MILFORD — Half a world away, Richard Mootz once discovered a treasure filled with gold and art that would intrigue the world for years to come.
Now a resident at Milford Place, formerly known as The Heritage, Mr. Mootz can relax knowing he was the catalyst that set in motion an operation to return the treasure, taken by the Nazis, to its rightful owners.
“It was about 70 years ago,” he began to tell the tale. “It was World War II. I was in the 90th division of the 3rd Army. I was at the German border with a job as an interpreter because I spoke German. It made a big difference in my life.”
Speaking German, a rarity in soldiers, helped in the famous discovery.
It came during an evening curfew after a full day of work, according to Mr. Mootz.
“I was staying in a place about a mile and a half away from where the barn was. There were four of us in a squad or civil patrol. We were trying to not have people on the streets, so we had a couple of hours to do what we needed to do,” he explained.
“Two women came over about a mile and a half from where I was staying. They were violating curfew. Instead of letting the women walk home, I took them home in the jeep. The GIs were yelling at them and the military traffic was confused.”
The women were French refugees originally from a place near where Mr. Mootz’s own mother lived in Obernai, France.
“So that helped us understand each other,” he added.
As the travelers went on their way, they passed a cave. Mr. Mootz was curious.
“I took them back over to their place. When they got out, they told me that a train came in in January. Every able-bodied person, even British prisoners, had to help them [Nazi troops] take out these old things. They were all sworn to secrecy. But these women opened up to me.”
Some of the items, mixed in with other treasures, could be found in the salt mine, they told Mr. Mootz. He went back to his unit to detail the encounter. But, since they were “off- duty” and playing poker, no one wanted to listen.
Mr. Mootz had to make the call to alert other military personnel himself.
“One little GI from Wilmington,” he said with a dream-like expression.
The treasure found inside Merkers Mine came to be known as a “Nazi collection” which American troops attempted to return to rightful owners after taking it to safety in Frankfurt immediately following the discovery.
“A whole crowd came over to collect the items to give back. The German military thought they’d win the war. And they’d have this stuff when it was over,” Mr. Mootz recalled. “It wasn’t many days before that actually became the Russian zone of occupancy. It would have just vanished with the Russians and their crazy ways.”
The discovery of the hidden treasure has been a topic of much discussion through documentaries, books and even the recent movie, “The Monument Men” featuring George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett, John Goodman and a host of other cast members.
Mr. Mootz was most recently visited last week by Britespark Films, a television documentary production company based in London, UK, working in conjunction with Saloon Media based out of Canada. Along with them was Robert Edsel, founder of the Monuments Men Foundation.
The companies are working together, supported by the Monuments Men Foundation, to produce eight one-hour documentary films about looting by the Nazis during World War II, according to Britespark Films Assistant Producer Matthew Lloyd in an email to Mr. Mootz.
In his letter, Mr. Lloyd writes, “The series will tell the history, but it will also explore efforts since 1945 to recover and return missing artwork, cultural objects and family objects to the rightful owners. The series will be broadcast all over the world and it is the largest production ever on this topic.”
It is not known yet when the documentaries will be made available.
Jennifer Antonik can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org