WELL, THAT HAPPENED: Part Two: Hearts and Horror

By on November 1, 2016

The continued tale of two Austrian gumshoes and a hidden trove of Nazi gold.

Heinrich Himmler, Reichsfüher and leader of the SS, a few months before ordering the dumping of crates into Lake Toplitzsee.  (Photo: Public Domain; National Archives and Records Administration)

Heinrich Himmler, Reichsfüher and leader of the SS, a few months before ordering the dumping of crates into Lake Toplitzsee.  (Photo: Public Domain; National Archives and Records Administration)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Previously on Well, That Happened—

Andrew and Diana Edlinger, a bagel lady barista, endure horrific circumstances and discover that they are apfelstrudel siblings, two American-Austrians who were both born in upstate New York. Their conversation about heritage led to a discussion about a mysterious lake in Austria and a hidden treasure lost to the ages…

We kept our voices low so as not to wake Diana’s roommate, but our excitement increased as the conversation continued. I told Diana everything I had learned about the history of Lake Toplitz, a quaint Alpine lake 60km southeast of Saltzburg, Austria, where, on the night of April 25, 1945, two German trucks carrying crates of unknown contraband rumbled up the dirt roads of a mountain pass with notorious intentions. The war was ending. All hopes for a victorious Third Reich were lost, and in two days Adolf Hitler would commit suicide in his Berlin bunker.

Obeying orders set forth by Heinrich Himmler, Reichsführer of the Schutzstaffel (i.e. the SS), the trucks offloaded their crates and stashed them in the safest place they could devise—underwater. The number of chests and their specific contents remain a mystery, however, in 1959, 10 crates were fished out of Toplitz in an expedition organized by Stern, a West German magazine. Much to their dismay, the crates contained only counterfeited British five-pound notes. The notes were confiscated by the Austrian government and burned.

Multiple dive attempts were carried out in spite of the government’s ban on unauthorized dives, and many people lost their lives within the lake’s depths. More rumors emerged regarding the contents of the crates, including the thought that they contained gold ingots branded with the Nazi swastika, as well as documents pertaining to meetings between Hitler’s inner circle. It was also rumored that the crates held a list of Swiss bank accounts containing the equivalent of $750 million (in 1945 values) and aliases the Nazi leaders would be adopting when they went into hiding after the war.

Word of the crates spread to a gentleman named Georg Freiberger, an ex-SS intelligence officer, and his associate, Karl-Heinz Schmidt, an ophthalmologist from Bonn, Germany. Freiberger spent most of the war in prison after being captured during a sabotage operation in Switzerland and was not released until after Himmler ordered the contraband dump in Toplitz. But still, it seemed he had a vested interest in the crates; and in October 1963, he and Schmidt hired a 19-year-old frogman from Munich named Alfred Egner to dive down into the lake and retrieve the treasure.

The details of that night are shoddy but one thing is certain: the boy drowned in the lake. His body was discovered later in a tangle of sunken tree roots. Freiberger and Schmidt were convicted of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to a mere five months in prison. Later evidence emerged that the rope connecting Egner to safety had not ripped, as the defendants claimed, but was cleanly cut. After that, Freiberger and Schmidt disappeared into history, never to be heard from again.

As the years passed, more expeditions failed, but Egner’s mysterious drowning was the last confirmed death in the lake. A 2006 expedition led by an American treasure hunter named Norman Scott also ended in failure, as the murky lake made visibility near impossible, and a spider web of fallen trees covering the bottom of the lake proved impassible.

Yet, the crux mystery remains: what precisely was dumped into Lake Toplitz those 71 years ago? Since the discovery of the counterfeited notes, only rumors and bones have surfaced from the lake’s depths.

After sharing what I knew, Diana looked at me wide-eyed and immediately texted her sister who is currently living in Germany, asking what she knew about the mystery as I tried to Google more information. What truly happened to Alfred Egner? Did he manage to find something he wasn’t supposed to see? What Nazi secrets and riches could be contained in those crates at the bottom of the lake? Diana and I came to a simple conclusion.

We had to solve it.

What were the odds that two New York-born Jacksonites carrying Austrian passports would cross paths and both have such a curiosity for a lost sunken treasure? Our next steps: fund a trip to Austria, learn more about our heritage, and see what else we can uncover about the mystery.

“We’ll be like Indiana Jones,” Diana said.

“Yeah!” I replied. “Like Robert Langdon and the random chick who accompanies him.”

Diana’s eyes narrowed. “Dibs on being Robert Langdon, then.” PJH

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