As World War II was beginning, the Germans installed a puppet government in Athens. The new government had jurisdiction over both the German and Italian zones. The government in Greece had, as counselor to the military governor, an SS officer by the name of Dr. Max Merten. Merten was in charge of civilian affairs in the Salonika-Aegean area. It is in this area that most of the Greek Jews lived.
Dr. Merten made sort of a deal with the Jewish community in Thessaloniki, a city in northern Greece. He would keep them from the death camps in return for their gold, jewelry and other valuables. The Jews had no choice, so Merten assembled a substantial treasure. Estimates on the value of this treasure are up to 2.4 billion dollars.
After he had secured the belongings of the Jewish people, he had them sent off to the camps. His betrayal almost completely wiped out the Jewish community. Of the approximately 80,000 Jews in the area, it is estimated that only 5,000 survived.
Merten did not particularly want to share his booty. He assembled a treasure made up of gold coins, gold bars, diamonds, precious stones and religious artifacts. In 1943, he loaded the treasure onto a boat and had the ship scuttled in the Messinina Gulf, off the Peloponnese coast, between the towns of Pylos and Kalamata. The treasure is said to be under 262 feet of water in an area that the current Greek military uses for a testing ground.
Merten returned to Greece in 1957 and was recognized by one of the surviving Jews. He was tried and convicted of war crimes and sentenced to 25 years. After only serving 8 months, Prime Minister Kostantinos Karamanlis freed him in a general amnesty.†
Dr. Max Merten died in 1970, in Germany. He never returned to Greece.
In 1999, an anonymous man entered the offices of the Salonica Jewish community. He claims that he was Mertenís cellmate in 1958 and knows the location of the treasure. The officials there referred him to the leader of the Central Jewish Board of Greece, Moses Costantinis.
Mr. Costantinis was skeptical at first, but as the man continued providing information, he decided that there was some evidence that supported the story. The two made a deal, the anonymous man would finance, organize and execute the search; the treasure would be returned to the Jewish Community and he would get the film rights.
The search began and in August of 2000 the diving permits expired and the search was halted.
According to Greek law, the Greek Government will get 50% of the treasure, the Jewish community will get 25% and the person, or people that find the treasure will get 25%, which could equate to 600 million dollars.