Ownerless treasure—that’s what Nazis called the jewelry, artwork, and coins they stole from Jewish people. They began plundering this “ownerless” treasure before World War II, and as the war progressed, they stored these valuable items in caves, mines, and castles across Europe.
Fifteen years ago, my husband and I visited the alpine lake district in Austria called the Salzkammergut where the Nazi Party intended to build their Fourth Reich. In the 1940s, Nazi officials brought crates of gold, millions in counterfeit and real money, artwork, jewels, and other treasure to store in this alpine fortress.
Near the end of the war, as Nazi officials fled south through Austria, they began hiding what they’d stolen. Some of it was distributed up into the mountains, hidden in abandoned castles or salt mines. Some of it was buried in gardens or on farmland. Some of it was tossed into the deep mountain lakes.
The Devil’s Dustbin—that’s what locals call this region where the Nazis abandoned so many of their things. After years of careful calculation, record-keeping, and storage, the Nazi officials dumped much of their stolen treasure across these Austrian Alps, planning to come back for it later.
During the research for my new novel, Hidden Among the Stars, I found an article from the 1950s that said the material loss of the Austrian Jewry—almost two hundred thousand people—was estimated at more than one billion dollars. Sadly, only about five thousand Jewish Austrians returned to reclaim their property after the war. And it wasn’t easy to find.
Some of this Nazi plunder was kept by people who found it on their property. Some of it left the country with officers and soldiers who thought looting was their victory reward. Jewelry, coins, artwork, silver teacups with saucers—an assortment of items were shipped back to the United States after the war.
During our trip to the Salzkammergut, Jon and I spent several days on a lake called Hallstatt, surrounded by a fortress of mountains. Because of the lake’s four-hundred-foot depth and the many hiding places in its underwater caves, forests, and shifting sands, divers continue finding World War II artifacts today, almost eighty years after the war. Some believe there’s still a treasure trove hidden far below the depth range of a scuba diver.
Along Lake Hallstatt’s shore is a medieval castle with rusty turrets, boarded windows, and an old boathouse resting in the water like a felled log. Intrigued, Jon and I boated across the lake to see Schloss Grub, and the match of inspiration ignited my mind as I wondered about its story. Who had lived here during the war? And had the Nazis hidden any of their stolen treasure on the estate?
I began writing in my journal that night, hoping that one day a novel would emerge from the ashes of this castle’s story. As the years passed—and access to online material grew—I was able to find out more about Schloss Grub. During World War II, I discovered, the estate was used as a Hitler Youth camp, but my imagination had to fill in many gaps about what happened there after Austria was annexed into Nazi Germany. And about what happened to the treasure—if the legend was true—that had been hidden in this region’s castles and lakes.
Set in a fictional castle, Hidden Among the Stars is a time-slip story about treasure lost along the shores of Lake Hallstatt. Some of my characters are searching for treasure stolen from the Jewish people; others are looking for Jewish heirlooms hidden by well-meaning Austrians who thought their neighbors would return after the war.
But more than just a treasure hunt, Hidden Among the Stars is a mystery about finding something even more valuable than heirlooms or artwork. I won’t tell you whether or not my characters find the treasure, but I can tell you that my protagonists find exactly what they need. And they learn that while they may lose their material possessions to the Nazis, may even lose their lives, they can never lose the legacy of a treasure stored deep in their hearts.
The year is 1938, and as Hitler’s troops sweep into Vienna, Austrian Max Dornbach promises to help his Jewish friends hide their most valuable possessions from the Nazis, smuggling them to his family’s summer estate near the picturesque village of Hallstatt. He enlists the help of Annika Knopf, his childhood friend and the caretaker’s daughter, who is eager to help the man she’s loved her entire life. But when Max also brings Luzia Weiss, a young Jewish woman, to hide at the castle, it complicates Annika’s feelings and puts their entire plan―even their very lives―in jeopardy. Especially when the Nazis come to scour the estate and find both Luzia and the treasure gone.
Eighty years later, Callie Randall is mostly content with her quiet life, running a bookstore with her sister and reaching out into the world through her blog. Then she finds a cryptic list in an old edition of Bambi that connects her to Annika’s story . . . and maybe to the long-buried story of a dear friend. As she digs into the past, Callie must risk venturing outside the safe world she’s built for a chance at answers, adventure, and maybe even new love.
Writing fiction is Melanie Dobson’s excuse to explore abandoned houses, travel to unique places, and spend hours reading old books and journals. The award-winning author of almost twenty books, Melanie enjoys stitching together both time-slip and historical novels including Hidden Among the Stars, Chateau of Secrets, and Catching the Wind. More information about Melanie’s journey is available at http://www.melaniedobson.com/.