It looks as serene as an Alpine postcard, but Lake Toplitz, high in the Austrian Alps, has long been suspected of harboring evidence of Nazi crimes under Adolf Hitler. Until now, no one has been able to successfully complete a comprehensive sweep of the deep and dark lake floor to determine exactly what might have been dumped there more than a half century ago.
Last year, after 55 years, an exhaustive underwater expedition tracked by 60 Minutes II has uncovered crates of counterfeit money created to crash the British and American economies. Correspondent Scott Pelley reports.
To help solve the mystery of Lake Toplitz, 60 Minutes II enlisted the expertise of Oceaneering Technologies, the professional salvage company that recovered the wreckage of the space shuttle Challenger, lifted TWA Flight 800 off the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean and located the aircraft of John F. Kennedy Jr. Oceaneering used its high-tech equipment to search every inch of the lake's floor for anything man-made that could contain Nazi secrets.
Ida Weisenbacher, who lives in the same house near Lake Toplitz where Nazi soldiers found her 55 years ago, is the only living eyewitness to the Nazis' rush to dump mysterious cargo into the lake. "A commander was there," remembered Weisenbacher. "He told us to bring these boxes as fast as possible to Lake Toplitz....When I brought the last load, I saw how they went onto the lake and dropped the boxes into the water. The S.S. kept shoving me away, but I saw the boxes were sunk into the lake."
During four weeks of intensive searching this summer, the lake offered unexpected obstacles for the Oceaneering search team. A layer of silt on the bottom often blew like a blizzard and in some places fallen trees were stacked 50 feet high. There were hailstorms and lightning, but the crew continued its search, sending a deep-ocean diver in a one-man submarine to the bottom of the lake. At 200 feet below the surface, a field of debris was finally discovered.
Adolf Burger, one of 140 Jewish concentration camp prisoners forced to participate in Hitler's secret counterfeiting project during World War II, was present last summer when the Oceaneering dive team solved the mystery of the lake. He recognized the fake British pound notes resting on the lake floor. "Yes, these are the ones I was printing," Burger said when he saw the pounds. "That's unbelievable; 55 years later, I see my own product."
After perfecting the British pound, the prison print shop copied the American $100 bill, Burger said. "The first 200 bills were finished on February 22, 1945," Burger recalled. "We were supposed to start printing the first million dollars the next day, but on that day, February 23, there was an order from the Reich Security's main office to stop work and dismantle the machinery."
"If (the Nazis) had this counterfeiting opertion fully organized in 1939 and early 1940, the results of World War II may have been quite different," said Rabbi Marvin Hier, a Holocaust scholar and an authority on Hitler's S.S.
After the dive, the recovered but seriously deteriorated bank notes were given to LP3, a French paper conservation company that preserved artifacts from the Titanic. The Simon Wiesenthal Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles is creating an exhibit about the artifacts from Lake Toplitz.
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