Search for the Life Diamonds
Donald H. Harrison
SAN DIEGO, Calif. —Yaron Svoray, a former Israeli secret agent who has a knack for uncovering hidden diamond treasures and secret cells of neo-nazis, appears to be a chubbier, modern-day, real-life version of Indiana Jones.
San Diegans Leslie and Shlomo Caspi, who helped finance one of Svoray's expeditions in search of 40 uncut diamonds, say Svoray's personality sometimes is like that of a "teddy bear" and at other times is more like that of a bulldozer.
It's all part of the mystique of Svoray, who will speak at noon Monday, Nov. 10, at the San Diego Jewish Book Fair. Svoray will promote the book he co-authored with Richard Hammer, Blood from a Stone: The Quest for the Life Diamonds. That story may be familiar to many people because it was the subject of a documentary that was shown over the History Channel.
Don't be surprised if, here and there during his talk, Svoray drops other hints about great treasures to be found. The Caspis say he has been promoting the idea of a search for buried nazi archives.
It's likely the Caspis will forego such an opportunity; they may have experienced enough high adventure to last them a lifetime when they joined Svoray in one of his unsucccessful expeditions to Germany's border with France in search of the 40 uncut diamonds.
The Caspis' involvement with the adventurer began in 1992, when he came to San Diego as a speaker on terrorism for Israel Bonds. After the speech, Shlomo went with Svoray to a restaurant. Shlomo had grown up near Haifa on the Israeli kibbutz of Yagur and Svoray was raised in Australia as the son of Israel's ambassador, so there was lots to talk about.
Svoray brought the conversation around to the subject of the diamonds. He told how in 1988 he had met Sam Nyer, an Army scout who had won many decorations during World War II.
Nyer had told Svoray that he and his co-scout, Tommy DeLion, at the end of World War II surprised and killed some nazi officers attempting to remove diamonds and French franc and German mark notes from a bank on the French side of the German border. The Caspis said the bank was in Strasbourg, but Svoray's book obscures this fact.
Svoray told the Caspis that the diamonds probably had been sewn into the clothes of Jews who had perished in the Holocaust. Valuables were routinely removed from clothing after the Jews were murdered at the concentration camps. These 40 diamonds had been spirited away to a vault in the small bank in France in order to provide "rainy day" money for nazi officials to make
new lives for themselves after the war.
The French and German notes were worthless to the two scouts in a wartime situation, so Nyer and DeLion gave them to other American soldiers to use for toilet paper. Soft paper was well-appreciated by the American troops under such conditions. The scouts secreted the diamonds, however, upon their bodies until they decided carrying them slowed them down and thus were a threat to their lives. They decided to to bury the diamonds in a foxhole.
Nyer memorized every detail of the foxhole, because he and DeLion spent considerable time there between December of 1944 and February of 1945 as Americans prepared for their final push from France into nazi Germany's heartland. If one looked straight ahead at a church, he remembered, off to the right side at the 2 o'clock position would be a lake, and off to the
left at the 9 o'clock position was a burned out farm.
Later, Nyer was severely wounded, ending his career as an Army scout. DeLion was killed in a subsequent battle. Years later, Nyer returned to the area, in the hope of quickly locating the diamonds and becoming a rich man. He barely had struck the ground with a shovel when he suffered a massive heart attack.
During Nyer's convalescence, his wife made one thing clear to him: As far as she was concerned the diamonds were "cursed." The Jews who had carried them were murdered, the nazis who stole them were killed and one of the Americans who found them was killed, while Nyer himself had been wounded and later had suffered a heart attack looking for them.
Nyer was never to return to the French-German border, but that didn't stop him from talking about the diamonds to nearly everyone he met in his hometown of Bangor, Maine. Many people shrugged off the story as either crazy or hopeless, but not Svoray, who gave a speech there.
Svoray checked out Nyer's record as an Army scout and decided Nyer was telling the truth. Thereafter, Svoray tried unsuccessfully to find the diamonds on his own, later realizing a successful expedition would require far more capital than he had. He began looking for financial backers.
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The Caspis won't say exactly how much money they put into the expedition, but they said it was "thousands of dollars." Leslie said that an investment they previously made had paid off, and that she and Shlomo decided to divide the proceeds for pet projects. While she was somewhat skeptical about the possibility of finding the diamonds, Leslie said she was thrilled to see how
much Shlomo relished the idea of an adventure.
One month after meeting Svoray, the Caspis made out their wills, then flew to Paris, took a train to Metz and rented two cars to drive to the village of Sarreguemines on the French-German border. They also hired four Yugoslav workmen to dig for them, and practiced a cover story that Shlomo said he devised after hearing Nyer's tale.
While Nyer and DeLion scouted in the Alsace-Lorraine provinces of Eastern France, waiting for orders to cross the border into Germany, a 12-man platoon led by a Sgt. Wolfe suddenly disappeared. Nyer said he was certain that the men deserted because they had asked him to come with them as a scout— an invitation that he brusquely turned down.
Rather than tell locals that they were looking for diamonds, which might lead to others looking for the same treasure, Caspi suggested that they say they were searching for hidden diaries that might shed light on what happened to the missing platoon.
When they reached the area believed by Svoray to be the one where Nyer and DeLion had holed up, Leslie's skepticism deepened. There were many forests with many hills, and all of them seemed to afford views of a lake, a chuch and a burned- out field. "I thought we are never going to find it," she said.
With potentially many millions of dollars at stake, their adrenalin levels were high. As a precaution, they decided never to sleep in the same hotel more than once during their five-day stay. They furtively discussed how they would remove the diamonds from the French-German border area. Their plan involved having members of the expedition drive in three directions, with
Svoray driving without the diamonds to Metz. If anyone were to be followed, they figured, it would be Svoray. Meanwhile, Caspi, with the diamonds, would head over a dirt road across the German border and then drive to Switzerland, where he planned to deposit them in a secret account.
Trying to figure out exactly where to dig presented a challenge. There were numerous hills overlooking the forest, and these hills each had numerous foxholes. Shlomo said that, since 1945, layers and layers of branches, grasses and animal droppings had filled up the foxholes with thick layers of compost. Looking at a hill from a distance, one would not know exactly where
the foxholes had been, but walking over them, one would experience a slight sensation of sinking
When Nyer and DeLion were in their foxhole, it was winter. The trees were bare. Therefore the view that they had was different than the view that Svoray and the Caspis saw in summer 47 years later. Unfortunately for the adventurers, the trees were in full foliage, obscuring views. Svoray and the Caspis had to stand atop their vehicles to try to see a church and make
Additionally, said Shlomo, there had been some man-made changes to the landscape over nearly five decades. Farmers had shaved the hills to provide more flat land for their crops.
"It was like searching for a needle in a haystack," Leslie said. In past visits to the area, Svoray had aroused the suspicions of neighbors and even had been shot at. For the Caspis, trying to secretly unearth diamonds under such circumstances was a heart-pounding experience.
And then they had a near run-in with neo-nazis in an underground pub across the border in Germany.
As part of their cover story, the Caspis and Svoray met with a German historian who was familiar with the movements of the Wehrmacht in its unsuccessful efforts at the end of the war to throw back the American attack. They plied him with questions about what could have happened to the
In the pub favored by neo-nazi skinheads, who identify themselves with an iron-fist symbol, the historian spread out pictures and other printed materials for his visitors. Of course, this attracted the attention of neo-nazis seated at the next table, one of whom sauntered over to get a
better look. He didn't talk to the Caspis and Svoray, whom he probably didn't recognize as Jews, but the whole experience made Leslie's flesh crawl.
The iron fist insignia could be seen on automobile bumper stickers and even tacked, mezuzah like, on the doorposts of some homes.
Svoray became intrigued by the neo-nazis and over the next few years devised a plan with the Simon Wiesenthal Center to infiltrate the group. After the expedition with the Caspis, Svoray returned to Germany posing as a right-winger who had been offered $1 million by a wealthy American extremist to set up groups in the United States modeled after the German neo-nazis.
Not only did the neo-nazis accept his story, they even let him film their meetings. He later turned over his information to German authorities, who, according to Caspi, declined to take any action against them.
The dig with the Caspis came to naught, as did their investment, but it was an adventure that the Caspis thought had been well worth the money. Other people dive from airplanes or climb mountains; the Caspis, under Svoray's guidance, looked for diamonds and peeked into an ugly German subculture.
In 1999, seven years after the Caspis' adventure, Svoray and other expedition members found the diamonds. According to his account, Svoray by that time had concluded that the diamonds did not belong to him, but were the property of the Jewish people as surrogates for the murdered Holocaust victims.
He said that he had a Canadian Jewish friend, Rick Kaufman, fly the diamonds from Germany to Toronto, from whence they were put into the hands of a lawyer and rabbi, both unidentified, who agreed to donate proceeds from the sale of the diamonds to the needy.
Supposedly, Svoray has no knowledge what became of the diamonds after that, but he is convinced they have gone to a good cause.
"Who knows?" respond Leslie and Shlomo Caspi, when asked if they think Svoray has revealed the whole story.
Maybe there will be some more answers at the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center on Nov. 10, when Svoray gives his account.