I toured Europe as an eighteen year-old with a few friends from school as part of an EF Tour, and our it took us to thirteen countries all within a month. My own travels involved exploring a mine in Berchtesgaden, Germany. I have later in life wondered, could this mine have once hidden art treasures of the world?
A recent film, The Monuments Men, propelled me back into this question and caused me to reminisce years later back to my visit to Berchtesgaden. And I was not the only one: Kim Willsher, of the Parisian paper, The Telegraph, remarked on the film last year, when the French government announced plans to return artwork taken by the Nazis during WWII. Willsher described the film as a sort-of collective biopic about “the work of the 400 serviceman and civilians attached to the Allies' Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program, established in 1943 to retrieve artworks looted by the Nazis [...] in what was later dubbed ‘the greatest treasure hunt in history’.” The Telegraph article further discusses the accomplishments of the nicknamed “Monuments Men,” noting that:
Among their most spectacular discoveries were 1,000 paintings and sculptures stolen by Herman Göring and found at Berchtesgaden, Germany, and some 6,500 paintings hidden in Austria's Altaussee salt mines, which included Michelangelo's Madonna of Bruges.
During the film, the characters begin to uncover much of the “treasure” within the mines throughout Europe. While the film itself has a rather lackluster finish to it, the subject matter is quite interesting.
The EF Tour was my first foray through Germany, and after a night on a sleeper train from Paris, my fellow travellers and I boarded a large bus to Switzerland. After a night near Lucerne, we made our way through the petite country of Liechtenstein, and back to the Austrian-German border to tour the grand Neuschwanstein Castle – the castle which serves as Disney’s muse. We then spent the night in Austria, just outside of Innsbruck. My hotel, nestled in the mountains just outside of the city, felt foreign and yet comfortable. Amongst a few old homes and buildings was a church with small glass windows that still managed to emit a glow that seemingly surrounded the small structure. From outside, I could hear a practicing choir, late on that cloudy Sunday evening. The sound of their foreign-tongued hymns gave the mountains a tune beyond nature, settling the country around it into a state of reverence as the day continued to fade. A pasture outside my room housed a number of sheep that huddled under a lone tree as rain began to drizzle, then pour. This shower both softened and amplified the voices inside of the church, the shimmer of the rain on the church just visible from my balcony, the music reverberating through the countryside. It was a blissful moment in time of an otherwise dizzying trip.
The morning after my evening in Austria, and half way through my month in Europe, I found myself set off for the Berchtesgaden salt mines. According to Salzburg’s website, the mine:
presents itself in a new light. It is a world of the local miners, who have been working in the active part of the mine day-in, day-out, for centuries and whisk the visitors away into their aforementioned world. Highlights, such as the slide or the journey on the Mirror Lake melt with gripping information over the indispensable vital element of salt.
Yet no word on its place in the history of the Twentieth Century, or if there were once hidden treasures within. They do mention the underground lake, which was a mesmerizing spectacle to be held. Deep under the earth, a ferry takes you across a near pitch-black body of water, while music begins to play slowly. Echoing throughout the cavern, timed lights start to match what your ears can hear, illustrating your surroundings with a light show that resembles something you might witness at Disneyland. My further research revealed a bit more on the mines:
The chronicle of salt mining in Berchtesgaden goes back to the 12th century. In 1193, the salt mining starts on the Tuval near Schellenberg. […] In 1517, the Petersberg gallery is struck, thereby founding the Salt Mine Berchtesgaden by Prince-Provost Gregor. The brine created here is initially [channeled] to the Schellenberg Salt Works. In 1564, the Frauenreuth Salt Works initiates operations in Berchtesgaden.
Rich history I missed during my first visit, for sure, but nothing of the sort action films are made of.
Although the mine I had toured was not a Nazi repository, the town of Berchtesgaden was. It was also considered to be the Third Reich’s alpine headquarters. Even being home to Hitler’s own vacation home, turned base, called “The Eagles Nest.”
While my time in Berchtesgaden was short, it has left me with a lasting memory - one that I continue to look back on and discover new facts. I was too young to recognize at the time, to appreciate, or to acknowledge the history surrounding me – choosing instead to focus on the present, such as my stay Innsbruck the night before the mines. Realizing that I had been in the area, and was unable to recognize the catastrophic history, only further deepens a desire to learn more. It reminds me that even as I stay in the present, that I should also be more mindful of the past.