A treasure hunt is on, in the best fairy-tale tradition. Shimmering dark brown stones, dull yellow and white gold; softly glistening mosaics, trails of acanthus leaves and rosettes, shining mirrors, glittering chandeliers and sconces—the Amber Room.
Has it sunk to the bottom of the sea? Was it consumed in the conflagrations of the war? Was it buried down a deep mine shaft; hoarded in the home of a rich family? Still nobody knows.
The visitors from Germany crowd through the suites of rooms in Catherine the Great’s Palace at Pushkin. It was once the summer residence of the Czars and its old name was Tsarskoye Selo. “And this”— Tamara the Intourist guide from Leningrad raises her voice— “is the Amber Room.” The painting on the ceiling has been restored but the walls are bare, apart from a single, softly glowing amber paillette, to show how beautiful the room will be when the restoration work is finished. “The magnificent wall panelling and the mirrors were lost in the war.” That is all Tamara says. “A general pocketed them, I suppose,” jokes one of the tourists in a strong Ruhr accent. He does not know how near to the truth he is.
The German troops had just begun their siege of Leningrad and its population of one million. The Palace of the Czars was in the direct line of fire and within range of bombardment from the Kronstadt fleet. A Russian bomb had torn a gaping hole in the great hall, destroying windows and doors, and giving free access, not only to wind and weather but to German soldiers and their comrades from the Spanish Blue Division as well. In the room where Catherine the Great’s collection of pornography was on view, the windows actually had to be boarded up, the men crowded so close. On the parquet floor, historic maps were lying in the mud and many pieces had been hacked out of the lower walls of the Amber Room with bayonets.
This was the scene that met the eyes of the German officers commissioned to protect works of art: Cavalry officer Dr Ernst Otto Graf zu Solms-Laubach from Frankfurt and his companion, Captain Dr Georg Poensgen from Berlin. Both were serving under the Chief of the Army Museums. In civilian life they were art historians working for the Administration of the Prussian Palaces and Gardens, and they were “taking charge of” what the Soviets left behind as they fled, to protect the works from plundering and destruction. They had assembled many crates of furniture, porcelain, paintings and candelabra, and Graf Solms even had parquet flooring removed. But the wall coverings in the Amber Room were the most valuable of all.
An NCO and six men of the Third Company of the 553 Supplies Batallion carefully took down the wall panelling, in just thirty-six hours (the mosaics were glued to wooden panels which were then screwed together). They carefully packed them in crates and these were taken by truck to Siverskoya railway station.
The removal of works of art from combat areas for safe keeping is in conformity with the Hague Convention. The treasures from all the palaces of the Czars were first stored, correctly, behind the lines in the Northern Command’s rear area, some in Pleskau, some in Riga. All, that is, except the Amber Room—that had already been taken by rail to Königsberg on 14 October. A month later, on 13 November 1941, the Königsberger Allgemeine Zeitung carried the headline: “Amber Walls in the Palace.” Parts of the Amber Room were on show in the Königsberg amber collections.
In the next few months Alfred Rohde, Director of the Königsberg art collections, had this masterpiece of baroque incrustation reassembled on the upper floor of the Palace of the Teutonic Knights, beside the Lovis Corinth memorial. Rohde was an expert on amber art, and as soon as the campaign in Russia began he had asked for the Amber Room to be saved. His superior, Director Ernst Gall of the Palaces and Gardens in Berlin, had also concerned himself personally with the transport to Königsberg.
However, the new room was smaller than the old room in Pushkin, and so Rohde had to leave out the long slender mirrors and the infill sections set with amber. In any case, the rest of what made the Amber Room a perfect and total work of art had remained in Tsarskoye Selo: the inlaid parquet floor, the silver and gilt candelabra, the high frieze at the top of the wall, the painted ceiling. Two doors were also missing. Rohde enquired after them on 13 January, and they were promptly sent by rail at the end of January—at a time, be it noted, when the Northern Command was struggling to withstand the Soviet winter offensive.
In the spring, the East Prussian Chief Executive Helmut von Wedelstädt officially handed over the Amber Room to the city of Königsberg for safe keeping. It was released for public display and at once included in the fifth edition of Rohde’s guide to the Palace: “Amber Room of Frederick I from Tsarskoye Selo near Leningrad.” The show cases containing the municipal amber collection now stood in these new and precious surroundings.
There can be no doubt that this jewel of amber art was intended to remain in Germany permanently after the victory over the Soviet Union, which was held to be inevitable. Alfred Rohde wrote in the August 1942 issue of the art magazine Pantheon that the Amber Room had “returned to its homeland, in the best and deepest meaning of the word, the real and only [sic] place where amber has been found.”
The director’s enthusiasm was understandable. However, if the Amber Room was to be in Germany at all, it really should have been in Berlin, for that is where Czar Peter the Great first saw and admired it, in the Town Palace. The “Soldier King,” Frederick William I, then presented it to him, in 1717, as a secondary pledge, so to speak, to seal the alliance between Russia and Prussia.
What is the Amber Room?
The first King of Prussia, Frederick I, had conceived the idea of building a magnificent gallery or great hall in amber soon after his coronation in Königsberg in 1701. In the same year he commissioned the Danish amber carver Gottfried Wolffram to execute the project, but when he asked for too high a fee, two amber masters from Danzig completed the work. It is not known which architect designed the room—some assume it was the famous Andreas Schlüter; certainly the masks of dying warriors recall his work.
The twelve wall panels and ten dado panels in the room could be assembled in any order and combination. Art historians still argue over whether the panelling hung for a time on a long wall in Charlottenburg (or possibly Oranienburg) before it was put in the Town Palace on the Lustgarten, in the Smoking Room, of all places. The royal gift was taken by water to Memel, now Klaipeda, where it was loaded on to eighteen carriages, each pulled by six horses, and taken to the border of the Electorate, where the Russians took it over. The daughter of Peter the Great, Elizabeth, then had it taken from St Petersburg to Tsarskoye Selo in 1755. Here the architect Count Carlo Rastrelli had the room transformed into a state room by the Italian sculptor Martelli, assisted by five master craftsmen from Königsberg. The room is nearly square (10.55 by 11.50 metres); the walls are six metres high and there are three large windows. From then on it housed a work of art which combined Prussian Baroque with Russian Rococo. The panels and borders were built up of innumerable amber plaquettes decorated with bas-reliefs, small busts, figures, coats-of arms and initials. Rastrelli designed carved wooden overdoors and inserted twenty-four mirrors. and four pietra dura panels showing Tuscan landscapes with allegories of the Senses.
In Rohde’s words, “the warmth of the amber outshines the cold magnificence”, and in 1942, this wonderful work (currently estimated at up to half a billion dollars or gold roubles) soon attracted covetous attention. The military wanted the Amber Room for their army museum, which was to be set up in Breslau or in the East Prussian fortress of Boyen near Lötzen. The Ministry of the East under Reichsleiter Alfred Rosenberg wanted it to adorn the German eastern empire, but the Chief Executive of Eastern Prussia, Gauleiter Erich Koch, who as Governor of the Ukraine stole whatever he could lay his hands on in the way of works of art, objected. Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring wanted the Amber Room in his collection in Karinhall, and von Ribbentrop, the Reich Foreign Minister, also staked his claim. On his instructions a batallion of the Waffen SS went through the occupied territories under the command of Councillor Eberhardt von Künsberg, requisitioning mainly archives and libraries, including those in Pushkin.
But the biggest plundering campaign through occupied territories was conducted by the “Rosenberg action group,” under specific instructions from Hitler to “take into safe keeping” works of cultural value. The art thieves were under the personal command of the Führer, a fact that is still not widely known. Shortly after the war of rape and destruction on the Soviet Union began, Hitler had stated that he alone would take the final decisions “not only on confiscated paintings, but also on sculptures, books, furniture, jewels, weapons, carpets etc.” After the war he intended to set up the largest art museum in Europe in Linz, his home town.
As late as 1944 it had not been decided what was to become of the Amber Room. The Rosenberg action group and the Northern Command were at each other’s throats over the treasures from the palaces of the Czars in Gachina, Pavlovsk and Tsarskoye Selo. The art treasures had been scattered on account of the growing risk from air raids, but Rosenberg wanted to store them all in one place, in the vaults of the Palace of Colmberg near Ansbach. However, the Northern Command kept some icons and furniture for their exhibitions in Breslau and Riga “as part of their task of providing for the troops.”
Nemesis: the Red Army advances
Soon it was no longer a matter of protecting the treasures from Allied bombing but from the inexorable advance of the Red Army. Then, in July 1944, the top SS Security Department joined the controversy. SS Obergruppenführer Prützmann and SS Gruppenführer Ebrecht proposed moving all the archives and collections from Königsberg to western Germany, which, as spies had reported, was to be occupied by the western Allies. The Rosenberg action group did move the booty in its care from the Baltic region and Eastern Prussia by the middle of October 1944, but Gauleiter Koch imposed a veto on the items in Königsberg. He actually had some of the transports that were already loaded up for the journey unloaded again, because he would not tolerate “defeatism.”
In fact, it was the duty of the director of the museum to deal with evacuation. In December 1944 —the Soviet armies were already at the borders of East Prussia—Director Rohde went to Saxony and Thuringia with his Berlin superior, Gall, to find safe stores for their treasures, although Rohde could not move anything without Koch’s approval.
This must have particularly irritated Reichsleiter Rosenberg. When it became clear that Germany could not win the war, his assistant Arno Schickedanz drew up a plan to hide the most valuable articles so well that a postwar government could use them as a bargaining counter in peace negotiations. As Rosenberg said: “The Amber Room is a prime object for us in future negotiations.”
The precious prize from Tsarskoye Selo had long been repacked in crates. Rohde had had the panelling taken down at the beginning of March 1944, when a fire broke out in the palace during an anti-Soviet army exhibition and the amber was damaged by smoke. First the crates were placed on the ground floor of the south wing, and only the long narrow mirrors, about four and a half metres high, and a few dado panels were left unpacked. These were destroyed in the heavy RAF bombing at the end of August 1944.
No one has seen the Amber Room since March 1944. Many witnesses claim to have seen crates during the last few months of the war, and believe they saw the Amber Room or parts of it in them, as a result of hearsay or perhaps a later trick of the memory. New, generally contradictory stories keep emerging of how long the crates stood in Königsberg and when, if at all, they were taken out of East Prussia. The Berlin writer Günter Wermusch has put forward one explanation for the contradictions in what is as yet the most recent book on the Amber Room (Die Bernstein-Zimmer-Saga, Spuren, Irrwege, Rätsel, Christoph Links Verlag, Berlin 1991). There were, in fact, two amber rooms (sometimes known as the amber cabinets) in the palace in Königsberg during the war. One was the new arrival from Pushkin, the other, a room in the museum containing very valuable amber and amber carvings. All the exhibits have vanished without trace.
The destruction theory
A completely new version of the whereabouts of the Pushkin room was given in a television programme at the end of 1990. The widow of Wilhelm Stolzke, an officer in the Königsberg Fire Service, said that her husband had been ordered by Gauleiter Koch, before the British air raids began, to move the Amber Room to the castle of Lochstädt on the Samland coast, ninety kilometres north of Königsberg. There the crates, camouflaged by fire service blankets, were deposited in the lower basement. If this is so, all the statements to the effect that the Room was stored in Königsberg, in bunkers or deep vaults, cannot be true. The statement that the Room was moved to Lochstädt is certainly not incompatible with the letter written by Director Rohde to his superior Gall in Berlin, on 2 September 1944, when the Palace had been burned down to its foundation walls. Rohde said in his letter, “The Amber Room has survived, apart from six dado panels.” On 14 January 1944, when the Russian guns were already battering the thinly occupied German positions on the Rominter Heide in preparation for the attack, Rohde’s son, a young soldier in the marines, saw his father for the last time in Königsberg. He can still remember him saying that the Amber Room had been “moved to a safe place.”
But where was it? Some people from Königsberg, including former Polish and Soviet foreign workers, who might know, are or were convinced that the Amber Room never left Königsberg or its surrounding area. Before the attacking Soviet army surrounded the fortress, on 30 January, there would have been a good two weeks to move the crates. But the railway line through Elbing had already been brought to a halt on 23 January, when Russian tanks broke through to the Frischer Haff. The routes through the Samland to the coast were blocked by military convoys and streams of refugees.
On 31 January Soviet tanks also blocked the route to the harbour of Pillau. Three weeks later the route was freed again by German troops and it remained open until 6 April 1945. So the Amber Room could have been taken out of the district during that time. If the crates remained in the palace cellars the Russians probably destroyed them themselves. Gerlach, the Senior Building Councillor at the Palace, recalled that on 9 April 1945, one day after the surrender of Königsberg, all the entrances to the cellar were black with smoke or blocked by rubble, and the whole of the south wing was destroyed, apparently blown up by Soviet soldiers celebrating their victory.
A young journalist from Munich, Maurice Philip Remy, tried to find evidence for this in a television documentary in 1990. He boldly entitled his film The End of a Legend. Remy had been able to inspect the diary of a Soviet officer in charge of the protection of art works, Victor Briussov, then fifty-nine years old and Professor of Early History. The diary was in the Lenin library in Moscow and it had been kept secret for forty-five years. Briussov arrived in Königsberg on 28 May 1945 to search for the Amber Room, and by 10 June he had come to the conclusion that it no longer existed. “Probably the fire started by our soldiers destroyed it.”
It is clear from the diary that Director Alfred Rohde was consulted by the Russian officer. He and his wife had remained in the beleaguered city because Rohde was unwilling to leave his aged father and his work. It is, however, very much an open question whether he told the Russian officer the truth. First he stated that the crates containing the Amber Room had been stored in the south wing. When the excavations yielded nothing, he suddenly said that the Room had been stored with the Keyserling furniture in the north wing, where everything had been burned. “We found hinges of the doors to the Amber Room, iron plates with screws with which the parts had been attached to the walls of the crates, and charred remains of the Amber Room.”
But this is not very convincing. Why, when it was certain that the Soviets would soon attack “Fortress Königsberg,” were the crates left in the almost roofless palace rooms? Why were they not taken to the very deep casemates in the castle hill? Small metal parts were also found after the war in other hiding places, where fires seem to have been kindled deliberately to distract from the disappearance of art treasures. Moreover, amber does not char; it either melts or burns like tinder.
Director Rohde’s behaviour is too obvious; he seems to have done his best to confuse the Russians. He was not a National Socialist, but he was a patriotic German loyal to his official oath despite the German capitulation. And even though the Russians took him into their service, official secrets were not to be handed over to the “enemy.” Statements by Rohde made in the summer of 1944 and the beginning of 1945 have been passed on which rather suggest that even then he was trying to cast a veil over the whereabouts of Germany’s greatest war prize by giving the impression that it was in Königsberg. He would also have had a personal interest in doing this, for the Russians could have held him responsible for moving the treasure. In December 1945, like so many of the people of Königsberg, Rohde and his wife died of typhoid fever and starvation.
The 1950s: the Amber Room becomes a pawn
in the propaganda war
No less remarkable than Rohde’s behaviour is that of Professor Briussov and the Soviet public. Until the late Fifties the Amber Room was never discussed in the Soviet Union. Then suddenly the Kalinengradskaya Pravda published a mendacious report in which there appeared an officer with the pseudonym of Barssov who was responsible for the protection of art treasures. Apparently he knew nothing of the Amber Room in May 1945; he caught Rohde burning important papers and soon afterwards Rohde, an important witness, died of poisoning.
Why did Briussov permit such a story to be published (it was quoted for thirty years)? Why did he write a book about the search for the Amber Room, if he knew the sad truth? Did he want to hide the fact that Russian soldiers had destroyed the finest art treasure their country possessed? Or, as Amber Room expert Günter Wermusch believes, was he trying to build up a legend and make the Amber Room, until then hardly known, a symbol of Nazi art robbery and a sacred national monument?
Remy, the legend killer from Munich, was able to find a second witness in Russia who could confirm that the Amber Room had been destroyed in the palace of Königsberg. It was Alexander Kuchumov, director of the museum in Tsarskoye Selo. As late as 1946 he had searched the ruins of the palace in Königsberg for remnants of the Amber Room, and by chance, he says, he found the Florentine pietre dure at the entrance to the north wing. In the darkness he recognised “a ruin, figures, all in tiny fragments rendered colourless by the heat. They were still stuck to their ground.” He took one small corner of the mosaic with him to Leningrad and then lost it somewhere. This moving story by a pensioner in an old people’s home has just one element that makes it strange: if he knew it was destroyed, why did Kuchumov spend years helping the Special Stasi Commission in the former GDR search for the Amber Room? Even now, he is convinced that at least some parts of the Room disappeared from Königsberg.
Gauleiter Koch and the shipwreck theory
One person who might know what happened to the Amber Room only fell into the hands of the victorious powers of World War II some years after the German capitulation: the Gauleiter Erich Koch. He fled from East Prussia and went to ground in northern Germany, working as a farm labourer. The British handed him over to the Poles in 1952, and he was sentenced to death in Poland for war crimes, but never executed.
Until he died in 1987 he was imprisoned in the former monastery of Wartenberg, south of Olstyn. Perhaps he saved his life by exaggerating what he knew. Certainly both Polish and Soviet journalists have imputed to him all kinds of fantastic statements on the Amber Room. But in his only television interview, shortly before his death, he said that he did not have time to concern himself with wooden crates. Occasionally Koch implied (and there are several sources for this) that the Amber Room was taken out of East Prussia with his private art collection. This gave rise to the theory that the Room was taken across the Baltic from Pillau on the light cruiser Emden. When the attack on East Prussia started the ship was lying with its engines dismantled in the Königsberg docks. Nevertheless, Admiral Könitz released the ship to transport refugees, and on 23 January the order was given to set sail. The barge Schwalbennest was to pull the cruiser, which was too large to manoeuvre, along the sea canal to Pillau. Although the Emden had a 700-man crew, she could still take about 1000 refugees on board. They had to descend into the bowels of the ship because machine parts were littering the upper deck.
The N.C.O. in charge of the operations outside the ship knows nothing about any crates of amber. His men had to load the ship and the upper deck was absolutely full. But they could all remember a ghostly scene on the night of 23-24 January. After they had waited for hours, several trucks appeared on the quayside, at three in the morning, in a light drift of snow. They were carrying the bronze sarcophagi of Hindenburg and his wife. The crates were lifted on board by crane, together with 250 flags and banners from the monument in Tannenberg. It was a symbolic event: Hindenburg, the “saviour” of Eastern Prussia in World War I, was leaving Germany’s outpost in the East.
In Pillau the crew of the Emden had first to assemble its engines. After several days the ship put to sea in a precarious state—it had only one propeller, was steered by a hand rudder and could only travel at a speed of six knots, but it delivered its refugees safely to Kiel. The Hindenburg coffins were not on board; they had been reloaded on to the Pretoria by harbour cranes in Pillau. The Pretoria (a passenger cruiser of nearly 17,000 gross register tons and once the pride of the Africa line) was being used by the navy to house the First Submarine Cadet Division, as were the other ships in Pillau, the Ubena, the Duala and the Robert Ley, the biggest passenger ship of the Nazi leisure organisation “Kraft durch Freude” (Strength through Joy). Now they had to take thousands of refugees and on 25 January they set sail in a convoy for Swinemünde.
Was the Amber Room on board? There would have been room on the Pretoria and the other ships, where whole waggon loads of household goods were taken on board. But we have not been able to find any member of the crew who knows anything of the Amber Room. There are statements from witnesses to the effect that crates were to be moved from one of the big ships to a freighter in mid-Baltic and it could certainly have taken the precious cargo across the Atlantic to safety.
It is often maintained that the Amber Room went down with the Wilhelm Gustloff, the sister ship of the Robert Ley. The Gustloff had been converted to a submarine training ship and floating hospital for the war, and on 30 January 1945 it was torpedoed by a Russian submarine, shortly after it left Gotenhafen (Gdingen) harbour. The ship went down with 5000 people on board in one of the biggest losses at sea of the war. The wreck is lying forty sea miles from the coast, twenty metres down. The Poles have not succeeded in lifting her, and divers have found nothing.
A simple consideration would refute the Gustloff theory: there would be no need to take the Amber Room on the dangerous sea voyage from Gotenhafen if it could still be transported by truck or rail over the Vistula. And why such a detour, if the crates could have been taken on board in Pillau? A small freighter left Pillau at that time; it was also named the Gustloff and this may explain the confusion.
But the transport carrying the Amber Room may have been split up on a land journey. On the retreat through Samland a unit of the Herzog Engineers Corps came upon three trucks near Pojerstieten, on the road from Galtgarben to Germau, abandoned by their accompanying unit. The trucks were loaded with ammunition, and there were some crates containing secret material. Apparently these were labelled “Palace Administration, Königsberg B.Z..” They could have contained parts of the Room or the Königsberg amber collection housed within it.
The Engineers Corps took the trucks to Heiligenkreuz, where they dumped the crates in the church vault. Heiligenkreuz changed hands several times in the next few days in the course of the fighting. When the Germans retook it the church had been destroyed by artillery fire and the vault was filled with rubble.
Enke and Stein: the two indefatigable searchers for the Amber Room
In 1958 Georg Stein from Königsberg, a former soldier in the Engineers Corps, read an article in an English newspaper on the missing Amber Room, and he remembered this episode. With the help of the German weekly Die Zeit he told the Russians, and Marion Gräfin Dönhoff from the newspaper interviewed the Soviet Minister of Culture, Mrs Furzewa, especially for the article. But Germans were not allowed into Samland, as it had been a closed military area until shortly before, and later the Soviet authorities were emphatic that the church vault had been empty.
Georg Stein was then farming in Stelle near Hamburg, and he became an indefatigable searcher for the Amber Room in a private capacity. He uncovered a steady flow of new clues. By chance, his searches also revealed the famous Pechora monastery treasure in Recklinghausen, which the Germans had taken to the Reich in 1944 from the Baltic. Stein would not rest until the Federal Government handed back the art treasures to the Soviet Union in 1973. For this service he was awarded the Order of Vladimir; it is the highest honour given by the Russian Orthodox Church, and he was the first Western European to be so honoured. The Soviet writer Julian Semyonov wrote a play about him, in which Stein, the hero, is murdered by secret agents at the end.
Stein was born in 1923 in Königsberg, and he was a prisoner of war in Russia until 1947. He became obsessed by the idea of finding the Amber Room, and the craze cost him his house and farm. He incurred huge tax debts which reduced him to dire poverty and in the summer of 1987 he committed suicide. The Communist propagandists tried to interpret the suicide as a politically motivated murder.
To the end Stein’s endeavours were partly financed by Baron Eduard von Falz-Fein of Liechtenstein, and at an early stage of the investigations he was able to arrange for Stein to visit his home town of Königsberg, then Kaliningrad, and still “the forbidden city.” Falz-Fein belongs to a distinguished Russo-German family, and he saw the Amber Room as a boy in 1917 (his grandfather was then adjutant to the Czar). He has always had excellent relations with the Soviet Union and now the Russian Republic, and he has spent some of his fortune buying up Soviet treasures which reached the West and giving them back to their native country. Around twenty years ago Falz-Fein collected a loose “Amber Room group” around him, consisting of secret agents, crime writers and journalists from Britain, France and the Soviet Union. The last to join were the Germans, Georg Stein from the Federal Republic and Paul Enke from the GDR. They kept in contact with each other and exchanged information.
The two Germans proved the most dedicated. Paul Enke, who was also born in East Prussia, converted to Communism as a prisoner of war in Russia and had seen the plundered palaces of the Czars. He dedicated his life to the task of recovering art treasures deported by the Nazis from Russia. His task was very much easier than that of the private researcher, Stein, for he was working in an official capacity for the GDR and could draw on its entire state apparatus; army engineers corps could, for instance, be requested at any time. He headed a small search commission for the Ministry of State Security (the “Stasi”), which studied innumerable files, interviewed hundreds of people, and had hundreds of palaces, farms, tunnels, mines, lakes and bogs searched. Money was no object. When he was invalided out of the state service Enke went on searching on his own, and he died of heart failure in 1987. His book, Bernsteinzimmer-Report (The Amber Room Report) Verlag Die Wirtschaft, Berlin 1986, sold 50,000 copies in the GDR.
Any clue, however, insignificant it might seem, was followed up, and inevitably Enke and Stein sometimes went astray in their speculations or clung obstinately to untenable theories. Stein believed to the end that the Amber Room had been taken from East Prussia by land, and his belief was strengthened by a report by the Pole Alfons Kairis, who was driver to the Director of the Kaiser Friedrich Museum in Posen, Dr Siegfried Rühle (apparently a friend of Bohrmann) in January 1945. A truck had been loaded with large crates, he said; in Posen a collection of coins was added, which Rühle had fetched in May 1944 from the main post office in Königsberg and stored in a bunker in the Warthe position. On the railway station at Paradies, east of Frankfurt an der Oder, the crates were reloaded on to a railway waggon. On the way the Pole heard Rühle talking about them to a Dr Root, a Major from Riga, and asking whether the “Amber Chapel” could be stored in a salt mine. Another driver, a German, is also said to have heard this conversation. At times Stein thought that the “Rühle transport” had gone to a salt mine in central Germany. Later he began to search for the Amber Room in Baden and Alsace, even in Carinthia in Austria.
Paul Enke took a different route. He believed that at the beginning of February four transports had linked up in Potsdam to form a rail convoy. It contained the coffins of the Hindenburg family and the Tannenberg flags, which had been brought from Swinemünde; the coffins of the Prussian kings, Frederick William I and his son Frederick the Great, with paintings and folios from the Palace of Sanssouci; the crown of the Hohenzollerns, the Imperial orb and magnificent Imperial swords; at least some parts of the Amber Room and finally the private art collection of Gauleiter Koch (silver and paintings from museums in the Ukraine) were also included.
The convoy first set off in the direction of Weimar, but then it was redirected west. The four coffins were hidden in the salt mine at Bernterode, near Mühlhausen. American soldiers only discovered them there some weeks later, and brought them out. (A German officer in British hands, who heard of the Western powers’ intention to vacate the central German territory they had conquered again, told them where the coffins were hidden to prevent the national relics falling into Russian hands.)
The Amber Room and the Koch collection are supposed to have been moved by truck from Bernterode to Weimar. But Enke’s thesis had one flaw: the coffins from Tannenberg and Potsdam only reached Bernterode in mid-March 1945, by truck, not by rail. The Koch collection, however, was already deposited in the Land Museum in Weimar, against a receipt, on 9 February 1945. The list made out by the caretaker of the museum only includes a small and less significant part of the collection, and it does not mention the Amber Room. The large number of silver and gilt candelabra seemed significant to Enke—almost as many as were once in the Amber Room; after the German capitulation they had vanished without trace.
It was certainly a promising trail, and his confidence was confirmed in 1984 by a statement by the distinguished Berlin art historian Margarethe Kühn, who had worked with Director Gall in the Administration of the Prussian Palaces and Gardens. Frau Kühn told Die Zeit that the Amber Room was taken south west, to south or central Germany. “That’s where it is, in Thuringia.” And that is where the Russians now believe it is.
Regrettably, Paul Enke, the head of the Special Stasi Commission allowed himself to be sidetracked. He was sure that the crates containing the Amber Room had been deposited near Gotha for a time, in the hunting lodge of Reinhardsbrunn. This was then the property of Duke Carl Eduard of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, who had joined the National Socialists. On 2 January 1945 he rented his palace to Hitler’s office, the Reichskanzlei as departments from Berlin began to move to Thuringia, “the green heart of Germany,” which was believed to be safe.
The other amber
Crates of amber really were in Reinhardsbrunn, and when they were moved in April as the Americans approached, one crate broke, spilling amber on to the floor. As Enke discovered, the local schoolchildren were playing with amber as late as 1948/49, skipping the pieces across a fish pond . But Enke drew the wrong conclusions, and it was only after his death that his editor, Günter Wermusch, discovered that this was low-value amber, pieces with insect inclusions. They came from the world-famous Danzig collection of inclusions which has also been lost since the spring of 1945. Wermusch thinks a Soviet “booty commission” could have taken it.
Something else distracted Paul Enke in his search: statements by Walter Scheidig, then director of the museum in Weimar. In his many interrogations by the Stasi he had repeatedly claimed that two-thirds of the Koch collection deposited in the Land Museum in Weimar was moved to an unknown destination on 9 and 10 April. The less important paintings and graphics were found after the German surrender in the Weimar district savings bank, where Scheidig handed them over to the Russians. Enke concluded from this that the Amber Room and the Koch collection had been moved on the same truck. As the Americans were already in the West, the journey could only have been into Western Saxony, and Enke suspected the Aue district would have been chosen. In the last years of his life he searched feverishly here, but without success. Two and a half million Marks were spent on the hunt in vain.
It is clear that the Stasi searchers did not read the Weimar files carefully enough. This has now been done, by the Leipzig writer and journalist Wolfgang Schneider, and he came to the conclusion that museum director Scheidig deliberately lied. According to the files, the core of the Koch collection can only have lain for one day in the old museum, which was hardly secure and had no cellars. The collection did not have to be moved far to an underground store where it would be safe from the air raids. Directly beside the museum, under what was known as the “Gauforum,” an assemblage of monumental Nazi buildings with the inevitable parade ground, was a system of bunkers, four storeys deep and linked by tunnels. Inmates of the Buchenwald concentration camp had had to work on it until the end of the war. Before the American troops arrived, the SS had walled up the entrances and exits. In all the intervening years no-one had ever searched the bunkers, and this has now been done, with the help of the authorities. On 5 December last the Frankfurter Allgemeine reported that nothing was found.
The Königsberg bunker and the case
of the mouldy coded messages
Now SS Obersturmbannführer “Georg Ringel” enters the picture. He is said to have hidden the Amber Room in January or February 1945. In 1959 a young man contacted Die Freie Welt, the publication of the Society for German-Soviet Friendship in the GDR, and gave the following story. His name was Rudolf Wyst, and his father, Gustav Wyst, had been an SS Sturmbannführer highly regarded by Gauleiter Koch for his organisational talents. Shortly before his death in 1947 he told his son, then aged nine, that the Amber Room had been stored in a bunker on Steindamm in Königsberg for Director Rohde, together with the other collections and the Palace “war archives”. Fearing reprisals on account of his father’s Nazi past, the son asked the newspaper to invent a pseudonym for him.
If “Ringel Junior” was not simply courting publicity, the details of the story he told are strange enough. “Rudolf Ringel,” who hated his father, had thrown all the documents into the kitchen stove immediately after his death and burned them. However, he could roughly quote from memory the contents of some which he claimed he had read at the time. “Ringel Junior” certainly achieved one thing. He was invited to the Soviet Union and allowed to search for a bunker in Königsberg, although he could not possibly have known anything of its existence when he was child.
Even more questionable than this story are the text and origin of three telegrams which son “Ringel” claims he found in a mouldy old brief case belonging to his father. There are five versions of these and even more dates are mentioned in the period from the middle to the end of January 1945. The most important message, which Soviet troops are said to have heard, was “Order executed. Amber Room taken over by guards and stored in the BSCH (other versions have “B SCH W” or “IIIb”). Upper parts of the building (another version is “entrances”) blown up. Losses from enemy action. Await further instructions”.
The lack of a recipient’s name and assignment number is suspicious. Were they not noted or were they deliberately omitted from the record? The texts available to the GDR searchers were retranslations from the Russian and Die Freie Welt maintains that the text came from archives in Britain. The British news service had cracked most of the German codes early in the war. Their Soviet allies were given selected (and “edited”?) copies, probably through the Rössler group in Switzerland. But it is known that the Soviet spy Anthony Blunt, later Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, handed on copies of all the German radio calls to Moscow. This would explain not only the secretiveness of the Russians but also the confused and mutilated texts of the telegrams. They would be translations into German of Russian texts which in turn had been translated from English—a double retranslation, in other words.
The above version of the text of the telegram is improbable. In the case of objects reserved for the Führer’s decision, that is, of top secrecy, it would have been suicidal carelessness to send a radio message with the words “Amber Room” uncoded. Either a code word was added later or an over-eager comrade in some Special Commission polished up a mutilated or unclear text a little, and the bureaucrats clung to it, as the interpretation they preferred could not be confirmed by any finds in Königsberg.
The formulation “taken over by the guards” has a double meaning. An object like the Amber Room could not have been left unattended at that time, so it only makes sense if it refers to the crates being handed over by one unit accompanying a transport to another. The most puzzling line “and stored in the BSCH” suggests that the original radio message was received in very mutilated form. In the first version the letters are “BSCHW” and Georg Stein interpreted them as standing for “BSchaft (B Shaft) Wittekind”, the miners’ name for the old potash mine at Volpriehausen in Solling.
Later the GDR searchers added a different interpretation: “im III b”. They had noticed that the Russians use the typewriter key with the Cyrillic letter iii for the Roman numeral III, and the last ordnance survey map of the fortress of Königsberg, of autumn 1944, shows a bunker III b in the fortification line north of the city. The GDR Special Commission interpreted the group of letters “BSCHW” as “Betrieb Schichau Werft” (the Schichau shipyard), and a reference to the destroyer Emden. One expert also suggested that it could mean a destination like “in the district around Braunschweig”.
As long as neither the original document nor a photocopy of it is available one can go on suggesting interpretations. As our expert said, “If ‘im III b’ is the correct version—philologically correct—none of the codes consisting of a combination of letters and numbers applies. I can say with certainty that in the language of the time code names did not have a definite article and so they were not declined with it. You went “along A 2,” not “along the [tunnel] A 2”.” So it should be “in III b”.
The phrase “upper parts of the building blown up” suggests a simple cipher. Of course, this could be a reference to the barns under which bunker III b was hidden. But the Russian searchers found nothing there. There is actually only one other subterranean possibility. The workers who prepared mines for use as armaments factories and stores during the last years of the war had coined the term “storeys” for systems of tunnels on several floors that were assembled on ground level. Small earth falls could easily be engineered to cover all traces, particularly in mines that had already been closed or were still being excavated.
The Volpriehausen mine shaft theory
In 1977 attention began to be paid to the Volpriehausen shaft, near Göttingen, as a likely hiding place for the Amber Room. In 1945 remnants of the world famous amber collection of the Königsberg Albertina had been found there. In 1958 they were entrusted to Göttingen University; only the specialists knew of this. Publicity was avoided, and not without reason. As long as there was talk of a peace treaty—it was during the Soviet ultimatum on Berlin—it was feared that the University of Kaliningrad would claim the collection. The media only learned of the affair in 1977, and then only by chance.
The universities of Göttingen and Königsberg had always had close relations with each other. When the Soviet vanguard was already at the borders of the Reich, in the late summer of 1944, the University of Königsberg asked whether it could store archives and collections with the Georg August University in Göttingen “should East Prussia temporarily be lost”. By then Göttingen University had already started to shift its libraries and collections to Volpriehausen. The contents of twenty-four railway wagons were deposited in the reputedly “absolutely safe” mine where an army munitions works (Muna) was located, 660 metres below ground.
Professor Karl Andree, Director of the Geological-Palaeontological Institute in Königsberg, selected the finest pieces from the collection of more than 100,000 with inclusions of stones and packed them in crates (75 by 45 by 30 centimetres in size). The crates had locks, and he labelled them “Amber Collection”. The collections administrator of the Institute brought two crates to Göttingen in the autumn of 1944 and was sent straight on to Volpriehausen. The foreman, Marahrens, did not put the crates beside the crates of books from Göttingen University but stored them on the 550-metre level under rubble, and this is what saved them from being plundered after the war.
At least three more cases and one crate were also delivered to the munitions works in September 1944 by special courier. The officer responsible had them pushed between the piles of books. The couriers showed the Captain a special permit and photos of valuable amber objects that were in the locked case. The crates were declared either as “minerals collection/private property” or administrative material. Presumably they were plundered or stolen in the first few weeks after the surrender of Germany in May 1945 by Polish workers, British soldiers or local people.
Old miners recall that a lot of loose pieces of amber were being shown around the village at the time, and the children were playing with them. The stones had numbers, so they were clearly part of a collection. The plundering must have been rewarding, for the crates included the entire reserve tools of the German army: spare parts, lathes, measuring instruments, telescopes, radio valves, silk. There was also a sealed cabinet with valuable family items. After the war precious Meissen porcelain was sighted several times in the village, and it was suspected that these pieces could be from the Czars’ palaces. How was this idea born?
One day in the final phase of the war, a whole wagon load of goods from Königsberg had been unloaded on the ramp of the shaft. Both the former mayor and the Nazi local group leader of Volpriehausen and the last director of the Muna works maintained that this happened at the end of September or the beginning of October 1944. This is contradicted by the statement from the sergeant in charge of the transport that the wagon only arrived in February 1945. So was it the transport from Heiligenstadt?
The local group leader can still remember the strict secrecy. He had been given advance notice of the arrival of the wagon by the Reich Railway authorities, because the freight certificate was issued in his name. Only reliable people were to be allowed to unload it. There were twelve crates of about 1.50 metres by 0.80 metres, sealed and fastened with iron bands. If the measurements were right, however, only small parts of the Amber Room, and not the large panels could have been inside. The Muna captain maintains he knew nothing of the contents, not even where the crates were deposited.
A site plan still exists of the 660-metre level, showing the Göttingen University stores. The large crates from Königsberg were stored behind them. The contents were not known. There is only a question mark in the lists, and beside it a note in pencil: “Hygiene Institute”. The records from Göttingen University library contain the terse comment: “Stored in Volpriehausen: one wagon from Königsberg, East Prussia (amber collection)”. The sergeant still remembers that the crates in the wagon were covered with “junk”.
After the war it was no longer possible to establish whether the Amber Room or parts of it were in the crates, for in the night of 28 to 29 September 1945 the village of Volpriehausen was suddenly awakened by a huge explosion. About 20,000 to 25,000 tonnes of ammunition in the mine went up. The cause of the accident was never established. Was it a thunderstorm? Or had plunderers caused the explosion by walking with candles through explosives spilling from broken crates? Perhaps former SS members had used a time fuse? Or did Allied agents want to disguise the fact that works of art had been stolen?
When mining specialists first entered the shaft again, in March 1946, they found that most of the Göttingen library—at least 360,000 books—had been destroyed. In the next few weeks students managed to rescue about 50 cubic metres of books, tied in bundles.
Professor Francke from Göttingen, who inspected the store with mining experts on 21 October 1946, shortly before the rescue work was abandoned as water was entering the mine, said he could see “with his own eyes” that right up to the end of the seam “all the books and other goods stored there had been burned to a whitish grey ash”. The ash was about one metre high. This is where the Königsberg crates had stood.
However, he goes on to say in his report that it had been “difficult” to “move through the mine”. This is now closed and flooded with water and mud, and the engineer from the firm of Kali und Salz in Kassel, who is responsible for it, says: “No-one could get to the last 150 metres because the roof was down”. So no-one knows what it was really like there.
The two wooden crates with the 10,000 amber pieces which the clever foreman had hidden in another seam were rescued before the explosion and moved to the central archive in the British zone in the Imperial Palace of Goslar. Professor Andree returned to Göttingen, where he started his career, as a refugee, and when he recovered his collection in Goslar in 1949, he said that the cases were damaged, and some were missing.
On 28 January 1954, during the negotiations with the art works store in Celle in Lower Saxony on the return of the items, Andree stated that he had had ten large and two small crates of material taken to Volpriehausen from his institute in Königsberg. Some of it was from the amber collection, some was “large and valuable items” from the geological-palaeontological collection.
Andree, who has since died, once told the Minister of Culture of Lower Saxony, Langeheine, that the crates contained “only old stones”. The Academic Director, Siegfried Ritzkowski, who is now in charge of the amber treasures in Göttingen, is convinced that Professor Andree managed to spirit away in time a core collection for his alternative Institute in Göttingen .
But many questions remain. In the last months of the war there was no hope of “organising” a wagon to take collections and private property many hundreds of kilometres unless the museum director was really close to the very top offices. The Soviet Special Commission in Königsberg (renamed Kaliningrad) maintained that Andree could never have packed prehistoric stones and bones in the large crates, for his geological-palaeontological collection was still in the Albertina buildings belonging to the Institute on Steindamm. Is it not significant that the man who was once head of the Rosenberg action group, Gerhard Utikal, stated a few years ago that the Amber Room was moved, camouflaged as a “geological formations collection,” and he believed it had been taken to the Flackenstein ruin in the Vogtland in October 1944?
Volpriehausen must above all have seemed a particularly appropriate hiding place for the Amber Room to the Supreme Army Command, which was responsible for the munitions works and the reserve tools store, as the Muna works were being guarded by the SS Security Service and the Reich Criminal Police.
There is only one clue to indicate that art treasures from the Soviet Union were stored in the Wittekind mine: the statement by Friedrich Axt of Berlin. Towards the end of the war he had to work in the Muna works in Volpriehausen as an inmate of the youth concentration camp Mohringen. He can remember “hundreds of pictures” stored in the mine (what were they?) and “an elongated oval bowl in amber, decorated with an eagle on the right and on the left. They were two different eagles, probably a Prussian and Russian eagle. The SS guards were using the bowl as an ash tray and I often had it in my hand when I was cleaning there.” These bowls could only have come from one place, say the Soviet art experts: the palaces of the Czars near Leningrad.
After the first big feature on the plunder of art treasures appeared in the periodical Zeit six years ago, the Berlin SPD member to the Federal German parliament, Professor Nils Diederich, asked the Federal Government what they intended to do to ensure the safety of priceless art treasures and restore them to their rightful owners. In reply, Andreas von Schoeler, then parliamentary Secretary of State, stated that there were “not sufficient grounds” to support the Volpriehausen thesis. “So no attempts have been made to recover anything that might have survived there, not least because the costs would be so high.” The present Federal Government estimates the costs at DM10-20 million.
Fears have been expressed that it is is technically impossible to recover whatever may have survived in Volpriehausen, but Röver, a qualified engineer, brushes these aside: “If somebody really wants to do it, and is prepared to pay for the work, and if the authorities support him, Kali und Salz will not be able to resist tackling the job.” Will this ever happen?
But is the Amber Room really in the Volprie-hausen mine Wittekind? Or could it be in another mine? Was it stolen in 1944 or 1945, broken up, lost—by Nazi functionaries or their favourites, who were powerful and skilful enough to exploit the general confusion?
The Soviets once seemed to think this theory was not impossible—capitalists were capable of anything. Tourists from the West, when being shown around the palace in Pushkin, were told that the “lost” Amber Room had been “stolen by the Fascists and taken out of the Federal Republic of Germany camouflaged as private property”. It is not so far-fetched to assume that the treasure was stolen to enrich a private collection, by Nazis, or members of the SS, who have gone underground, or by Allied soldiers looking for souvenirs. We only need remember the Odyssey of the Quedlinburg cathedral treasure, which was taken to Texas, and the removal of the Bremen Dürer collection to Moscow. If the transport had been redirected southwards from Thuringia in February 1945, it could have gone to the Alt-Aussee salt mine, where Hitler stored his huge treasures (more than 6000 paintings alone); to Berchtesgaden, where Göring’s special train with the stolen Rothschild jewels and the convoy with the millions in foreign currency from the Reichsbank were taken, and which the wife of Gauleiter Koch was trying to reach, or perhaps to South Tyrol, where the Bormann family reappeared after the war. Anything could have happened.
Where priceless art treasures are at stake, forgers, confidence tricksters, charlatans, clairvoyants and fantasizers are never far away. The special commissions of the Soviet Union and the GDR and the Poles, who looked for the Amber Room in the part of East Prussia they annexed, could write a book about them.
A reporter from the Stern magazine, Gerd Heidemann, also joined the search. He was to win somewhat dubious fame in 1983 as the middleman in the forged Hitler diaries case. He was taken in by a Karlsruhe weapons dealer and police agent, and seriously told the Soviets that former “Reich officials,” who he maintained were living in the Paraguay jungle, would give the Amber Room in exchange for Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s deputy, then in Spandau prison. At the beginning of 1983 Heidemann, who still had a very high opinion of himself, said, “If I discover the Amber Room I am the finder. Pravda has estimated its value at 100 million roubles. The finder should get twenty per cent as a reward.” Georg Stein’s experiences were rather different. He was repeatedly enticed on to false trails, as if someone—or an interested group—were trying to keep the whereabouts of the Amber Room secret at any price. That is hardly surprising, if the Deutsche Nationalzeitung can still say, as it did this year, that “the Amber Room does not belong to the Soviets, and if it remained in German hands it would be some compensation—if only a tiny one—for the losses that should still form part of any negotiations on a peace treaty.” It is food for thought that former officers in the Wehrmacht maintain an iron silence “because we swore an oath to the Führer and the Reich,” and that in the Eighties the Finance Office in Munich could still refuse journalists permission to look at files because the question of the Soviet works of art which were taken to Germany during the war can only be discussed at official level between German and Russian bodies. It is also significant that the Western Allies have not yet handed back to the Federal German Archive all the files taken in 1945 and containing information on items put in safekeeping.
The Amber Room sails to the U.S. theory
Both Stein and Enke were resigned at the end of their lives, after all their searches had failed to yield any results, to the belief that the Amber Room was no longer in Europe but had been secretly confiscated by the Americans in 1945 and taken on “Liberty” ships to the United States. One of their theories was based on the fact that the potash mine Kaiserola II/III, where the Nazis put their gold and foreign currency reserves in the spring of 1945, together with pictures from Berlin museums, also contained twenty crates labelled “Waterways Department Königsberg.” As the Americans took them to Frankfurt immediately it was possible that they had found the Amber Room. But two years ago Günter Wermusch was able to prove that the crates contained strategic documents on the waterways network in East Prussia and the Baltic area.
The Amber Room in post-reunification politics
Shortly before German reunification, interest in the Amber Room seemed to be gradually dying. The Soviets had dissolved their search commission years ago. They seemed to have accepted the loss and were comforting themselves with the thought that a new Amber Room would soon be created. It is growing under the skilful hands of the Blinow family, expert amber carvers from Riga, who have been working with great patience for many years at their task. The costly and time-consuming undertaking—there are only black and white photos of the original and a view of part of it in colour to serve as guide—is being financed by the state. Over a tonne of amber will have to be worked.
The situation changed rapidly when the Soviet Union approved the unification of the two German states. The German-Soviet unification treaty of 1990 also states that the art treasures removed or confiscated by each side during the war must be returned. It soon transpired that a large number of German art treasures and libraries are still located in Soviet museums and other institutions. The Russian Minister of Culture has now drawn up its list of demands for art treasures stolen during the war and apparently still in Germany. The sums run into billions, and one of the items is the Amber Room...
On his state visit to Bonn in November 1991 the Russian President Boris Yeltsin asked the Federal Government for permission for the Russians to start searching in the places in Germany where the Amber Room might be hidden. Apparently they had failed to do so as long as they were the occupying power and could have given any orders they liked in their German zone.
Attention is now been concentrated on Thuringia: the first place, the bunker system already mentioned under Karl Marx Platz in Weimar has now been ???????ated, and the second, a mine in the Jonas valley near Arnstadt and Erfurt remains to be searched. Nearby is the big Soviet military base of Ohrdruf. Under the code name “S III” the SS had twenty-five tunnels driven into the solid mountain by thousands of concentration camp prisoners in 1944/45 for the ersatz Führer headquarters “Olga.” When the Americans appeared—at any rate, this is what the mysterious “Ringel” telegram implies—there was bitter fighting for the Jonas valley, and before their retreat the SS blew up the entrances to the inner tracts. Then the Russians blew up the front entrances, piling up even more rubble. But both in the Jonas valley and Weimar very expensive techniques will be needed to reveal the secrets of these major hiding place. We will soon see whether the German authorities are willing to take such a financial risk. Even if this search does prove fruitless, it will still be difficult to accept the idea that one of the finest works of art ever created by the hand of man is lost for ever—buried, burned, as in the lament of the East Prussian ballad singer Agnes Miegel: “Scented honeyed resin, melted to grey gravel.”
© Karl-Heinz Janssen.
Rewritten and up-dated version of an article first published in Die Zeit No. 47, 16 November 1984