By Alex Prud'Homme
October 12, 1992 12:00 PM

For Hans Stadelmann, the Amber Chamber is the quest of a lifetime

STANDING IN A COOL, DUSTY PASSAGE way deep beneath the town square in Weimar, Germany, Hans Stadelmann focuses on a brick wall with a laserlike gaze. “We may well be next to one of the greatest lost treasures of the world,” he says quietly. “There arc a hundred buried rooms here, none of them accessible since 1945. I know the Amber Chamber is in there.”

If he’s right, Stadelmann, 66, a garrulous retired construction foreman, will have finally solved one of the enduring riddles of World War II. The Amber Chamber, a gift from King Frederick William I of Prussia to Russia’s Czar Peter the Great in the early 18th century, was a magnificent full-size room made entirely of Baltic amber cut into 20-odd panels of ornate baroque and rococo designs. It took Danish and German craftsmen years to complete, and the British Ambassador to the court of Peter the Great once called it “the eighth wonder of the world.” The chamber, says Dr. Wolf-Dieter Dube, director general of the State Museums in Berlin, “is an absolutely unique piece of work. Such a thing cannot be bought or sold.”

But it was stolen. Installed at the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, and later moved to a nearby summer palace, the chamber was looted by Nazi troops in 1941 and shipped back to Germany. Its last recorded sighting was in January 1945 in Königsberg (now Kaliningrad, Russia), a Baltic port. Over the last five years, the stocky Stadelmann has spent every extra pfennig of his pension to prove that Nazi secrets, including the chamber, are hidden under Weimar in bunkers excavated by prisoners from the Buchenwald death camp. But many Germans today would rather leave the past where it is—buried. “It isn’t easy,” Stadelmann says. “I get threatening phone calls and have had things thrown at me when I’m down in the vaults. In the streets people tell me I should stop. But I persevere.”

Last November the Amber Chamber became the focus of worldwide attention when Russian President Boris Yeltsin unexpectedly announced, “We know where it is—in east Germany, buried in crates.” (Weimar was under East German control until 1990.) If found, the Amber Chamber would be returned to Russia. While Yeltsin tantalized the public, he also stirred deep-seated anxieties about reviving Germany’s past. German politicians have long dismissed Stadelmann as a crank and any rumors of buried treasure as mere legend. The Soviets, trying to negotiate loans from Germany, grew suddenly silent.

Stadelmann, though, continued to build his case. Nazi-era blueprints of the buildings around Weimar’s main square seem to show a series of sealed rooms and hint at a second basement. “What were they trying to hide?” Stadelmann asked himself. Because the subterranean rooms may be booby-trapped with explosives, Stadelmann has not tried to dig. He prefers to poke around Weimar’s cellars, confer with secret sources and work as an armchair investigator out of his living room, which is stuffed with notebooks, photographs and maps. Supported by his wife, Edeltraut, and son, Frank, 26, Stadelmann will receive no reward if the artworks are found. He says he is motivated by a desire to atone for Germany’s Nazi heritage. Furthermore he is convinced that Weimar’s ‘catacombs harbor evidence of postwar atrocities committed by Russian and German Communists. “People were either silent before because they were disguised Nazis, or they are quiet now because they are disguised Communists,” he says defiantly.

According to historians, Hitler had hoped to make the chamber the centerpiece of a Nazi museum of art. During World War II, Erich Koch, wartime Governor of East Prussia, plundered museums and private collections across Central Europe and assembled the hoard in Königsberg. Sometime in January 1945, Koch sent a convoy of trucks loaded with stolen art to Weimar, the bastion of Nazism in central Germany, where Hitler’s loyal forces planned to make a last stand. In the apocalypse of the Third Reich, however, the chamber was lost. A Soviet officer later claimed it had been burned in Konigsberg. Others say the crates were sunk in the Baltic, when the German ship Wilhelm Gustloff was torpedoed.

As the evidence mounts, Stadelmann has won admirers. This month, treasure hunter Norman Scott, president of Global Explorations, of Gainsville, Fla., who once uncovered Mayan treasures at Chichén Itzá, Mexico, hopes to begin a $500,000 high-tech probe of the vaults. “More than likely there will be art treasures down there,” says Scott, “and SS records and probably some bodies too.” Scott, who will profit by selling the media rights to his expedition, nonetheless believes the Amber Chamber lies elsewhere.

In 1962, a guilt-stricken Stadelmann, who had reluctantly served in the German Navy during the war and later helped to tear down Buchenwald, began a personal search for proof of Nazi misdeeds. This investigation eventually led to his obsession with finding the Amber Chamber. His biggest breakthrough came in the spring of 1990, when he acquired a partial inventory of Koch’s 1945 convoy to Weimar. The list did not mention the chamber but did refer to 108 silver candlesticks with amber detail, exactly the same number that graced the chamber.

Last March, Weimar officials conducted two days of drilling during inspection of the town square but did not find the long-sought room. “Believe me, [Stadelmann] is running after an illusion,” says Dr. Jurgen Seifert, who headed the inquiry. “Who wouldn’t want to find the Amber Chamber? But one has to remain objective and not run after phantoms. We found nothing.”

Yet Stadelmann remains steadfast. He points out that camp records show that the last group of prisoners from Buchenwald to work on the bunkers did not return. He believes they were executed to keep them quiet and that they may be buried along with Koch’s treasure. Furthermore, claims Stadelmann, Koch, who died in a Polish prison in 1985 after serving a life sentence for war crimes, once said, “Whoever finds my art collection will also find the Amber Chamber.”

Will the Weimar catacombs prove to be as empty as Al Capone’s safe? “We do not speculate,” says Norman Scott. “I don’t have a crystal ball, but we will find something. What I do is not Hollywood: it’s real. This is history.”