Filmmakers reveal truth about hunt for stamps stolen from murdered Jews and hidden by German officer
A team of American documentary filmmakers are closing in on a valuable stamp collection stolen from Jews after being sent to their deaths in the Holocaust during World War II.
Five years ago, their search took them to a residential building in Legnica in Lower Silesia where they believe the cache is hidden in the basement.
However, after misleading residents as to their true intentions, they were asked to leave. Now, regretting this they are asking the people of the town for help.
The filmmakers believe the stamps were hidden at the end of the war by a major called Rudolph Wahlmann. As a passionate philatelist, he had been given the job of sifting through stamp collections that had been found by specialist commandos that searched the Warsaw and Łódź ghettos after their residents had been sent to the gas chambers of Treblinka, Kulmhof and Auschwitz-Birkenau.
His task was to find the most valuable stamps and send them to Berlin.
Instead, seeking to enrich himself, he snuck the best stamps under the ribbon of his hat. However, as the Red Army approached, he hid his loot in the basement of his home in Liegnitz. When the town became Legnica after the war, he was unable to recover the stamps.
Seventy years later, American scriptwriter and stamp collector Gary Gilbert heard about the treasure from an aged friend who gave him a faded photocopy of a map of Liegnitz and old photo of two young girls outside the building where the cache was supposed to be hidden.
Armed with these clues and only knowing that the officer’s initials were R.W. he set of for Poland and found the building exactly where the map placed it. Further searching put him in contact with the officer’s children and grandchildren, which helped him identify the officer as Rudolph Wahlmann.
This search led to the even more sinister discovery that the major’s brother was Adolf Wahlmann, a German war criminal who from 1942 to 1945 headed the Hadamar State Medical Center, where thousands of disabled and mentally ill people were murdered as part of the National Socialist euthanasia programme.
When Gilbert returned home to the states he resolved to return one day and find the stamps and return them to their owners.
“I thought if I found one owner and gave him one stamp, it would be worth my effort,” he said in Legnica on Thursday.
Gilbert got in touch with a couple of award-winning documentary filmmakers, Dan Sturman and Dylan Nelson, and the three of them decided to make a film about the search and, hopefully, the discovery of the stamps, called The Liegnitz Plot.
“We got involved in the project because we want to honour the millions of people who died in Europe during the Holocaust,” Sturman said.
The team travelled to Legnica in 2015 and started their search.
However, to get access to the basement of the building at ul. Tatarska1 they deceived the residents by telling them that they were shooting a romance movie.
The ruse soon came to light when residents noticed the film crew using geo physics radar equipment and shovels.
“We didn’t want to reveal the truth because we were afraid that it might end up like the Golden Train in Wałbrzych,” Sturman said referring to the intense media interest in the search for a train supposedly containing wartime stolen art and gold happening in the same year down the road in Wałbrzych.
“We did not want to attract crowds of treasure hunters […] There is always a risk that someone will start looking for it on their own and decide to find it on their own,” he added.
Despite these arguments, the residents asked the filmmakers to leave.
Protracted discussions took place but to no avail.
The American crew got the backing of the Auschwitz Museum and assured that they intended to return the found property to the owners or their heirs, and if that was not possible then they would give what they found to a local museum in Legnica.
None of these assurances placated the intransigent locals. They were even offered money but refused it and they did not let the film crew back into the building, saying that they felt cheated.
Now, the door to the building has been locked and monitoring cameras have been installed. Residents have stated that they do not intend to carry out the search on their own.
Even though the filmmakers have said that regret concealing the truth from the residents, the stalemate remains.
With limited options, Sturman put out an appeal on Thursday, saying: “We hope that publicising the story will help us to communicate with the residents and allow us to continue work on the film and the further search for the treasure.”
“We still hope that the residents of the building will understand the importance of finding hidden the items, that they will also appreciate what we have done so far and the story we want to tell.
“We believe that it is important not only for the residents of Tatarska 1 and Legnica, but also for Poland and the whole world. We ask you to join us and support us in getting the opportunity to continue our search."