbrzych have warned area residents and the mounting crowd of treasure hunters flocking to the region that they should stay out of the honeycomb of tunnels dug by the Nazis during the war because they may have been booby-trapped. Explosives left behind also might have become unstable, they've noted.
Before the tide of the war turned against the Germans after their 1943 defeat at Stalingrad, the Nazis built a massive network of tunnels and bunkers through the Owl Mountains that range southwest of Wroclaw — known as Breslau until the region was ceded to Poland after the war — to Walbrzych on the Czech border.
Some of the passages built in what the Germans called Project Riese, or Giant, have been opened to the public as historical exhibits but most remain unexplored and inaccessible due to postwar construction or cave-ins.
Local tourism purveyors are already seeking to cash in on the train legend. The administrators of Walbrzych's Ksiaz Castle have announced new "study tours" beginning Thursday of the 13th century cliff-top fortress and the network of tunnels beneath it.
Once the location of the train is disclosed to the government, Zuchowski said, Polish military and public safety specialists will be deployed to secure access. He reiterated estimates that it will take several weeks to safely reach it and examine its contents.
Zuchowski suggested that the heavy guns discernible in the radar images seem to validate that it was carrying "special cargo."
"There is probably military equipment but also jewelry, works of art and archive documents which we knew existed but never found," he said. "We will be 100% sure only when we find the train."
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