Divers In Greece Search
For WWII Nazi Gold & Jewels
By John Carr in Athens
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 camps.
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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