OMMEREN — Muddy holes dot the ground in a Dutch village where a map allegedly showing the location of Nazi loot buried in World War II has triggered an invasion of treasure hunters.
“It really fires up the imagination,” smiles Klaas Tammes, president of the foundation that owns the land in Ommeren in eastern Gelderland province at the centre of the search.
The Dutch National Archive unveiled the hand-drawn map in early January, featuring a tell-tale red ‘X’ believed to mark the spot where German soldiers stashed their hoard.
Documents held along with the map include testimony that the Nazis buried four ammunition boxes filled with jewelry, precious stones and gold coins, believed to be worth $11.9 million at current value.
“That means that all kinds of people have come to Ommeren to search for it,” says Tammes, 74, the former local mayor, inside his home built on the remains of a former Nazi headquarters.
“But it hasn’t been found.”
– Detectorists descend –
The Nazis allegedly looted the treasure after the bombing of a bank in Arnhem in 1944, but are then believed to have buried it after the Allied “Market Garden” offensive near the town.
A few steps from his home there are muddy holes from the excavations, along a tree-lined path and a shallow ditch consistent with the drawings on the map.
So many people armed with metal detectors have flocked to the quiet village in recent days that the local municipality brought in a ban, and police began to move on treasure hunters as soon as they arrived.
But some persist.
“Our interest was immediately aroused,” says Hendrik Hingstman, a detectorist whose father Lammert is one of the many who have come to Ommeren.
Hendrik and Lammert are convinced they have found the spot where the treasure was buried using a dowsing rod, a wooden stick sometimes wielded in the belief it can locate underground water.
They hope to obtain a permit to excavate soon.
National Archives spokesman Erwin Tuil said the “interest was unprecedented.”
Documents show at least three unsuccessful attempts to find the treasure in the spring of 1947 following the testimony of Helmut Sonder, a German soldier who said he was involved in hiding it.
– ‘Disturbed earth’ –
Several scenarios could explain the failure of those earlier excavations, according to Dutch officials. One is that the loot is a figment of the soldier’s imagination, although he was deemed credible at the time.
Another is that it could have already been found and taken, either by people involved in hiding it in the first place, or by people who took part in the initial investigations.
Archival documents refer to a final search in August 1947 during which investigators noticed “disturbed earth” before being approached by two American officers.
“There is therefore also a chance that the Americans beat them to it,” said Tuil.
Tammes said he believed the treasure was real “but that it might have been excavated after the war or… at the end of the war”.
“But there is no evidence so we keep looking. This story will keep going for a while,” he said.
The tide of treasure hunters is meanwhile a source of curiosity for the villagers.
“The last few days we also see a lot of police enforcing if people start digging here in the woods,” said Aart van Ommeren, 65, who is retired and helps out at a second-hand bookshop.
Teunis Kramp, 69, who volunteers at the local museum, said it was “nice we’re on the map for a while”.
“Maybe people will come back and have a look for the treasure this summer, but I don’t give them much chance.”
By JULIE CAPELLE/AFP News