San Francisco Chronicle 14 August 2005
Alfred Egner drowned.
He was just a workhorse, really, a 19-year-old boy from Munich, hired by a couple of former SS officers in 1963 to dive down to the murky bottoms of Austria's Lake Toplitz and resurface with fistfuls of treasures secreted away in this alpine paradise.
It wasn't his first dive in Lake Toplitz, but he may have gotten tangled in some of the hundreds of logs that line the bottom, or something may have gone wrong with his equipment.
Regardless, he never retrieved what the two men were most likely looking for: secret codes to Swiss bank accounts, which had been sealed in waterproof tubes and dumped into the lake by Nazis at the end of the war.
The Nazis used Lake Toplitz as a vast, submerged cellar, warehousing millions of dollars' worth of stolen art, gold and jewels, among other things.
This exceptionally beautiful region of Austria, known as Steiermark, is in the heart of the alpine forest, and Hitler and his men thought it a perfect retreat from Allied soldiers, a place in which to hide out and regroup, free from enemy bombers. And also a great place to bury booty.
Egner was not the first to go looking for it. Others started diving for treasure just after the war ended, having seen military trucks dump in crate after crate of mysterious goodies for months and months. The Nazis eventually commissioned locals to do the deed, bringing the crates by oxcart, transports which occurred more and more frequently in the frantic last days of the war.
Two news organizations -- Germany's Stern magazine in the 1950s and CBS News in 2000 -- sent treasure hunters to delve the depths of Lake Toplitz.
Over the years, much has been recovered, including millions of counterfeit British and American currency, as well as the press that minted them. But some say most of what was dumped in Toplitz is still in Toplitz, and so divers still go down searching for their pots of gold.
However, environmentalists are concerned about the ecological effects the dives are having on the region. "There is a hazard for the lake if there are too many explorations," says Bernhard Schragle, a spokesman for the Bundesforste AG, Austria's forestry service.
As an alpine lake, Toplitz holds a precious balance of freshwater on the top and saltwater on the bottom. Between the two layers are ancient logs, so any disturbance to the logs releases salt water and threatens the ecosystem.
"For the last few years, there have been many 'black' (illegal) divers, who dive without permission. We don't see them, we just see what they leave behind," says Schragle.
Hoping to remove the mystery and therefore dissuade future divers, the Bundesforste hired a professional exploration team to examine Lake Toplitz and resurface the treasures that have been lost there.
Global Explorations, based in Gainesville, Fla., will spend the next three years mapping the lake using global positioning satellites, and then exploring spots targeted specifically by the map.
Norman Scott, the founder of Global Explorations, and his team plan to use small machines and unpeopled submarines, which will allow explorers to spend significantly greater lengths of time underwater, as well as limit any potential harm to the lake.
American investors are backing the project, which may cost up to $4 million. Under Austrian law, the profit from recovered materials will be divided between the Austrian government and Global Explorations, with a portion going to the Jewish Federation.
If ownership can be determined, the Austrian government forfeits profit to the heirs, who will then negotiate fees solely with Global Explorations.
As the war neared its end, this so-called Alpine Fortress was a chaotic hive of activity. Retreating Nazis had fled to what they thought was a safe zone, with wild designs to construct the "Fourth Reich" from this camp.
Meanwhile, resistance fighters remained pocketed in the surrounding forests. All the while, more and more valuables were being lowered in crates (allegedly built to be easily resurfaced), into Lake Toplitz, most of it stolen from European museums and libraries.
Among the art and archives was gold from the Romanian church and drugs (the Slovak prime minister brought nearly 300 pounds of morphine to be secured from the reach of Allied hands). Then there was the counterfeit money, which was to be used primarily to collapse the British economy, left in what was to become one of Austria's greatest modern mysteries, its own Loch Ness.
Not all believe the lake's floor is lined with treasures. But Scott says he's going for the gold. "We're going after the $150 million that was dumped there, the excess counterfeit money and the sealed tubes" (containing Swiss bank codes), he says. Patti McCracken is a freelance writer based in Austria. Contact us at email@example.com. http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/chronicle/archive/2005/08/14/INGHQE6GQ11.DTL