Monday, November 15, 2004


Rogue divers raid war grave wreck - The "Wilhelm Gustloff"


By Kate Connolly

The Wilhelm Gustloff as a KdF ship pre-1939.

The wreck of a German ship sunk by Soviet torpedoes in the Baltic Sea 60 years ago, with the loss of 9,000 lives, is being systematically plundered by rogue divers.

The Wilhelm Gustloff, which was packed with refugees when it sank on the night of Jan 10, 1945, in what experts say is the worst maritime disaster in history, has been stripped of everything from its portholes to wash basins.

Many of the divers are encouraged by rumours that items such as ashtrays and bed linen from the ship are regularly snapped up by German collectors "for the price of a Mercedes".

Others are driven by the stories that the wreck might still be hiding panels from the priceless Amber Room from St Petersburg which were lost in the chaos of the war.

Diving to and penetrating the Gustloff wreck is illegal, largely because it is recognised as a war grave.

But Poland's maritime authorities say that although they can refuse permits to all but the most serious historical and scientific expeditions, their lack of resources make them powerless to stop most forays to the wreck. "People who dive there illegally are no better than grave robbers," said Andrzej Krolikowski, of the Maritime Office in Gdynia.

In the northern Polish seaside resort of Leba, 22 miles from the wreck, several diving clubs openly advertise day trips to the Gustloff and two other German wartime shipwrecks, the Goya and the Steuben.

Sebastian Popek, of the Baltic Wrecks Association, which offers tailor-made trips to the German wrecks for rich businessmen and film crews, said: "You get quite a sensation - the most powerful moment is when you see the gothic letters on the back of the ship spelling out its name.

''If you know the history of it, you can't help but be moved."

One diver who knows the wreck better than most is Jerzy Janczukowicz. Every room of his house in Gdansk is cluttered with dusty artefacts from Second World War wrecks that he has salvaged over the years.

But the items of which the 66-year-old is most proud are from the Gustloff.

These include the blackened shell of a chandelier from the ship's ballroom, which he has turned into a coffee table, part of the ship's compass and, propped up outside his house, an algae- and mollusc-covered rusty stair rail.

"I don't consider what I do to be illegal, or disrespectful to the dead," Mr Janczukowicz said.

"It's about preserving the past, stopping people from destroying evidence of it, just like the British Museum thinks it is important to preserve sarcophagi." He last visited the wreck with members of his diving club, Shark, three weeks ago
"It's lying on its left side, swathed in fishing nets. Now there's not so much left to take.

''Maybe a propeller, the gangplank, some portholes, and boxes and boxes of munition rounds which look like cases of champagne.''

He added: ''Once I saw the skeleton of a soldier, still wearing its boots and a military belt."

The ship, which was carrying mainly women and children refugees escaping the advancing Red Army, as well as U-Boat soldiers and wounded troops, sank in 62 minutes.

Most passengers jumped into the freezing Baltic Sea where all but 1,200 drowned.

Until well into the 1980s relatives were still trying to trace lost children and parents believed to have been on board.
One of the survivors, Heinz Schön, was an 18-year-old junior purser on the ship.

From his Paderborn home, Mr Schön said: "When I close my eyes I can still see the children who had been thrown overboard in their lifejackets, their heads under the water, their feet sticking in the air, and I hear their mothers' screams.

''I saw one man shoot his wife and two children before turning the gun on himself and realising he'd run out of bullets.

"I find it extraordinarily insensitive that people feel they have the right to plunder this graveyard for every last anchor, lamp and porthole. I hope they are haunted by what they do."

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