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Mystery of the Amber Room resurfaces

A Russian veteran says he saw fragments of the legendary Amber Room in the closing days of World War II, reviving a decades-long debate over its fate.
Leonid Arinshtein, a Russian war veteran, recalls seeing what could have been fragments of the legendary Amber Room in the closing days of World War II.Alexander Zemlianichenko / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

A Russian veteran said Wednesday that he saw fragments of the legendary Amber Room in the closing days of World War II, suggesting one of the world’s greatest missing art treasures burned at a German castle after it was seized by the victorious Red Army.

Russian officials denied the allegations, saying the fate of the jewel-encrusted masterpiece carved in amber remains a mystery after Nazi troops looted it from a Russian imperial palace.

The assertions by Leonid Arinshtein, a literature expert with the nongovernmental Russian Culture Foundation, echo a recently published book that claims the fabled chamber vanished in a fire after the German city of Königsburg fell to the Soviets.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Arinshtein, 79, recalled seeing fragments of amber decoration in the Königsburg Castle but said he realized it was part of the lost treasure only years later.

“I probably was one of the last people who saw the Amber Room,” said Arinshtein, who was a Red Army lieutenant in charge of a rifle platoon when he knocked on the castle door in April 1945. “But I was a 19-year old boy, and I didn’t understand what I saw.”

Treasures kept in a basement?
Arinshtein described how he entered Koenigsburg Castle, accompanied by his sergeant, as battles raged on the streets. He said he noticed fragments of a wall panel and a mirror frame in amber on the walls of the Knight’s Hall and asked the castle’s custodian about them.

The man nervously told him the rest of the amber paneling was kept in cases in the basement and offered to show Arinshtein around, but the young Russian declined.

“It didn’t occur to me that it was the Amber Room,” Arinshtein said. “I thought it was just some ordinary amber decoration, and it left me indifferent.”

When Arinshtein tried to tour the castle a couple of days later, he couldn’t reach it: The entire city was engulfed in flames, and plumes of black smoke filled the skies.

Only years later, when he saw articles about the Amber Room hidden in Königsburg, did he make the connection between the fragments he saw and the missing treasure, Arinshtein said. Königsburg was annexed by the Soviets and renamed Kaliningrad.

Room epitomized Russia's losses
The elaborately carved chamber, made of nearly 1,000 pounds of amber, was a 1716 Prussian gift to St. Petersburg’s founder, Czar Peter the Great. Looted by the Nazis in 1941 from a former imperial palace, the Amber Room epitomized Russia’s losses in the war and inspired a series of treasure hunts.

** FILE ** German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Doris Schroeder Koepf and Lyudmila Putin , from left, admire the reconstructed Amber Room in the Catherine Palace in St. Petersburg, Russia, Saturday, May 31, 2003. The US$8 milion reconstruction of the famed treasure, which was looted by the Nazis and went missing during the World War II, was partly funded by the German gas company, Ruhrgas. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)Alexander Zemlianichenko / AP

An $8 million reconstruction of the chamber, partly funded by German gas giant Ruhrgas, was unveiled in St. Petersburg a year ago.

British investigative journalists Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark claim in their new book, “The Amber Room,” that the fire that destroyed the treasure was sparked by careless Red Army troops who looted Königsburg.

It says Soviet authorities knew the Amber Room vanished at the hands of its Red Army soldiers, but continued to claim it was missing as a convenient symbol of Nazi looting and destruction of Russia’s cultural treasures.

Russian officials hotly deny the book’s allegations.

“Such statements are aimed at rewriting history and discrediting Russia and the role played by its Red Army in World War II,” Mikhail Shvydkoi, the head of the government culture agency, was quoted as saying by Russian media.

Retired Gen. Valentin Varennikov, a World War II veteran who is now a lawmaker, denounced the book’s allegations as “invention.”

“It’s done by those who once again want to cast a shadow over the Soviet Union and its army,” Varennikov said in an interview Wednesday.

Search continues
Avenir Ovsyanov, an official in charge of the search for missing art with Kaliningrad’s regional administration, said that while some fragments of the Amber Room burned in the Koenigsburg Castle, its core had likely been taken away by the Nazis before the Red Army stormed the city.

He said the authorities are continuing to search for the Amber Room, the Itar-Tass news agency reported.

While saying the Amber Room was probably intact when Königsburg fell, Arinshtein angrily dismissed the book’s allegation that the Red Army had accidentally burned the castle.

He said the fires, which started on the city’s outskirts after massive bombing and street battles between Russian and German forces, quickly swept the city “like a forest fire.”

“The Red Army didn’t burn anything,” he said. “What soldiers would burn the city where they will have to stay?”