Nazi soldiers buried a treasure. Nearly 80 years later, the search goes on.

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Nazi soldiers buried a treasure. Nearly 80 years later, the search goes on.
The map drawn by a Nazi soldier from the 1940s that purports to show the location of buried treasure, in The Hague, Netherlands, Jan. 17, 2023. The public release of the map has drawn fortune seekers with shovels and metal detectors to Ommeren, a small Dutch village, in the hope of finding boxes of gold and jewels, but not everyone is excited. (Ilvy Njiokiktjien/The New York Times)

by Claire Moses

OMMEREN.- In spring 1945, a couple of weeks before the liberation of the Netherlands from its Nazi occupiers, five German soldiers buried four ammunition boxes filled with gold, jewels and watches in a woodsy part of a sleepy Dutch village.

Nazi soldiers had snatched the valuables, which could be worth millions, off the street after they were blown out of a bank vault during an explosion in the city of Arnhem in late summer 1944, documents show.

What the men who buried the loot probably did not know was that one of their fellow soldiers, a man named Helmut Sonder, was lying in the bushes with a war injury, observing the scene and committing it to memory. Afterward, Sonder drew a meticulous map that showed exactly where (by three poplar trees) and how deep (about 1.7 to 2.3 feet) the treasure had been buried.

Not much is known about the fate of the man who drew the map, but the document ended up in the Dutch National Archives in The Hague. This month, it was released as part of the archives’ annual “publicity day,” along with thousands of documents that are no longer classified.

The map’s release has spurred a renewed hunt for the boxes of gold and jewels and has elevated the profile of the tiny village of Ommeren — population 751 — as one of the few places in the world where a known Nazi treasure could be hiding.

“We’re on the map,” said Klaas Tammes, a former mayor of the municipality that includes Ommeren. “That has been nice.”

Others share his excitement, but express a sense of frustration about the people coming from all over the country to dig up the village, which is about an hour’s drive southeast of Amsterdam.

Dozens of people have descended with shovels and metal detectors, and one man even brought a divining rod, according to Tammes, who lives on the estate where the treasure might be buried. One photograph circulating among residents shows another man standing waist-deep in the ground at the side of a regional road.

The mystery has captivated local residents and received widespread attention in the Dutch and international news media, but its main question remains unanswered: Is the loot still there?

“I have my doubts,” said Joke Honders, a local historian who works for the regional museum in Ommeren and lives in the next town over. But, she added, after consulting a historical atlas as well as the hand-drawn map, she believes she knows where the treasure could be — a place where nobody has searched yet, as far as she is aware.

Asked for more precise details, she said, “I’m not going to tell you!”

It is not entirely clear what would happen to the treasure if someone were to find it.

Honders said she had no interest in keeping the contents of the boxes if she were to find them. “It’s not about the treasure itself,” she said. “It’s all stolen; there’s too much negativity attached to that.”

Searching for the treasure in the area could be a dangerous pursuit, said Sebastiaan Hoogenberg, an amateur metal detectorist who runs a YouTube channel where he talks about the items he finds around the Netherlands. There are unexploded World War II-era bombs in the ground.

On its website, Ommeren’s municipality urged fortune seekers to stay away because digging for the treasure is not really allowed. After the release of the map, the municipality received a lot of messages from people claiming to know the exact location and offering to disclose it for money, said Birgit van Aken-Quint, a spokesperson for the municipality. Since then, the situation has calmed down, she said, and about five people have applied for formal permission to look for the treasure.

Rumors about the treasure first started among Dutch soldiers stationed in Germany in 1946, according to documents at the National Archives. A postwar government institution in charge of finding and managing stolen assets learned about it in December 1946, and ordered official searches of the area.

The first search, in January 1947, was a failure because the ground was frozen. The second attempt a few weeks later amounted to nothing because of a faulty metal detector, documents show. For its third search, in summer 1947, the agency brought Sonder, the former soldier who drew the map, back to the Netherlands from Germany to point out the exact location, documents show.

They found nothing.

After a fourth and final try, in August 1947, officials concluded that the treasure probably was not there anymore, documents show.

Ommeren residents said that they had never heard about the treasure. “This was a total surprise,” Tammes said. “This story was unknown here.”

“We came across this map coincidentally,” said Annet Waalkens, a researcher at the National Archives, which has hundreds of thousands of maps in its collection. “When we saw this, we had found our own treasure already.”

She added, “It’s beautiful that a yellowing piece of paper can evoke such emotions.”

It is possible that Sonder made the whole thing up, but Dutch officials in charge of the search thought this was unlikely, documents indicate. Another theory is that one or multiple of the government searchers had secretly found it. And yet another — and what some people consider to be the most likely — scenario is that one of the Nazi soldiers who hid the treasure went back and quietly unearthed it himself.

No scenario has been proved, and it is unclear whether Sonder is still alive.

It is not the first time that the village, which is especially quiet in the winter without the cyclists and campers who flock to the area in the summer, has been the site of archaeological buzz. In 2016, three searchers found a trove of 31 golden Roman coins.

Not everyone has joined the excitement about the possible Nazi treasure.

“I think it’ll blow over,” said Dicky Briene, 76, who has lived in the same house in Ommeren for 54 years and said she had not seen any visitors with shovels or metal detectors. “And there’ll probably be nothing.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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