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2005 marks the 60th anniversary of the Allied victory over Nazi Germany. The generation that fought World War II is now fading from the scene, but many questions from that time remain to be answered. One of these concerns the whereabouts of Russia’s greatest lost treasure: the Amber Room of Frederick I. This priceless work of art was stolen from Russia by the Nazis and taken to the city of Koenigsberg, from which it vanished in the waning days of the war.
Ever since its foundation, Koeningsberg has been a city of paradoxes and enigmas. The knights originally planned to build the city some 200 kilometers to the east, at the Neman River. During their rest stop at a mountain that contained a heathen place of worship, the knights observed a solar eclipse. The Teutonic Order’s Magisters considered the phenomenon to be a sign from God, and decided not to disobey it. The mountain later became known as Koenigs Berg, or Royal Mountain.
In 1255 the main castle of Koenigsberg was founded on the bank of the Pregel River. A ring of 15 fortresses (allegedly united by a system of underground tunnels) surrounds the city.
Formerly the capital of the dukes of Prussia and later the capital of East Prussia, Koenigsberg was ceded to the Soviet Union in 1945 under the Potsdam agreement. The city’s strategic importance was all too apparent to Stalin. In June of 1941 it had been used by the Germans as a staging ground for one of the main assaults against Soviet Russia, and it remained a very important naval base for the duration of the war. Over 100,000 Soviet soldiers lost their lives in the operation to take the city from the Germans.
In 1946 the Koenigsberg area was sealed off from the rest of the Soviet Union. Renamed Kaliningrad, it became a vital military outpost. An ugly House of Soviets replaced the ruins of Koenigsberg Castle that remained in the center of the city.
When the city was part of the Nazi Reich, it was under the control of the murderous Erich Koch. Koch treated the city’s people with great cruelty as he carried out Hitler’s plans. After the war, Koch hid from justice under a false name. In 1959 he was found and sentenced to death. Due to his bad health he was kept in prison until he died in 1986. Koch took a number of secrets to his grave.
Among Koch’s last statements was the assertion, “Where lies my treasure, there also lies the Amber Room.”
Yantarnaya komnata (the Amber Room) was built as Frederick I’s study at Koenigsberg Castle in 1711. Five years later, it was given as a present to Peter the Great to commemorate Prussia’s alliance with Russia. It was later installed in the palace of Catherine the Great at Tsarskoye Selo, the opulent summer residence of the Russian royal family just outside St. Petersburg (later renamed Leningrad).
The Amber Room’s decorations covered 1,800 square feet and consisted of handcrafted panels made of six tons of amber (the lightest gem in the world) and Italian mosaics decorated with diamonds, emeralds, and rubies. It is often referred to as the Eighth Wonder of the World. People believed that it possessed magical energy. There is a belief in the Baltics that amber (“northern gold” and “sun-drenched stone”) has miraculous healing powers.
When the German armies besieged Leningrad during the Second World War, they dismantled the famous Amber Room. (The desperate Soviets attempted to hide the Amber Room by wallpapering over it.) Soon after the Amber Room was seized, the Nazis sent west by train. It was taken back to Koenigsberg Castle and displayed in one of the halls of the Koenigsberg Museum.
Just before the capitulation of the city in 1945, the Germans once again dismantled the room and packed it in crates, intending to ship it back to Berlin. It has never been seen since. The hunt for the collection of jewel-encrusted panels that make up the Amber Room has been a great post-war quest. For five decades the KGB, the Stasi (East German secret police), and unknown others have failed in the search.
Vera Bruyussova, widow of a noted Soviet archaeologist charged to look for the treasure, revealed that her husband, Alexander, wrote a memo to the Soviet leadership in 1955 stating: “I do not believe that the treasure is lost.”
There have been many speculations as to what had happened to it, and some people are convinced that the diligent quest has brought death and misfortune to those involved ....
Read the rest of this article in the June 2005 issue of FATE
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