Zeitenspiegel Reportagen

The buried treasure of Kattegat

Appeared on focus.de, 25 May 2013

Von Autor Bernd Hauser

A 90-year-old German appears in a remote Danish village. He recalls helping excavate large holes and catching a glimpse of mysterious crates. Did they contain priceless looted art? Is it still there, under the ground? Metal detector sales are strong. But not everyone likes the idea of people digging around in the village’s checkered past.

Hildo Rasmussen trudges through the underbrush wearing wooden clogs. Seeing him, two deer jump away in panic. The 71-year-old stands on a small rise on the edge of Asaa and says, “This is the exact spot where the machine gun emplacement was. The trees weren’t here yet. The Germans could see all the way to the coast.” Six years old at war’s end, he played in the trenches, finding cartridges and a bayonet. Iron posts still jut up from the ground. “Fenceposts for the barbed wire they used to secure the area,” Rasmussen says. “If the treasure is anywhere, then here.”

Asaa. A forsaken village on the northern edge of Denmark. To study past high school or find work, the young people have to leave. The old people drink weak coffee in cottages hunkered down against the ceaseless wind. The factory that made farm equipment here closed long ago. The textile factory, too, it goes without saying. And recently, the last of what once were three dozen independent fisherman – Thorkild, aged 60 – sold his boat, tired of hauling in nets that scarcely ever held cod or plaice. Asaa, a village without a future.

But for a week now, hope and pride have been experiencing a rebirth. In a house only a hand grenade’s throw away from the former machine gun post, town council member Rasmussen points smilingly at the home page of the Stockholm newspaper Expressen: “Even the Swedes are reporting on us!” When the nationally distributed Danish newspaper BT heard that the German news magazine Focus has dispatched reporters to Asaa, it ran the headline: “Now the Germans have joined the hunt for Nazi treasure.” And: “The gold rush continues.”

And who is to blame? The culprit: a 90-year-old gentleman in a captain’s cap and bow tie. Wilhelm Kraft, a resident of Wallerfangen in the tiny southern German state of Saarland. His deeply lined face has adorned the front page of Politiken, Copenhagen’s most important newspaper.

Wilhelm Kraft sits in a cabin in Asaa’s campground. On the table are wilted wildflowers and a tube of horse liniment. “To help with the joint pain,” he explains in his Saarland dialect. “Hips, bladder, ears, eyes – they’re all a mess.” And still he took on the burden of a railway journey to northern Denmark. “I changed trains five times!” he says.

He felt it was his long-neglected duty to inform the Danes of the unimaginable wealth he helped bury at age 21. “In Asaa lies the Amber Room, precious metals from Russian churches, Gold from murdered Jews.” He pulls out a photo seven decades old. It shows a slender boy with wavy hair “who had no experience with women yet”: Wilhelm Kraft in uniform.

In late fall of 1944, he and 50 other German soldiers were quartered on the local school. Every day they received the same orders: dig. “We dug three pits end-to-end with shovels, spades and buckets.” Each was about 12 feet wide, 20 feet long and 12 feet deep, he recalls. “Everything was top secret. Even our lieutenant didn’t know what they were supposed to be for.”

But then Wilhelm Kraft saw heavily guarded boxcars standing at the local train station. The door of one wagon was open a crack. “I snuck over and saw big wooden boxes,” he says. “But when the guards saw me, they closed the door and told me to scram.”

Wilhelm Kraft believes the crates he saw were later buried in the holes he helped dig. He can’t be sure, since he was redeployed away from Asaa before the excavations were was completed. But his theory and his evident sincerity in propounding it have attracted not only radio and television crews to Asaa, but professional archaeologists as well. Sidsel Wåhlin, 39, works at the Vendsyssel Regional Museum. “Wilhem Kraft is a fascinating man who should be taken seriously,” she says.

The only problem is that Kraft can no longer say where he did his digging. He feels it was on level ground near the beach. But a seacoast can change a lot in 70 years. Since then, a margin of shallow water around a quarter-mile wide has turned to marshland. Sand from the dredging of a cove was heaped into a sand spit to create space for vacation homes.

“Now I’ll compare aerial photos taken by the German air force in 1944 with today’s coastline,” the archaeologist explains. One detail of Wilhelm’s Kraft recollections is of some assistance: The march from the school to the digging site was “exactly two songs long.” He also describes the soil as mostly clay, which would tend to exclude the environs of the beach.

Sidsel Wåhlin does not believe valuables will be found. “My guess would be that the pits were built as bunkers in connection with midget submarines.” The Germans were testing one of their “wonder weapons” along the coast, and dozens of one-man subs were delivered to Asaa by rail. But revealing the truth would require pricey geophysical survey methods. “That’s not something our museum has in its budget,” Sidsel Wåhlin says. “We’ll be happy to help coordinate the search if a sponsor happens to approach us.”

Niels Bo Poulsen, head of the Institute for Military History of the Danish armed forces, offers a theory that differs from Sidsel Wåhlin’s. “It could be that Wilhelm Kraft helped to create arms depots for later acts of sabotage.” After the feared Allied landing, Danish Nazi partisans – that was the German plan – would be able to provide themselves with weapons and explosives from the Germans’ arsenal.

To those aware of just how common Nazi sympathizers were in that part of Denmark, the idea is not improbable. Amateur historian Martin Skovgaard opens a photo album in the small Harbor Museum in Asaa. It shows 60 men, women and children – all in Nazi uniforms. Above them, a placard in Danish: “Denmark Awaken!” The picture was taken in 1941 in the neighboring village of Agersted, a particularly right-wing town led by a beloved Nazi veterinarian, where around 90 percent of the 1939 vote is said to have gone to the Danish arm of the Nazi party, DNSAP. Even in tiny Asaa, the party had 19 paying members. “We started displaying this picture only very recently,” the 81-year-old admits. “We didn’t want to hurt the feelings of the families involved.”

Wilhelm’s Kraft’s visit touches a raw nerve. Arne Hjelm, 83, is the other staff member at the Harbor Museum. Naturally there were love affairs between Danish women and German soldiers, he says. “Some were lucky, some weren’t.” The unlucky ones got pregnant and faced public humiliation after the war. “It’s not a nice experience when a woman’s head is being shaved and the long hair is lying on the street and people are spitting on it,” Skovgaard says. Asaa had its share of Tyskerbørn, German children. How many? Skovgaard is silent. Then he says, “I haven’t even told everything to my own children. Everybody here knows everybody else. Why burden your grandchildren with it?” The topic provokes deep feelings of shame – not only among former Nazis but also among those who took part or looked on as women’s hair fell to the street.

The locals are much happier to talk about the attention their village is suddenly receiving. At the pool hall, the bakery, the harborside coffeeshop frequented by retirees – anywhere you ask, there are hopes of increased tourism, higher occupancy rates at the campground, reopened shops and restaurants. When it comes to Wilhelm Kraft’s buried treasure, there is less unanimity. “People here are a skeptical breed,” the elderly fisherman Viggo Martinsen says. He wears amber bracelets on both wrists “to guard against gout.” Then he lowers his voice to a whisper. “An old farmer who died recently told me a long time ago that the Germans had buried something.”

And why, then, didn’t he dig it out – a long time ago?

“On TV they say the demand for metal detectors around here has gone up 50 percent. I’m going to wait until the fuss is over. Then I’ll go get the Amber Room.” He laughs gutturally.

He’s not interested in money. “I just think amber is pretty. I used to collect it when I was a kid. When there’s a strong east wind, the waves wash it right on to the shore.”

No doubt: If there are treasures in Asaa, they are there for the taking.