The Amber Room – Part Two

In 1755 Elizabeth ordered the panels of the Amber Room be moved to Tsarskoje Selo where she commissioned Italian-born Russian architect Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli to design a new Amber Room for the Catherine Palace. The Amber Room became Elizabeth’s meditation room, the third of the chambers along the Palace’s exquisite Golden Corridor, although the room was not finally completed until 1770. French writer Théophile Gautier described the Amber Room in his Voyage en Russie (1866) :

‘The room is rather large, with… walls wholly adorned with amber mosaic from top to bottom, including a frieze. The eye… is amazed and is blinded by the wealth and warmth of tints, representing all colours of the spectrum of yellow – from smoky topaz up to a light lemon.’

The Amber Room was restored and enlarged by Catherine the Great, who made it a meeting room for her intimate circle and later Alexander II (1818-1881) used the Room as a trophy room for his amber collection. Under Catherine the elaborate and entrancing room became the symbol of Imperial Russia, and the monarch herself, the possessor of absolute power and limitless wealth. But there were practical problems.

Reconstruction of the Amber Room

Due to the the heat given off by the 565 candles which were lit to illuminate the exquisite room the fragile wax binding used in its construction expanded and loosened over time. Consequently a caretaker was employed to maintain and repair the panels, and major restoration had to be carried out periodically during the 19th century. Nevertheless, for almost 200 years the Amber Room continued to be displayed in the Catherine Palace, and even in the mid 20th century remained one of the most famous rooms in Europe. But it was to be this fame which was to ultimately decide its fate.

On 22 June 1941 Adolf Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union, and one of the largest military operation in history in terms of both manpower and casualties. Over three million German troops and 3,400 tanks advanced into the Soviet Union in three groups, the north group heading for St. Petersburg (renamed Leningrad at the time) the centre forces for Moscow and the southern group into the Ukraine.

Knowing what lay in store as the Nazis advanced on St. Petersburg the curators at the Catherine Palace, which had been converted by Stalin into a state museum, made a desperate attempt to pack up as many valuable artifacts as possible and get them out of reach of the invaders. The Amber Room, however, proved more of a problem. When the officials responsible for removing the art treasures attempted to dismantle and remove the room the fragile amber started to crumble in their hands. The amber had dried out and become brittle over the years, so was almost impossible to move without destroying it.

With no time to ponder alternatives curator Anatoly Mikhailovich Kuchumov ordered that the amber panels be quickly covered in ordinary wallpaper in the hope that the German forces would not notice.

But when the Nazis arrived in Tsarskoye Selo in October 1941 armed with information given to them by their special team of art advisers known as the Reichsleiter Rosenberg Taskforce (named after Nazi intellectual Alfred Ernst Rosenberg) they knew exactly what they were looking for and where to find it. Items of Germanic origin such as the Amber Room were at the head of the Nazi’s list prepared before the invasion of the Soviet Union had even began, and they were not going to leave without it.

Within 36 hours the Amber Room was located, disassembled and packed into 27 crates, and on the 27th October Rittmeister Graf Solms-Laubach sent the cargo by train to Königsberg castle, on the Baltic Sea in East Prussia, the area from which it had originally come two centuries earlier. The issue of the newspaper Königsberger Allgemeine Zeitung for November 13, 1941 reported details of a display of part of the “Bernsteinzimmer” (Amber Room) in Königsberg castle. The Amber Room subsequently became an immensely popular exhibition at the Castle museum, and fell under the care of the museum’s director Dr. Alfred Rohde, an amber connoisseur himself and the author of a treatise entitled “Amber, a German Material.”

But as WWII progressed it became apparent that the Amber Room was in some danger at Königsberg castle. The Soviet Air Force had been making bombing raids on Königsberg since 1941, and in the summer of 1944 the town came under heavy attack from RAF Bomber Command, which would eventually destroy most of the city’s historic quarters, including a large part of the castle.

As Soviet forces approached the city towards the end of 1944 Dr. Alfred Rohde ordered the Amber Room to be dismantled yet again and stored in boxes in a more secure part of the castle, the Knight’s Hall, in preparation for shipment to safety. One story goes that Erich Koch Gauleiter (party leader) of the Nazi Party in East Prussia, managed to pack the crates containing the amber panels into trucks and drove the treasure away to safety. Koch was later captured by the Allies and in 1965 when being questioned by Polish authorities apparently revealed that the Amber Room had been sealed inside a bunker on the outskirts of Königsberg, the location of which had been lost due to the destruction caused by bombing in the area.

Reconstruction of the Amber Room – detail

However, this is contradicted by Rohde, who stated that the boxes were still in the castle as late as April 5, 1945. The German military commander of Königsberg General Otto Lasch finally surrendered the town on April 9, 1945, and the Red Army took over. If this version of events is true, then surely there was no time to evacuate the boxes. After April, 1945, the Amber Room was never seen in public again, but what had happened to it?

Shortly after the capture of Königsberg The Council of People’s Commissars sent Professor Alexander Ivanovich Brusov of the State Historical Museum in Moscow to investigate the fate of the Amber Room.

When Brusov and his team entered the Knight’s Hall, all they found were the charred fragments of the once great treasure, which had apparently been completely destroyed by a devastating fire. He wrote in June, 1945 that his investigations had revealed that “the Amber Room was destroyed between 9 and 11 April 1945”, in other words during the final days of the Battle of Königsberg, which finished on April 9. Brusov also located a witness, Paul Feyerabend, manager of the Blood Court restaurant, located underneath the Knights’ Hall, and someone who had been in the castle when it was captured by the Red Army. Feyerabend stated that the crates containing the Amber Room had never been evacuated from the building but had perished in the flames that devastated the northern wing of the building.

 

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