Looking for Hitler and Looted Art

Benjamin B. Ferencz

My next target would be the principle criminal, Adolf Hitler, who was suspected to be hiding in his “Eagles Nest” on top of the heavily fortified and unreachable Alps in Berchtesgaden. Before embarking on my somewhat far-fetched trip from Munich to apprehend the German Fuhrer, I thought it prudent to equip myself with a trailer to carry my equipment and provisions. I had noted that the army Chaplain had a two-wheeled trailer that was seldom used. I called upon him and explained that I was about to embark on an important secret mission and the loan of his unused cart for about a week would be much appreciated. After some hesitation, he gave me his blessings. I hooked the trailer, clearly marked with two crosses on the mudguards, to the back of my jeep, and rode away cheerfully. My first stop was a courtesy visit to the concentration camp at nearby Dachau. That charnel house had been liberated by the Seventh army and was outside my jurisdiction. I did not tarry long but simply observed the chaos and suffering. I had bigger fish to catch.

The war was not quite over, and U.S. sentries were posted at various points along the highways. By waving a piece of paper at the guards, my jeep was always allowed to pass without question. I stopped in several small towns where I thought it would be useful to collect cameras, binoculars, guns, radios, helmets, daggers, and similar paraphernalia that the Germans were required to turn in for security reasons. I piled these carefully into my borrowed trailer and covered them with a tarpaulin. Law enforcement was, after all, my thing.

Berchtesgaden lies a few miles south of Salzburg. It is nestled amid high mountains that seem to reach the sky. The Berchtesgadener Hof was the elegant hotel frequently used by Hitler and his guests. Towering above the town is the Zugspitz, the highest mountain in the region. It was there that the SS built an impregnable fortress for their Fuehrer. The “Eagles’ Nest,” as it was nicknamed, could only be reached via a steep and heavily guarded winding road. The 101st Airborne didn’t bother using the road. They just pounded the whole mountain and then dropped in by parachute. They beat me to the punch by a few days.

I began my ascent up the long, winding road, heavily pock-marked with deep bomb craters. When I had borrowed the Chaplain’s trailer, I had not mentioned that I had no experience whatsoever in driving with a two-wheeled carriage behind my jeep. En route to pay Hitler a surprise visit, I was surprised to learn that when I wanted the trailer to go to the left I had to turn my steering wheel to the right. And vice versa, or something. I never could get the darned thing to behave. Being a man of considerable ingenuity, I solved the problem. I unhooked the trailer and pushed it into the woods adjoining the road, then instructed the American sentry standing nearby to keep an eye on it. With my jeep liberated, I quickly reached the top of the mountain where Hitler was reported to have his hideout. All I got was a magnificent view. Peering out of the Fuehrer’s verandah was like looking down on the world. I could understand why a person standing on the Zugspitz could be overcome by an attack of megalomania.

My job here was to find documents and other evidence of crime. I began to search the many file cabinets around, and quickly learned that the creative GIs of the 101st had been using the second drawer up from the bottom of the cabinets as very convenient toilet seats. The files within were now unusable as evidence of Nazi crime. The SS guardhouses in the woods had also been thoroughly vandalized. There was nothing left for me but to descend the mountain and report my failure to HQ. When I reached the point in the road where I had left my borrowed trailer, it was gone. I inquired of the sentry, who explained that some of the boys from the 101st had spotted the unguarded cart and had taken it with them. There is no limit on how sacrilegious some people can be. The Chaplain’s trailer had disappeared, along with all of my loot and equipment. What next?

I returned to base and sought out the friendly Chaplain. Father, I said, “I need guidance.” “What is it my son?” came the kindly reply. I explained that I had been out on a mission and I had lost my rifle. “That can happen” said the Padre paternalistically. I told him that I had also lost all of the souvenirs that I was bringing home to share with my comrades. He assured me they would understand. Then, even without entering a confessional, I confessed: “Father, I also lost your trailer.” Suddenly the milk of human kindness seemed to dry up in his bones. My Chaplain was no longer the forgiving type.

Charges were prepared accusing me, of all people, of losing or stealing government property. Before the legal proceedings could begin, I pointed out that I could prove beyond reasonable doubt that the property in question had belonged to the U.S. Government when I had it, and that it belonged to the U.S. Government when the 101st took it. There was no showing that it had left the hands of U.S. Government at any time, or that it had ceased to be property under the control of the U.S. Government or its agents. If the sentry was negligent in allowing the trailer to be removed, it was all the fault of the sentry and his superior officers who had command responsibility. They might be court-martialled for dereliction of duty. In the face of such awesome Harvard logic, the charges were dropped.

We received reports that Hitler had committed suicide in Berlin. Someone must have tipped off Hitler that I was after him; or the Russian troops pounding on his bunker door may have had something to do with it. I regret therefore that I cannot report my personal victory against Germany’s Fuehrer, and must settle instead for a tale about a missing trailer.

A more interesting assignment concerned Nazi plunder of the leading art treasures of Europe. We had received a report that a major war crimes suspect had been apprehended and was being held in the German prison at Wurzburg. His name had been listed in the Central Registry of War Crimes and Security Suspects. The CROWCAS list had been assembled by refugee lawyers who had escaped to London but maintained contact with the underground resistance in the countries overrun by the Nazis. The name of the suspect was Karl Haberstock, an art dealer alleged to have been the main culprit in what was probably the biggest planned looting in history. My orders were, “Go get him!”

Wurzburg sits in a valley, and as I approached in my Jeep, I could see and smell the smoke of the still-burning city. It seemed that the tall apartment houses in the center were still standing, but as I got closer, it took on a ghostly appearance. I could see right through the windows in the heavy stone walls. When the city had been surrounded by U.S. tanks, the Nazi Gauleiter was ordered to surrender. He replied defiantly, “We will fight to the last man!” The Air Corps was summoned. Being obliging fellows, they plastered the city with incendiary bombs. Every roof that was hit exploded into flames. The hot phosphate fire then moved down each flight, burning everything until it reached the ground. Anyone left in the buildings was roasted.

I located Haberstock in the basement of the still-smoking city jail. The Gauleiter had disappeared. Ironically, Haberstock’s villa on the hill was untouched. I declared the villa to be an Investigation Center, and moved in with my prisoner. I knew it was the Nazi leader’s home when, in the garden, I found a fresh grave marked with his son’s name and the inscription “Fallen on the Russian front.” I respected the gravesite. I filled my jeep with supplies from the nearest quartermaster depot; a local winery added crates of sweet “Bocksbeutel” wine, for which I promised the U.S. would pay. I validated the receipt with the most trusted American name—George Washington. A friendly Fraulein who spoke English was stopped on her bike and hired as a typist/translator. I picked up the chef from Wurzburg’s most prominent hotel. When I reported to HQ, they said they would send over a Major to take charge. He was a nice fellow, but the only thing he took charge of was the pretty secretary. Rank has its privileges.

Haberstock turned out to be a grandfatherly type. He talked proudly about having been chosen by Hitler himself to select only the finest works of art suitable for a new museum that was planned, in Linz, Austria, to honor the Fuehrer. He could describe fine paintings in all the private galleries and museums in France. He admitted that he had taken the best paintings, but pointed out that they had all been paid for by checks drawn on the Bank of France. It was almost as good as signing “George Washington.” To encourage him to talk, I plied him with that sweet Wurzburg wine. I sipped along until I lost consciousness. It reminded me of my Passover in Hell’s Kitchen. He was slapping me gently on the cheek as I lay under the table. We resumed the interrogation the next day. He gave me the names of others involved in the art transfers. They were hiding out, along with Haberstock and his wife, in a little village in Bavaria. I closed shop in Wurzburg, got into my trusty Jeep and headed for the castle of the Baron von Poelnitz, tucked in the woods in Amberg, not far from the city of Bamberg.

As we drove through the rusty castle gate, a cry went up, “He’s here! He’s here! He’s alive!” The jubilation was not for me, but for the sight of their dear Karl who had left for Wurzburg on business about two weeks earlier and hadn’t been heard from since. Learning of the total devastation of that city, they had reason to believe that he had been killed. His old wife burst into tears of joy when she spotted her smiling husband. After the initial celebration had stopped, my prisoner pointed to me with pride. “This man,” he announced, “saved my life. He took me from a burning prison, fed me with foods we had not seen in years, and now has returned me to my family and friends.” Thereupon, the well wishers pounced on me with wild hand pumping and back slapping. His wife grabbed me and gave me a big hug and a kiss. I tried to beat them off, shouting for them to remember that I was the Siegermacht, the conqueror, and they were the defeated enemy and they should behave as such. They were so overjoyed that I don’t think they believed me.

I checked out the premises that had once been a nobleman’s castle. The best room in the crowded home was the master bedroom that I immediately requisitioned for myself. The master, the “Herr Baron,” was out. I knew that he had been a Major in the SS and an accomplice to shipping paintings out of Paris. In his closet I uncovered a hunting rifle. I also found a prosthesis for one leg. I soon located the limping Baron, and placed him under arrest. Hidden weapons were prohibited. I took him to the prison in Bamberg to be held pending further investigation. When I offered him a cigarette, he scornfully declined. German royalty does not accept cigarettes from American soldiers, especially one who looks like a Jew. I told the jail-keeper that if the Baron was not there when I returned, the jailor would take his place. I never returned.

Life in the Schloss was rather unique. Mornings were spent questioning those who had been in the art “business.” Afternoons were spent searching places where they might have hidden stolen paintings. At tea time, we assembled in the dining room where we sat around a large table while old “Tanta Thea,” who had been a Baroness, poured tea from a samovar. Since food was rather scarce, I managed to scrounge a big box of U.S. army hot dogs that was very well received in the land that gave us the frankfurter. Much to my chagrin, I was referred to as “Our dear American God.” My mother would have been proud; providing I didn’t tell her that my fans were all German.

My investigations didn’t amount to much. Haberstock was only an accomplice, and the others in the Schloss were even less important. No big fish, as far as I could see. Several weeks later, I was summoned by my Colonel and ordered to proceed to Alt Aussee in Austria as a follow up on my investigations. The Major who had been with me in Wurzburg led our team. The U.S. Army had located a salt mine filled with art treasures stolen from all the occupied countries of Europe, and we were to check it out.

A safe house had been set up by the area commander in a villa owned by the German tobacco tycoon Reemtsma. I was one of the first to arrive. I found a small room and tossed my duffle bag on the bed as a sign of possession. I surveyed the house and when I returned to my room, I found that my bag had been put in the hall and a seaman’s bag had been put in its place on the bed. Being a lawman who believes in justice, I thereupon removed the seaman’s bag and dumped it in the hall. Pretty soon, I was accosted by an officer in naval uniform. I learned later that he was a Commander assigned to the OSS (Office of Strategic Services). He had been a curator at the Fogg Museum in Boston and was considered a great art expert. Standing on a landing several steps above me, he glowered down at me and said, “Soldier, get your bag out of there! That room belongs to my ensign!” Now, any man who tries to bully me is a man looking for trouble. “Sir,” I said sweetly, “I am here to help carry out a policy proclaimed by the President of the United States. I was in that room first and I intend to stay there.” “That’s an order!” barked the naval Commander, as he put his hand on the pistol attached to his belt. “Sir,” I said slowly and with less sweetness, “I do not obey illegal orders. And certainly not from the Navy. If you want to give me an order, just send it up the chain of command to the Secretary of the Navy, and then down via the Army, and I’ll consider it. And, Sir, you’d better take your hand off that gun.” I then snapped opened the holster on my .45. I hadn’t attended all those cowboy movies for nothing! The Commander was completely flustered. He found the Major, who had been my buddy in Wurzberg, and complained. The Major advised him to follow my advice. I think I found another room for the ensign, or might even have shared my room with him. I just didn’t like being pushed around.

Alt Aussee is one of those beautiful little Austrian villages, surrounded by lakes, green trees, and snow covered mountains. It also has an old salt mine that provided sustenance for many of its citizens. The cold and moisture of a functioning salt mine is ideal for storing paintings—particularly if there is a war in the neighborhood, or they happen to be stolen. Five big caverns in the mine were filled with priceless art stored on rows of wooden shelves. Hitler had given the order that if Allied forces approached the mine, it was to be blown up, paintings and all. It was clear that Der Fuehrer was a real art lover!

Fortunately, the Austrian engineer who ran the mine was not enthusiastic about losing his livelihood and maybe his life. He secretly arranged to defuse the large bombs that had been placed in each of the caverns. When an American tank column approached, he sent word alerting them to the priceless cache hidden in the town. The paintings were saved. The naval officer was supposed to figure out who the owners were so the paintings could be returned. I was supposed to figure out who the thieves were so they could be tried.

I had entered the Army in order to do my part. I heard the war was over. We had won. All I wanted now was to go home.