It wasn’t just artwork that the Nazis had hidden in caves across Germany as World War II was coming to an end.
There was gold and silver, some of it taken from Holocaust victims. There were bales of currency and the plates to print more.
Some of that story is told in a highly publicized movie, “The Monuments Men,” that opens across the country today. The movie, with George Clooney and Matt Damon, is focused on the art.
Another part of that story lies in papers and photographs held at the Truman Library in Independence. It involves U.S. Army officers tracking down rumors and leads, it involves a stunning amount of wealth convoyed under armed guard and an air patrol above, and it involves three of the top U.S. generals of the war.
And, by coincidence, a key part of it happened on a day that changed Independence forever.
On the run
It’s April 1945. Gen. George S. Patton’s Third Army, having crossed The Rhine a couple of weeks before, is rolling – fast – into the heart of Germany. It’s unclear how much longer the war will last.
Late in the morning on April 4, Patton’s troops take the town of Merkers. The area is essentially placed in lockdown, and Army intelligence begins talking to civilians. There are rumors that the Nazis hid treasure in the salt mine there.
Two mornings later, MPs at Keiselbach, about two miles away, see two women approaching. They are French nationals, displaced by war and far from home. One is pregnant, and the other is going with her to see a midwife for a checkup. Sorry, the MPs decide, we have to take you back to Merkers.
In Merkers, they see the salt mine, and a private asks what it is. That’s where the Nazis put gold and other valuables, brought from Berlin several weeks ago, the women say. It took them three days to unload it, and it’s 2,200 feet down, they say.
“The Monuments Men” is based on a book by Robert M. Edsel, “The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History.” Hollywood has borrowed the “greatest treasure hunt in history” line in ads for the movie.
It’s a high-profile movie – Clooney, Damon, Cate Blanchett, John Goodman and Bill Murray are among the stars – and the staff at the Truman Library figured given the events and the timeframe, there had to be items in the library’s vast collection that connected with the story.
They were right. The papers of Bernard Bernstein – 22,500 pages – are kept at the library. Among those papers is an exhaustive memo from April 1945 – with “secret” typed at the top and bottom of each of its 44 legal-sized pages – from the staff of Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, the supreme allied commander during the war.
Page 2 of 5 - The events at Merkers are outlined in that memo, an oral history interview that Bernstein gave in 1975, and a 1995 article by Greg Bradsher in a quarterly published by the National Archives and Records Administration, the agency that runs presidential libraries.
According to Edsel, who has made the Monuments Men an ongoing historical project, there were approximately 345 Monuments Men and Women, mostly Americans but coming from a dozen other countries, too.
The Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program was set up in 1943 to recover cultural property in Europe. The aim was to save as much as possible without getting in the way of the war effort. Edsel says they saved more than 5 million artistic and cultural items.
The movie is about the art, not the gold. And it’s a movie. Hollywood often changes names; one character might be a melding of two or 10 people in real life. None of the main characters’ names match up with any of the 345 Edsel has identified – but one of the 345 did show up at Merkers.
Figuring it out
It’s Sunday morning, April 8, in Paris.
“ ... I was having a late breakfast at the Army mess and then walked over to my office with a copy of Stars and Stripes (the Army’s official newspaper) under my arm,” Bernstein recalled. (The Army memo says it was the Paris edition of the New York Herald-Tribune.)
“Before getting to work I read the Stars and Stripes and saw on the first page a story out of Germany of American troops finding a great quantity of gold and silver and other treasure in a salt mine at Merkers, Germany,” he said.
Col. Bernstein, a lawyer in civilian life before and after the war, is a financial adviser for civil affairs and military government under Eisenhower. That Sunday he gets a phone call from Ike’s deputy chief of staff. Get to Merkers, and get a plan for where we’re going to secure this stuff.
The Allies knew the Nazis had looted central banks in Europe to pay for the war. They knew finding that loot might even shorten the war. And the Nazi SS, which ran the concentration camps, looted its victims, taking “all kinds of gold and silver items ranging from dental work to cigarette cases, diamonds, gold and silver coins, foreign currencies, and gold and silver bars,” as Bradsher described it.
A lot of that made its way to room No. 8 in the Merkers mine, 75 feet wide and 150 feet long, with a 12-foot ceiling and tram railway tracks down the middle. The SS alone made 77 shipments to Merkers from August 1942 to January 1945. In March 1945, the Nazis shipped artwork – a quarter of the major holdings of 14 principal Prussian state museums – to Merkers.
Page 3 of 5 - Bradsher lists what the Army – once it used half a stick of dynamite to blast into room No. 8 – found inside: “On either side of the tracks, stretching to the back of the cavern, were more than seven thousand bags, stacked knee-high, laid out in twenty rows. ... Baled currency was found stacked along one side of the vault along with the gold balances and other Reichsback equipment. At the back of the cavern, occupying an area twenty by thirty feet, were 18 bags and 189 suitcases, trunks and boxes. ... It was obvious that it was SS loot.”
And in other tunnels, the Americans find 400 tons of artwork.
Patton doesn’t want this. It’s a headache, and guarding the mine – five entrances, hundreds of miles of tunnels – is trying up combat troops he wants back in action.
“General Patton said he was very glad that General Eisenhower was taking over responsibility for this gold,” Bernstein recalled.
But Bernstein has startling news for Patton. This is the area that the Allies have agreed will be occupied by the Soviet Union once the war ends and, Bernstein says he told the general, “we certainly wanted to get all of this out of here before the Russians get here.”
“General Patton,” he recalled, “looked astounded at what I had told him. He said he didn’t know that at all, but he would do everything possible to facilitate me in my mission.”
April 12, 1945 was a big day – though a grim day – in America, and it was a big day in Merkers.
Bernstein is there, and the night before Patton’s office has called: Be at the mine at 9 in the morning. He arrives early and makes sure everything seems to be in working order.
He is expecting Patton, but 9 a.m. comes and goes.
“I began to walk up and down, thinking of the work I had to do,” Bernstein said. “Suddenly my eyes lighted on the front end of a jeep of which was a plaque with five stars in a circle on it.”
“I automatically straightened, because I knew there was only one person entitled to that designation ... and I saluted and found myself looking into the faces of General Eisenhower, General Patton and General Bradley, the three of them sitting in one jeep.”
He leads the men – three of America’s top generals – on an hour-long tour.
“I had some bad moments which I didn’t reveal to them,” he recalled later. “We were going down a long elevator shaft on what was essentially a wooden platform that was operated by a German. There were an awful lot of stars there at risk ...”
Patton looks up at the single elevator cable and points out that, should it snap, “promotions in the United States Army would be considerabley stimulated.”
Page 4 of 5 - Eisenhower: “OK George, that’s enough. No more cracks until we are above ground again.
In room No. 8, the generals “looked around in awe at the captured gold,” Bradsher writes. Bernstein shows them the art as well as the plates that the Reichbank would use to print more money.
There are lighter moments. Toward the end of the inspection, Bradley tells Patton: “If these were the old free-booting days when a solider kept his loot, you’d be the richest man in the world.”
That won’t happen, of course. The gold, currency and other treasure is turned over to an international group that tries to get it back to its rightful owners or their families. In any event, Eisenhower had issued strict rules against looting.
The kidding about the treasure picks up again when the three generals have dinner that night. Patton says his men have a couple of ideas, one of which is to melt down the gold and make medallions – “one for every son of a bitch in Third Army.”
Ike looks at Bradley and laughs. “He’s always got an answer,” he says.
It is April 12. The Allies are closing in on Berlin, and the war will be over in less than month. It’s close to midnight, and the three generals are still together.
An urgent word comes: President Franklin Roosevelt has died.
Harry Truman is their new commander in chief.
Time to hurry
The war is ending, the Russians will have Merkers, and Ike wants everything moved.
Twenty-four hours after his visit to the mine, a top aide to Eisenhower calls Bernstein, who tells him to tell the general he’s on it 24 hours day until it’s done.
He organizes a convoy, mostly for the gold, to a bank in Frankfurt. The trucks are guarded by five infantry platoons, military police, two machine gun platoons and anti-aircraft platoon with 10 guns. P-51 Mustang fighters are overhead.
“The movement of the gold, dies, presses, foreign currency, loot and 2 1/2 truck-loads of works of art (to a bank in Frankfurt) was effected in 20 hours beginning 0900 hours Saturday 14 April and ending 0700 Sunday 15 April,” the Army memo says. It also points out moving the same material took the Germans four days.
Two days later, a second convoy – 26 10-ton trucks, also heavily guarded – moves the art to Frankfurt.
The art in the salt mine was of such value that the Germans had posted a Dr. Rave, from the Department of National Galleries, to stay there. The Army finds him and takes that as a clue.
One of the real Monuments Men – Lt. Cmdr. George L. Stout – arrives at Merkers.
“From the very outset it was realized that the art objects in the (Merkers) mine were of great value ... ” the Army memo says. “This belief was confirmed upon the arrival of Lt. Stout (USNR), Monuments and Fine Arts Officer of the G-5 12th Army Group. He made a spot-check of the boxes and cases and talked with Dr. Rave and immediately came to the conclusion that they constituted great wealth.”
Page 5 of 5 - The work at Merkers leads to other mines and other finds. The Army determines that just days before Patton took the town, the Nazis had taken more than 165 bags of currency and moved them elsewhere in Germany.
The Army memo, dated less than a week after the generals’ visit to the mine, concludes by describing the “elaborate arrangements” the Nazis have made to hide their wealth.
“Every step should be taken in Germany to obtain information of the assets secreted both inside and outside Germany,” it says, “so that these assets cannot be used to perpetuate Nazism or contribute to the rebuilding of Nazi influence.”