Thursday, December 23, 2004


Pirate divers face jail for looting Nazi ghost liner


Times online
By Roger Boyes
December 09, 2004

Divers at the site of one of the worst maritime disasters, a Nazi liner sunk in the Baltic, could end up in prison.

Wilhelm Gustloff.

POLAND has promised to take action against divers who are looting the wreck of the Nazi cruise liner Wilhelm Gustloff, which was sunk off the Polish coast by Soviet torpedoes in the dying days of the Second World War.

In response to protests by Germany, the Polish authorities have agreed to put an end to looting by maverick divers, who are removing everything from ashtrays to chandeliers. Divers caught near the wreck now risk prosecution, a fine or even imprisonment.

The sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff in 1945, crammed with 9,000 mainly civilian Germans fleeing the Soviet Army, ranks as one of the worst maritime disasters of all time, with more than 7,000 fatalities — well ahead of the better-known tragedies of the Titanic (1,503 deaths) and the Lusitania (1,201).

The wreck has been designated a war memorial and is off-limits to salvage operators. Her location is disguised — Polish navigational charts register her only as Obstacle No 73 — 180ft deep in the soft mud of the Baltic. However, she is easy to find and most of the diving clubs between Gdansk and Kolobrzeg offer trips to the wreck.

The looting has caused deep resentment in Germany, where the Wilhelm Gustloff has become a focus for war remembrance. Germans are lobbying to build a museum or a shrine on the Polish coast to mark the 60th anniversary of the disaster, on January 30.

The new German sensitivity has been stirred in part by a novel written by Günter Grass, the Nobel prize-winning author.

“These divers are nothing better than graveyard hyenas,” Henryk Koszka, the head of the Polish Maritime Authority in Gdynia, on the Baltic coast, said.

Senior Polish officials, aware that the Wilhelm Gustloff could become another source of friction between Berlin and Warsaw, agree. “We have to stop these illegal diving missions now,” a Polish diplomat said.

Enforcing the clampdown may prove difficult, given the significant financial rewards for divers. German collectors will offer €10,000 (£6,888) or more for an ashtray marked with the name of the ship.

The cruise liner served the Nazi Party’s “Strength through Joy” scheme, which rewarded loyal workers with trips around Europe, a pioneer of the modern package tour. Even though she was converted into a hospital ship at the outbreak of war, her contents were branded with the Gustloff insignia.

Local divers have kept some of the prizes. Jerzy Janczukowicz has converted a ballroom chandelier into a table to support his cognac and vodka bottles. He claims that the looting is “about making sure that history does not get destroyed”.

He and a generation of divers are drawn by another elusive goal: to find the legendary Amber Room, the priceless Tsarist treasure, which, according to one theory, was stashed in the hold of the cruise liner for transport to safety in the West. Nobody has found it, but Soviet divers, soon after the Second World War, blew holes in the Gustloff looking for traces of the treasure.

It is not clear exactly how many people died in the icy Baltic waters in 1945. Some 1,200 survived. If the passenger list was the only guide, then 5,348 people were killed, but German refugees were scrambling to get on board and many were unlisted. They included women, children, elderly men and about 1,000 wounded soldiers. The passengers had walked through eastern Prussia ahead of the advancing Soviet Army, driven on by rumours of rapes and atrocities.

The ship’s captain decided to head north, to avoid British aircraft, rather than hug the Baltic coastline. The snow was heavy and the captain ordered the ship to switch on all her lights to avoid a collision. It was thus easy for the Soviet submarine S13 to spot.

The submarine slipped between the Wilhelm Gustloff and the coastline and let off three torpedoes. Within 50 minutes, the once-proud liner had slipped below the surface.

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