- Divers in Greece are hoping to search the seas off the
Peloponnese this week in the hunt for more than £1 billion of jewellery
and bullion looted by the Nazis from the country's Jewish community during
the Second World War.
- The lure of 50 sealed chests of hidden treasure has attracted
the interest of the Government, Holocaust survivors and 30 international
divers. The treasure is rumoured to be in a fishing boat on the seabed
near the town of Kalamata, where a German officer is said to have deliberately
sunk it for retrieval after the war.
- The treasure hunters, led by a former colleague of Jacques-Yves
Cousteau, the French oceanographer, have been inspired by a tip-off from
an anonymous man, known only as "Phantom X", who claimed to have
shared a prison cell with the Wehrmacht officer, Max Merten.
- Jewellery, precious stones, gold ingots and at least
two sacks of religious artefacts are said to be among the hoard, which
was amassed during the German occupation from 1941 by Merten, stationed
in Salonika, the home of Greece's biggest Jewish community. Merten is reported
to have robbed 9,000 Jewish families before sending them to concentration
- The former Nazi officer is said to have fled home to
Germany after the war but returned a year later. He was arrested and jailed
for war crimes. Phantom X claims to have met him in prison in 1958.
- Merten was freed in 1959 and is said to have attempted
to return to Greece to check on his fortune, but was threatened with a
further sentence. After working as a lawyer, he died in 1976.
- Ten months ago, the 64-year-old Phantom, also thought
to be German, approached Gregoire Koulbanis, a Swiss diver, and claimed
to have knowledge of the treasure's whereabouts.
- Mr Koulbanis, who is now leading the expedition, earned
a reputation for daring diving feats when he worked for Cousteau. For weeks,
the divers have been poring over charts of the rocky coast of the south
Peloponnese, where beaches are few and chances of shipwreck are many. Out
of four possible locations stretching in a 50-mile arc, the most likely
site has been pinpointed east of Kalamata.
- Greece's Jewish community numbered 50,000 before the
Second World War. There are now about 6,000. A spokesman for the Central
Jewish Council in Athens said: "We have every reason to believe the
treasure is down there."
- The hunt awaits a diving permit from the Kalamata authorities.
"We expected to have the permit earlier this week," a council
source said. "We don't know what is holding it up, but as soon as
we get it the search will be under way. We are prepared to keep up a serious
search for the treasure no matter how long it takes. I think that by the
fifth try we ought to succeed, if there is anything there at all."
- Treasure hunts are a fairly common occurrence in Greece,
focusing on alleged loot left by the Germans or the retreating communists
in the later civil war. Invariably, excavations by enthusiasts equipped
with metal detectors come up with nothing.
- Tourists sometimes find gold pieces on the seabed off
southern Greece, according to local fishermen whose nets are sometimes
ripped by unidentified metallic objects.
- It has been reported locally that Phantom X claims to
have spent £300,000 on the project already - some donated by other
foreign donors - and would be entitled to one quarter of what was recovered.
Another quarter would go to the Jewish community and the remaining half
to the Greek state.
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