ATHENS, June 21 (JTA) — A man with a story dating back to the war years is prompting a search for buried treasure allegedly looted from Greek Jews by the Nazis.
The man, who wishes to remain anonymous, visited the offices of the Salonica Jewish community in 1999, and told them that he knew of an area off the Greek coast where an SS officer named Max Merten, one of the top Nazi officials in Greece during the war, had buried cash, jewelry, religious artifacts and other valuables before the mass deportation of Greek Jews in 1944.
The Jewish official, skeptical of the story, referred him to the leader of the Central Jewish Board of Greece, Moses Costantinis.
The man repeated the story to Costantinis, explaining that he knew Merten because the two were in jail together in 1958, when Merten was jailed after a Holocaust survivor identified him during one of his trips back to Greece to search for the treasure.
In March 1959, Merten was tried and sentenced to 25 years in prison, but then-Prime Minister Kostantinos Karamanlis freed him after eight months and sent him back to Germany.
At first, Costantinis didn’t believe the man. Since the end of World War II, many rumors about hidden Jewish loot have surfaced in Greece, but nothing has ever been found.
But the man persevered, and Costantinis eventually relented.
“Although the story sounded very strange and implausible, I thought that if there was one in a million chance to be true and I said no, all that money that belongs to the Greek Jewish community would never reach its rightful owners. I would have committed a moral crime,” Costantinis said.
The man asked Costantinis for $1.6 million to finance the operation, but the Jewish leader refused. In February, an agreement was reached: The man would finance the salvage operation and get exclusive film rights.
In accordance with Greek law, the government would receive 50 percent of the treasure, which some have estimated could be worth $2.4 billion. The Greek Jewish community and the man would each get 25 percent.
The operation is likely to begin in mid-July.