The art of war: A daughter's discovery of her father's quest to retrieve what Nazis stole

By Susan Fisher Sullam
Special to The Washington Post /

Nine years ago, I received a call from a well-respected historian who informed me that my father had played a leading role in one of history's greatest treasure hunts. He told me my father had been involved in the recovery of billions of dollars of gold bullion, silver, foreign currency, artwork and the possessions of Holocaust victims stolen by the Nazis and hidden in the closing days of World War II. The historian, William R. Wells II, said he had stumbled across my father's obituary in The New York Times while doing an online search, and asked if I had any of his files.
I knew little about my father's war experiences, but I did have some of his files from his law practice that I had moved to my basement in Baltimore after he died in 1997. I found this all very interesting but told Wells I was too busy with a demanding job to look through the material. I wrote down his contact information and assured him that one day I would find the time to look.
I forgot all about it until March 2013, when Wells again reached out to me. This time he told me George Clooney was working on a movie titled "The Monuments Men," which focused on the recovery of art plundered by the Nazis. Wells, a leading authority on the history of the U.S. Coast Guard, had a simple request: "Just file for a copy of your father's U.S. Coast Guard service record." The mention of George Clooney certainly got my attention. I put in the request.
It was a long wait.
Finally, that June, a young Coast Guard lieutenant called and said there was no record of my father. She asked if I had a service ID number for him. She also mentioned that sometimes when families file a request for service records, they find that their relative really never served in the military. Now I was alarmed.
My father, Joel Fisher, had been a well-respected lawyer in Washington. The summer after he died, my husband and I emptied a storage facility in Virginia of files from his law office. We took only what we could fit into my minivan and stored it in a filing cabinet in the basement, where it sat undisturbed for 15 years.
After the call from the lieutenant, I immediately got a headlamp and finally went down to my basement to search. In addition to finding that my father's name on his birth certificate was Joseph - not Joel - I found hundreds of pages of top-secret and classified documents and newspaper clippings chronicling the enormous theft of treasure from countries invaded by the Nazis. The documents provided an almost day-by-day diary of the hunt for the stolen plunder in the final month of the war. And though it would take months, I was able to unravel my father's role in his most important achievement.
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In 1942, my father was a young lawyer with the U.S. Department of Treasury. He had tried to enlist in the Army and Navy but was rejected for bad eyesight and flat feet. That year, he was finally commissioned in the U.S. Coast Guard as an ensign and sent to the Aleutian Islands for a brief tour of duty. Because of his Treasury experience, in 1944 he was assigned to Supreme Allied Commander Dwight Eisenhower's SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force) command in London. At SHAEF, my father was promoted to lieutenant commander and assigned to G-5, the Financial Division, where he served as chief of the Foreign Exchange and Property Control Section.
Although I knew my father had been assigned to Eisenhower's staff, he never said much about it. When I was a child he once said that Ike used to call him his "Jew Boy" and that he had never voted for him.
The only other mention came shortly after "Patton," starring George C. Scott, was released in 1970. After seeing the movie, my father told me that he had been on a mission for Ike to get to the "salt mines" before the Soviets. My father's team of soldiers had to cross the lines of Lt. Gen. George Patton's Third Army, and they were eventually stopped and given a hard time by the notoriously difficult general. According to my father, Patton finally said, "Hell, I'll have to let you go because you're 'Ike's boys.' " There was no explanation as to what the "salt mines" were and why they had to get there.
Growing up during the 1960s, I had little interest in what my father, or mother - who had served as a lieutenant in the WAVES - had done during the war. All that changed when I found the documents chronicling my father's role in the hunt.
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In early 1945, as it became evident that Germany would fall, the Nazis were busy hiding the gold bullion and coins, silver bars, foreign currency, artwork and other possessions of Holocaust victims. The Nazis shipped much of the treasure out of Berlin - away from the advancing Allied armies - to a network of salt mines in the Merkers region and to Reichsbank branches in eastern and southern Germany.
Merkers is 80 miles northeast of Frankfurt. According to my father's files, the U.S. Army was racing against time to locate the treasure before the Nazis could transport it to Switzerland or before the Soviets, moving westward, could get their hands on it.
That February, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin had signed the Yalta agreement, reorganizing postwar Europe and deciding which countries would control land that had been occupied by the Nazis. The agreement added to the pressure to recover the stolen bounty because it placed the Merkers region under Soviet control after the war.
At the end of March, Patton's Third Army crossed the Rhine and began its sweep into the heart of Germany. On April 4, the mining village of Merkers fell. Nearby was Ohrdruf, a forced labor camp that was part of the Buchenwald concentration camp network. (Ohrdruf was the first concentration camp to be liberated by U.S. troops, and is the camp Eisenhower took international press to visit so reporters could provide an eyewitness account of Nazi atrocities.)
On the evening of April 6, American MPs stopped two displaced French women there, one of whom was pregnant, to tell them of a curfew. The women were in search of a midwife, and the MPs decided to drive them into town to find one. They passed the Kaiseroda mine, and the women mentioned that Nazis had hidden valuables in the mine some 700 meters down and that it had taken slave laborers 72 hours to unload.
The Army Counter Intelligence Corps had heard stories of recent movements of German Reichsbank gold to potassium mines in the Merkers region. The U.S. Third Army quickly assigned soldiers to protect the entrances to the Merkers, Kaiseroda, Leimbach, Springen and Dietlas mines.
On April 8, U.S. soldiers and members of SHAEF's Financial Division entered the Merkers mine and found what was later referred to as Room No. 8, a 75-by-150-foot vault-like room that contained more than 7,000 bags and containers, stacked knee-high. Other room-size areas also held bags and containers filled with gold, silver, currency, artwork and Holocaust victims' personal possessions. Among the treasures were plates used by the Reichsbank to print Reichsmarks, critical to funding the German war effort.
Four days later, Gens. Eisenhower, Patton and Omar Bradley toured the Merkers mine with international press in tow. The day that had begun with such promise did not end well, however. That evening, as the generals ate dinner, they received word that Roosevelt had died in Warm Springs, Ga.
In the days that followed, Col. Bernard Bernstein, deputy chief of SHAEF's Financial Division and my father's commanding officer, was ordered to take charge of recovering the treasure. Bernstein called on key members of his staff, including my father, to report immediately to Merkers.
In a Washington Post interview after the war, my father described the first time he entered the Merkers salt mine.
"The first thing that greeted us were open boxes filled with wedding rings, gold teeth inlays and gold and silver picture frames. The owners, we were informed by German guards, were dead. Right in the middle of the cold, white salt beds were these wooden crates. I got hold of something sharp and pried one open, and there was one of those beautiful paintings."
The discovery immediately activated a plan to locate and capture the remainder of Germany's assets. Intelligence reports indicated the Germans were trying to transfer gold, silver, foreign currency and art objects as a means of perpetuating Nazi influence after the war. G-5 teams were formed to enter towns captured by the Allies and locate valuables, then arrange for the nearest military unit to guard them.
According to the documents, my father was given the task of inventorying all the mines in the vicinity and interrogating Reichsbank officials in the hope of finding more assets. Much of his time was devoted to tracking plundered treasure that had been relocated to Reichsbank branches.
For weeks my father led 75 men dubbed "Task Force Fisher." The team followed U.S. troops as they fought their way through central Germany, tracking movements of gold and currency through the towns of Gera Zwickau, Aue, Leipzig, Magdeburg, Wurzburg, Halle and Hof. Memos and communications detailed the task force's quest.
My father described traveling to Plauen on April 26 to interrogate Reichsbank officials. The officials admitted that there were many bags of gold in the vault, but they said the loot was impossible to retrieve because the vault key was in the pocket of a bank employee who was buried under bomb rubble.
My father arranged for a combat engineer company to blast open the vault. In a column by Leonard Lyon of the New York Post datelined Frankfurt, my father recounted how one Reichsbank official snickered, saying: "You'll never do it. The walls are too thick." The dynamite charge was then set off, and the vault was blown. A soldier turned to the bank official and said, "Poof."
Inside they found 35 bags of gold coins, weighing about a ton, which had been deposited by SS chief Heinrich Himmler in April 1944. The Plauen Reichsbank also contained 17 bags of U.S. gold dollars, 1 million Swiss gold francs, 151,560 Norwegian gold kroner, 22 bags of silver German coins, and 98,450 Dutch gold guilders.
The search for assets continued. At the Magdeburg Reichsbank, 6,074 bars of silver and 536 boxes of silver were recovered, representing the total amount of Hungary's silver reserve. In Nuremberg, Task Force Fisher found that the bank director had burned 750 million French francs (in 1945 valued at $17.2 million), and in the Eschwege Reichsbank, 82 gold bars were found.
A memo detailing the hunt for plundered Nazi loot conducted by the various G-5 teams states that from the discovery of the Merkers mine in early April until May 1, my father and his task force had traveled 1,900 miles and were responsible for the recovery of 6.65 tons of gold and 198,000 pounds of silver.
In an August 1945 interview with The New York Times, my father talked about how uncooperative the Germans had been. He told of how Germans systematically tried to hide their plunder, "with the result that gold alone was found in every conceivable sort of hiding place . . . under chicken coops at Coburg, in garbage cans and . . . in hollow trees."
In an interview with Coast Guard Magazine in October 1945, my father explained that although the Germans would talk to him willingly, "they wouldn't tell us the truth. They tried desperately to throw us off the trail with lies and distortions, but finally we had enough clues to continue our search." He also described a harrowing experience.
He and his men were exploring a sub-basement of a Reichsbank when they heard an explosion. According to my father, they "rushed up to street level and found . . . that the bank building was right in the middle of an artillery duel, but that all American troops had withdrawn [leaving them] . . . alone in a no-man's land."
A German sniper was spotted on the steeple of a church across the street. My father lined up six riflemen at a large window and gave them the signal to fire. The sniper went down, and U.S. troops began to advance again.
In the same interview, my father told of arriving at "one notorious concentration camp and learning that three hours before the arrival of U.S. troops, German SS men had taken all the gold and silver rings" that had been confiscated from prisoners and had fled eastward. His task force "gave chase, cornered the Nazis in a forest and after a brief rifle skirmish, recovered the loot."
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My father was a graduate of Syracuse University's law school, and in an interview with The Syracuse Post-Standard after the war he talked about what he felt was the greatest problem facing the Allies: The German people believed the Allies had caused the war. He recalled interrogating a prominent official with IG Farben, the chemical conglomerate that was notorious for producing Zyklon B, used to exterminate Jews in gas chambers. The official said that "he had suffered a skull fracture during Allied bombings and complained that our air tactics had been inhuman." When my father reminded him that Germany had started the war, he looked astonished and replied: " 'My dear sir, any history book will tell you the British declared war on Germany.' "
The Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives program was created by the Allies to protect cultural property after the war. Many of the world's finest curators and art experts were attached to military units as Europe was liberated, working to return the artwork plundered by the Nazis to its rightful owners.
The monuments men worked for six years until their unit was disbanded. While millions of cultural treasures were returned, in fall 2013 the discovery of 1,400 pieces of stolen art in the Munich apartment of the son of a former Nazi art dealer illustrates that the war is not over for many individuals and cultural institutions.
I don't know why my father really never spoke of his exploits during the war - never mentioned that his commanding officer had nominated him for a Legion of Merit award, or that he led a team of men searching for stolen treasure.
These documents were a revelation to me - the very idea of my father, who was more klutz-like than athlete, tracking stolen Nazi loot and chasing, interrogating and shooting at Nazis was a total shock. I can only think that like many American soldiers who fought in World War II, or in any war, for that matter, all he wanted was to put his experiences behind him and resume a normal life.
But his files let me chronicle his role in one of the biggest and most important treasure hunts in history. More important, they gave me a glimpse of a father I had never known: a man who faced enormous odds in his quest to make sure the Nazis would never profit from their crimes.
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Sullam, a former communications director for Sen. Benjamin Cardin, D-Md., is a freelance writer in Baltimore.