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The BBC's Paul Wood in Athens
"The story behind the expedition is thick with intrigue"
 real 28k

Friday, 11 August, 2000, 07:49 GMT 08:49 UK
Hunt for sunken Jewish treasure

An international team of divers has been given permission to search for sunken treasure taken from Greek Jews during World War II.

After months of wrangling Greek and French divers are finally ready to plunge into the clear blue waters of the Peloponnese in south-western Greece to try to salvage what they hope is a fortune in gold stolen by the Nazis.

The 12 divers will begin their five-day search on Friday from the port of Kalamata, 280 km (175 miles) south-west of Athens. They will concentrate on the area around Skhiza Island.

Nazi concentration camp/inmates
Greek Jews were robbed and sent to Nazi death camps

Gold coins and jewels worth more than $2bn were taken by the German administrator of the city of Thessaloniki, Max Merten, who promised to spare the lives of the owners. But he broke his promise, and nearly all of Greece's Jews were killed by the Nazis.

The treasure was loaded onto a fishing vessel and deliberately sunk off the Peloponnese in 1943.

Merten was briefly jailed when he returned to Greece in 1957 posing as a tourist, presumably to try and remove the gold. But he was allowed to return to Germany, where he practised law until his death in 1976.

Last year, a mystery informant known only as Phantom X told the Jewish Council in Athens that he had shared a cell with Merten, who had given him maps showing where the treasure lay.

Nazi gold
The Nazis melted down much of their stolen gold

The Jewish officials were sceptical until the man gave detailed descriptions of the valuables, including religious ornaments which could only have come from Merten or the original owners.

The Greek Government will claim half of whatever is found, the treasure hunters and the informant will take a quarter, and the Greek Jewish community the other quarter.

The Holocaust survivors in Greece's Jewish community, numbering nearly 2,000, say the money has been theirs all along.

Unauthorised underwater searches, and even scuba diving expeditions, are illegal in most areas of Greece, to prevent the theft of antiquities.

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See also:

26 Jul 00 | Europe
Swiss Nazi row ends in US court
14 Dec 99 | Europe
$5bn Nazi slave fund agreed
21 Aug 98 | Nazi Gold
The greatest theft in history
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