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Legend realized? Discovery of lost Nazi 'gold train' invigorates Polish town

A mysterious train loaded with stolen Nazi treasures has purportedly been found in Wałbrzych, Poland. Whether or not the discovery pans out, it has fired up local treasure hunters and skeptics alike.

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    Retired miner Tadeusz Slowikowski poses for a photo at his home in Wałbrzych, Poland on Tuesday, Sept. 1.
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This medieval town has long been home to legends of a secret train, filled with gold, that was abandoned as the Nazis fled the Red Army at the close of World War II.

But for just as long, nobody has known the truth – and everyone has had an opinion about it. Most locals will say they know at least one person who is searching, or has searched, for guns, jewelry, documents and anything else the retreating Germans may have hid in 1945 before they left the city.

But when two men, a Pole and German, came forward last month saying they not only knew where the secret treasure was, but they had proof of the “gold train” with radar imaging, Wałbrzych experienced a veritable gold frenzy.

Now, the treasure hunters who have always scoured the wooded area of southwestern Poland have suddenly multiplied. So, too, have the number of tourists, police securing the zone, and soldiers dispatched to confirm the men’s story – or dismiss it, as the naysayers expect will happen.

One of those skeptics is the mayor of Wałbrzych, Roman Szełemej. Still, the story has already brought attention to this beautiful swath of the country, and even if he has his doubts, like so many before him, he’s willing to entertain the fairy tale. “If the train is really here, it would be a turning point in the history of the region,” says Mr. Szełemej. [Editor's noteAn earlier version of this story misstated the mayor's name.]

'Project Riese'

At the very least, the story has given a lot more work to the local history guides who can talk about this area's wartime role. At the time, it was host to a major German construction project, as the Nazis built a headquarters for Adolf Hitler in the Książ Castle, along with a related top secret operation called Project Riese: a system of tunnels and bunkers, most of them still inaccessible today, buried 50 meters under the ground.

But the complex was never completed, abandoned before the end of the war. And its purpose is still shrouded in mystery, prompting countless conspiracy theories.

Albert Speer, the German architect and Third Reich minister, wrote in his memoirs that if they had completed the project, 20,000 people could have lived here. “That's why we call it the city,” says Zdzisław Łazanowski, who governs the Underground City Osówka, which is one of the main bunkers of the Riese, located in the Sowie Mountains. “Probably it was a kind of underground city in case of a nuclear bomb attack,” he says. And the tunnels also could have served as a safehouse for gold and other treasures against the advancing Soviet army.

A view of a tunnel beneath Książ Castle in Wałbrzych, Poland. Tunnels like this are believed to house a legendary Nazi 'gold train' that two treasure hunters say they have now found. Monika Rębała

Indeed, that is just what the Nazis did with the mysterious "gold train," say Piotr Koper, a Pole, and Andreas Richter, a German, who claim to have found it and identified themselves publicly today. The two men say that the testimony of a dying man led them to its whereabouts – and they want a ten percent finders fee for their efforts.

The government is taking the claims seriously enough to send soldiers this weekend to examine the site, which they say could be booby-trapped. Over the course of the next week or two, they plan to search the area with their own radar equipment as the town waits impatiently.

German tales and Polish legend

One man who is certain of what the results will show is Tadeusz Słowikowski, a retired miner. He sits in his apartment not far from the castle on a recent day, where he keeps German maps of the area, current photographs, and, in his basement, a mock-up that he built of the spot where he believes the train disappeared.

“I'm 100 percent sure that the train is there,” he says.

Mr. Słowikowski has dedicated his adult life to finding the train. Now 84, he says the pursuit came about accidentally. He says that he tried to reach France after the war but was caught by Russians and East Germans and sent to Dresden. There he met a German soldier who told him about the countless deaths in Wałbrzych during the war – a figure that didn’t add up, he thought, since Germans left the city before their enemies came.

Back in Wałbrzych as a miner in the '50s, Słowikowski gained the trust of some of the Germans he worked with. One of them told him about the tunnels under the castle, he says. Another, who worked at the Wałbrzych rail station during the war, told him about a train that left Wroclaw but nobody knew where it went or what was inside. Its last sighting was between Świebodzice and Wałbrzych.

“It was a perfect place to hide the train. When you walk there, you'll notice that embankment is collapsing,” he says. “During winter the hot air is coming from there and the snow is melting. I dug there and I found rocks that shouldn't be in this area and bricks.”

His life’s work, he believes, is about to be validated by the two men who, with the help of technology, were able to do more than his digging was able to reveal. “The train is just a beginning, many treasures could be hidden under the castle and in the Sowie Mountains. The Riese Project was a top secret project, the whole area was strictly forbidden for civilians,” he says. “The Nazis could have done here everything.”

Historical boom

Not everyone is buying it. Some think the gold train itself is a myth. No documents have ever revealed its existence. Most of what is known about it is based on unconfirmed witness testimony. Piotr Lewandowski, a lawyer who specializes in cultural heritage, calls it “a legend, a hoax."

Others like Maciej Meissner, a tour guide in the Książ Castle, are believers. “I believe the train exists. It is somewhere here," says Mr. Meissner. "But I'm very skeptical about the latest finding. I don't think that those two people have really found the train. We haven't seen any proof from them.”

The mayor reiterated that skepticism himself.  Still, it’s been a boon for this normally sleepy town. Krzysztof Urbański, CEO of the Książ Castle, says the number of tourists who visited the castle in August was double the same period last year.

The possibility of the find has also spawned new ideas, and new hope. The director of the Old Mine complex, a museum, sent a letter to the Minister of Culture asking that the “gold train” be housed in their premises if it’s found, says Anna Żabska, the museum’s director.

Amid a group of onlookers, one man talks about his plan to start a new business: a snack stand for all of the new tourists coming here. And a local singer Edyta Nawrocka has even written a song dedicated to the golden train.

"There is coming a train from far away, dripping with gold, arms, and diamonds," she croons. "All of Wałbrzych is happy, its legend promoted as the news spreads around the world. But now, where is it?"

Sara Miller Llana contributed to this report from Paris.

 
 
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