One of the real thrills of travel to Russia is to go to  the Catherine Palace at Tsarskoe Selo to see the Amber Room.  Amber is the anciently dried resin from prehistoric trees and is most easily obtained by buying amber jewelry  in St. Petersburg.  However the Amber Room was created from several tons of carved amber and  many many gemstones  The room is actually a series of large amber panels, backed with gold leaf and mirrors which covered the inside of a chamber.   The original Amber Room represented a joint effort of German and Russian craftsmen.  Construction began in Prussia in 1701  at the Charlottenburg Palace.  In 1716 the panels were given by Fredrich Wilhelm of Prussia to his then ally Peter the Great of Russia in a deal between the two nations that they were united against Sweden. In its new habitat it was expanded and after several renovations, it covered 55 square meters and contained more than six tons of amber.   In 1755 Czarina Elizabeth of Russia had it transferred and installed in the Winter Place and then in the Catherine Palace. When Nazi Germany invaded Russia they discovered the panels under wallpaper which the Russians had used to hide the room because they had been unable to disassemble and remove the amber because it began to crumble.  The German soldiers found and removed the room within 36 hours  in 1941.  27 crates were evacuated to Konigsberg in east Prussia, for storage and display in the town’s castle.  In 1945 Hitler gave orders  that allowed the movement of cultural possessions for their safety.  Eyewitnesses claim that they saw the crates at the railway station.  It was suggested that the crates were put aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff and this ship was sunk by a Soviet submarine.  Later in the war Konigsberg was heavily bombed by the British and it suffered further extensive damage at the hands of the Russians before and after its fall later in the year.  The city was renamed Kaliningrad.  The Amber Room has never been seen again.

However, there are conflicting stories and theories that continually surface even to the present.  For example, the Amber Room was destroyed by the bombing, or it was hidden in a now lost subterranean bunker in Konigsberg.  Perhaps it was buried in mines in the Ore Mountains, or it was taken onto a ship or submarine which was sunk in the Baltic Sea.  Searches have been mounted without any success.  At one point in 1998 two separate teams announced that they had located it –one in a silver mine, the other in a lagoon.  Neither project was successful in finding the room.  However, in 1997 one Italian stone mosaic that was part of a set of four which had decorated the Amber Room did turn up in west Germany.  It was found in the possession of the family of one of the German soldiers who had helped pack up the Amber Room to take it to Germany.

More recently there came the latest discovery.  In 2008 German treasure hunters  found a 20 metre pit in Deutschneudorf, a small town near the German Czech border.  The site reportedly matches intelligence from other survivors who helped loot the fabled room; it responded to electromagnetic pulse measurements and the manmade cavern  is thought to contain an estimated two tons of gold or silver.  Now here is the catch to the solution–opening the cavern to get into the chamber cannot be completed because the room may be secured by booby traps.  Sappers who are experts at dealing with explosives will have to determine how to safely bring up the materials contained in the room.  Nevertheless the mayor  of the village says “we’re confident it’s part of the Amber Room.”  The treasure hunters  believe that there are close to two tons of Nazi gold down there and that there might also be clues to the whereabouts of the room.  Then comes the disappointment that the treasure hunters have given up the expedition because  they cannot agree on how to reach the treasure trove.  In the meantime still another discovery was made by the Amber Room Organization in the mountains about 30 miles from Weimar.  The German spokesman told the media that he knows where the Amber Room is hidden.  He  says that the room was brought to Weimar together with a treasure of the Hohenzollern and Prussian Crown Insignia.  It was then transported to the county of Saalfeld and hidden in an old underground mining chamber.  This group is looking for a production company that will subsidize the search and film what is discovered.  Somehow all of these  “discoveries” seem to involve the expense of proving them.  As of July 2010 none of these theories have proven true.  There have been no new verifiable leads  and new claims at this point bring a general skeptism about ever finding the Amber Room.  What is valid about all these searches is that the room’s hiding place is the biggest mystery of WWII.   Today the general opinion held by experts and investigators is that the Amber Room was destroyed when Konigsberg Castle was burned down, shortly  after it was surrendered to occupying Soviet forces.

Documents from the archives show that this was also the conclusion of the chief of the first formal mission sent by the Soviet government in 1945.  However some years later this same man recanted.  The general opinion about this change is that it was firmly requested by the Soviet government officials.  What is absolutely certain is that they did not want to be held responsible for the loss of the Amber Room.  So too, the German government would prefer not to think that this world’s greatest lost treasure is not due to dereliction on their part.  And what is more a German company has already donated 3.5 million dollars in retribution to the Russian government for its theft and destruction.  Why would the Russian government try to incriminate the Germans in the loss even when the preponderence of evidence indicated that they were at fault?  Those who have studied the situation intimate that the Soviets made the effort to obscure the fact that it was Soviet soldiers not only in order to blame the Germans but also to hide the facts even from other branches of the Soviet government.  It was a useful Cold War propaganda tool and it  may also have been a way to evade criticism for the destruction for not having provided the safe removal of the room at the start of the war.  The Russian government states that “the destruction of the Amber Room during the Second World War is fault of the people who started the war.”  In all honesty there seems to have been enough blame to easily go around.

So what did we think of the Amber Room that we saw three years ago?  The Russians have replaced countless pieces of furniture, floors, fabrics in the palaces of Russia.  Whole factories have been devoted to replicating destroyed palaces, museums, and homes.  We have seen photographs of many of the Russian antiquities and the destruction visited on palaces and churches by the Nazi hordes who held St. Petersburg captive for over 900 days in the war. One of the major projects has been the Amber Room restoration.  It is true that not a single piece of original amber is in place at the Catherine Palace.  Reconstruction began in l979 and was based on black and white photographs of the original Amber Room.  The new room was finally dedicated in 2003 by Vladimir Putin to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the founding of St. Petersburg.  If any of the original amber actually was buried underground it has most certainly crumbled into dust. The designs have been copied to perfection and we literally gasped at the splendor of the room.  They have done a fantastic job and I would be thrilled to go back tomorrow to see it again.  Perhaps this is the rationalization of a viewer not involved emotionally in a tragedy, but it was an experience I will never forget.




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