Jon Clarke goes on the trail of the millions of dollars of Nazi gold – stolen from the Jews – that ended up in Madrid and eventually, it is alleged, in British hands
THE meeting WAS HELD in the centre of Madrid on a shivery cold morning in February 1945.
Taking place in the plush top floor office of the Instituto de la Moneda, the director was meeting with the heads of both the German and British secret serviceS.
“This was looted gold and it should not have been here in Spain, nor most pertinently should the British have had anything to do with it”
The topic: to decide, allegedly, how to divide up the enormous piles of Nazi gold – much of it looted from Jews – that had found its way into Spain towards the end of the Second World War.
“There were two British agents and four German agents,” claims Dr Shimon Samuels, who has investigated the movement of looted gold for decades. “Each of them were making offers. The British wanted the Gold, insisting it should not fall into the hands of the Americans, while the Germans wanted their gold protected by Franco, officially to be used for post war reconstruction in Germany.
“But we think it went to oPERATION Odessa to help Nazis escape to South America.”
The piles of gold in question – conservatively estimated to have a value of at least 138 million dollars – had been amassed in a series of safe deposit boxes in the insitute over the previous few years.
While many of the gold ingots had been looted from the bank accounts of Jews across Eastern Europe and Germany through the 1930s and early 1940s, much of it had come from a much more sinister source.
“A lot of it was tooth gold seized from people who had been exterminated in the concentration camps,” explains Dr Samuels, the Director for International Relations at the Simon Wiesenthal Centre in Jerusalem.
“This was looted gold and it should not have been here in Spain, nor most pertinently should the British have had anything to do with it. There was clearly a lot of hanky panky going on.”
The fascinating chain of events had come to light when Samuels and his colleague Dr Ephraim Zuroff, the world’s most famous Nazi-hunter, had spent time in Spain, alongside Spanish investigator Jose Maria Irujo.
The group had been trying to ascertain how and where the billions of dollars worth of Nazi gold had ended up after the Second World War ended in September 1945.
Most importantly they wanted to know which of the Nazi hierachy might have benefited from it and they spent a number of months compiling a list of ten key Nazis, who were allegedly still living in Spain in the 1990s.
Scattered around the country – but most in Andalucia – they eventually handed their list in person to former PP President Aznar, who insisted there was little that could be done.
The gold trail however, drew more success.
The team of investigators had literally struck gold, if you’ll excuse the pun when they stumbled upon the ageing widow of the former director of the Instituto de la Moneda.
“It was a stroke of luck that she was still alive to tell us the story,” says Dr Samuels. “And even better she recalled how all of her best sheets, blankets and tablecloths had disappeared around that time and how she now realised that they had almost certainly been used to cover and carry the mountains of gold ingots.”
On top of that, the widow had even kept a copy of her late husband’s diary, including the entries for 1945, which included a string of meetings held with both German and English agents in Madrid.
Taking place in February and March, most interesting of all was the entry in the diary for April 19.
“It noted simply that the gold had been put on a train to Tarifa and from there it was transferred to a building in Gibraltar.”
An intriguing, and highly damning note for the Allied authorities, the team from the Simon Wiesenthal Centre didn’t hang around and headed south to investigate further.
But after weeks of pressing, the Gibraltar authorities insisted they were unable to find any sign of the gold.
“Of course we pushed them but we met a complete brick wall. The trail went cold. It was absolutely scandalous.”
The Gold Trail that emanated from Germany in the 1940s went in a number of directions.
It included everything from silverware and watches to wedding rings and gold teeth with human blood on them. The Nazis had seized most of it as they ejected Jews from their homes around Eastern Europe and Germany.
Remarkably efficient, the Jews’ belongings were minutely chronicled, explained investigator Ronald Zweig. “The crucial period was around April 1944, when the Jews were handing over their property; it was put into individual bags and closed in front of them,” he explained. “The address was recorded, and they were given receipts, but within weeks it all became meaningless because these people were shipped off to Auschwitz and didn’t survive.”
Often melted down into ingots, it was used throughout the war to buy raw materials from around Europe. Much of this was bought from Spain, through a complex range of companies.
At the centre of the German-Spanish trading relationship was the large commercial conglomerate
Sociedad Financiera Industrial (SOFINDUS), formed in 1936. Through special agreements SOFINDUS eventually acquired a commercial empire that included ten agricultural subsidiaries, significant mining interests, and nine transportation companies.
In shipping alone, by 1941 it was operating as many as 53 vessels with a combined capacity of 55,000 tons.
SOFINDUS served as the Nazis’ commercial agency in Spain, handling all non-military trade and developing Spain’s nascent mining and agricultural industries, principally to supply the Third Reich with raw materials vital for its economy and war industries.
By 1941 Germany was buying almost all of Spain’s iron ore for its weapons industry, paying for it with gold, the only payment method it had.
After the German surrender in 1945, an Anglo-AmericanTrusteeship took control of German businesses and properties in Spain. By July 1946 it had taken control of 278 million pesetas (25.3 million dollars) out of an estimated 1,045 million pesetas (95 million dollars) of German assets in Spain.
The Allies based their estimates of Spain’s wartime gold acquisitions on captured German Reichsbank records, statements by Swiss banking officials, and records seized from the offices of SOFINDUS. It was estimated conservatively that between 1942 and 1945 Spain acquired at least 122.852 tons of gold worth around 138 million dollars. Of this 11 tons came from Germany, 74 tons from the German account at the Swiss National Bank, and 37,852 tons directly from the Swiss National Bank, which the Allies believed included some loot.
The report concluded that of this total, an estimated 72 per cent of the gold Germany used during this period was looted.
What is also quite apparent was that the Nazis could easily cloak their businesses in Spain due to the ease with which officials could be corrupted. It also became clear that Tangiers and Morocco were being used as a conduit to move the Nazis assets from Spain and Portugal to Argentina. This conduit confirms leading Nazi Martin Bormann’s infamous programme of flight capital.
In the autumn of 1944, the Allies made their first request for Spain to cease all gold transactions involving enemy interests. Spain failed to reply. In January 1945, the Allies had cut off all land routes between Spain and Germany.
And in May 1945 that Spain finally issued a decree to freeze and immobilise all assets with Axis interests. Negotiations with Spain started in November 1946 in Madrid. The negotiations dragged on through 1947 into 1948. Final agreement was reached on both Nazi assets and the gold issue on May 3, 1948.
However, by then the gold was long gone and in total Spain agreed to repatriate just 114,000 dollars of gold, much of which was believed to have came from the Netherlands.
A fraction of what had been stolen, and later carted away, it was even more laughable that under part of the agreement the Allies were forced to issue a statement insisting that Spain had been ‘unaware’ that the gold had even been looted by the Nazis in the first place.
The shady chapter in the history of Spain – and, in particular, the involvement of Gibraltar – has still not been properly resolved, nor investigated.
Neither the British government (Sir Malcolm Rifkind was approached at the time), nor the Spanish authorities were prepared to help in the location of the looted gold and other treasures.
“It is why Spain was such a popular destination for Nazis,” says Dr Ephraim Zuroff, who has spent four decades tracing Hitler’s former associates around the globe. “Most of them came in the 1940s and 1950s and under Franco they obviously got a good reception.
“The amazing thing was that in 1975 nothing changed. They could still live in peace.”
Indeed it wasn’t until Zuroff and his investigators started to investigate the movements of leading Nazis, such as Aribert Heim (known as Doctor Death for his part in the massacre of numerous Jews – and Spaniards – in Mauthausen Concentration Camp) that the world started to learn about their existence in Spain.
Journalist Irujo, from El Pais, worked hard to locate a string of wanted Nazis, including Belgian Leon Degrelle.
“But Spain still didn’t take much interest,” said Zuroff. “They basically favoured the biological solution and I guess we had other more important countries to investigate, so we kind of let them off the hook.”
As for the where the gold is now, some say it could still be in safe deposits in Gibraltar, others that it was distributed to help Nazis flee to South America.
“The ultimate destination of the gold is anyone’s guess, but I imagine some went to Africa and plenty went to Nazis fleeing Germany to live in Spain,” said Dr Samuels.
Either way, the Gold Train is one subject that is unlikely to ever be derailed. While temporarily in the buffers, it is extremely likely that there are officials in Gibraltar, or their older family members, who can shed some light on this disgraceful chapter in Europe’s recent history.