When families fled from their homes during the Second World War, they were forced to make desperate decisions about what was truly valuable — and what got left behind. Rudi Schlattner was just 13 years old when his family fled Czechoslovakia after WWII, and he had not set foot in his childhood home since. Yet when he returned to the house 70 years later, he discovered something as poignant as it was amazing.
His first home
The man in question was 83-year-old Rudi Schlattner. He and his family had been living in Czechoslovakia during the Second World War and had only been forced to leave after the conflict had ended. Their exit had been a result of the Czech government’s policy to remove all Germans from its country — as well as confiscating their property.
The German expulsion
The expulsion of Germans from Czechoslovakia was essentially a backlash against the country’s occupation by the Nazis that had extended from as early as 1938 up until 1945. And during that time, a massive and intense hatred of ethnic Germans had built up among the Czech population. In some ways, then, Schlattner was one of the lucky ones.
A "lucky" escape
Thousands of people died during the mass expulsion from Czechoslovakia. Approximately 1.6 million individuals were uprooted to Allied-controlled West Germany. Another 800,000 were exiled to Soviet East Germany. As you can probably imagine, the luckier ones were those who were forced into American-occupied West Germany. And that included Schlattner and his family.
Schlattner later said, "We thought we would one day return and that [we] would find a property there." But, as we know, it was seven decades before Schlattner finally came back to his family home. To do this, he first got in touch with officials from his boyhood village, Libouch – in what is now the Czech Republic – and arranged to visit his old house.
A special return
But what would it be like to go back after so many years away? Well, for one thing, Schlattner’s home was now a kindergarten. Parts of the house had been refurbished, too. But the pensioner was looking for something in particular — a special treasure. And it would shock and amaze those who had accompanied him there.
An incredible find
Well, Schlattner was joined on his homecoming by representatives of the museum in Libouch — called the Ústí nad Labem City Museum — the local mayor, the kindergarten manager, and an archaeologist. There was a good reason for the turnout, too. And as Schlattner made his way around the attic, they were about to find out what it was.
Into the attic
After Schlattner got inside the house, he made his way to the attic. He began tapping the boards on the attic ceiling with a hammer, listening to the sound. The octogenarian then started searching for a length of thread that his father had told him about many years ago. And when he found it, he pulled it down — and, as if by magic, a couple of boards came loose.
Behind the loose wall paneling
It’s fair to say that the team was nervous. They wondered if maybe the secret had already been discovered by somebody else during the intervening years. But as Schlattner took hold of the string and pulled, a treasure trove of amazing historical artifacts was miraculously revealed to them. Museum employee Tomas Okurka was on hand to witness these incredible events — and he later reported them to the Czech newspaper Blesk.
An intricate system
"Mr. Schlattner... tried to find a string that was supposed to detach the boards, which was a system set up by his father," Okurka described. "He told his son that he would only have to pull the string in order to detach the boards and suddenly he found the string. And when he pulled it, two boards detached, and the shelter full of objects, untouched for 70 years, appeared.”
A mission finally completed
Before fleeing to West Germany, you see, Schlattner’s father had hidden certain objects in the roof of their home. The plan had been, of course, to one day go back and retrieve them. “My father built the villa in 1928 and 1929,” Schlattner told the Daily Mail. “He always thought that one day we would return and get it back.”
A skylight vault
"It took too long, and we thought that the shelter had perhaps been discovered," Okurka explained, "and the items removed during the roof reconstruction and we would not find anything. But suddenly he found the string." He continued, "The packages were very skilfully hidden in the vault of a skylight. It was incredible how many things fitted in such a small space. It took more than one hour until we put everything out."
A treasure trove
Among the packages hidden in a skylight vault were a set of skis, hats, and clothes hangers — but these were just the tip of the iceberg. Although simple and not worth a lot of money, the items were a fascinating glimpse into the past. Schlattner and co. took the packages to a museum in Usti nad Labem, a nearby city, where they set about unpacking them.
Among the things they discovered were paintings, cigarettes in their original packaging, and sewing kits. Everything was in remarkably good condition, too. That meant they could provide fascinating insights. "We were surprised that so many ordinary things were hidden there," Okurka said. "Thanks to the circumstances, these objects have a very high historical value."
Incredibly, some of the paintings were by acclaimed landscape painter Josef Stegl. Apparently, the artist had also lived in this very house during the Second World War. And while it had been 70 years since his father had stashed away the family’s belongings, Schlattner was delighted to find them. He and his family hadn’t given up hope.
A wrench in the works
However, Schlattner couldn’t actually claim back his long-lost possessions. That's because, when the Czech government expelled the Germans after World War II, it also confiscated their property. So the items in the attic technically belonged to the Czech government. And this rule still held — even 70 years after it had been created.
But apparently, Schlattner was okay with not being able to stake a claim on his family’s belongings. And despite his poor health, he promised the museum that he would help with the daunting task of identifying the huge number of objects discovered. The Daily Mail reported that as many as 70 packages had been recovered from the attic.
A rare find from a forgotten period in history
It’s worth pointing out just how incredible it is that after so many years any of these belongings were recovered at all. “Such a complete finding of objects hidden by German citizens after the war is very rare in this region,” explained museum manager Vaclav Houfek to the Daily Mail.
A reminder of how far we've come
And after seven decades of the items being hidden away in the roof, the rediscovery is an amazing glimpse into an era that’s slowly getting further away. For Schlattner it must have been incredibly emotional. For others, it’s a sobering reminder of how World War II affected so many lives in so many ways. The Ústí nad Labem City Museum is dedicated to shedding light on this complicated time in history.
A sobering exhibition
In 2015 the Ústí nad Labem City Museum held an exhibition called "Once Upon a Time in the Northwest." This was all about the dramatic and traumatic events of 1945 that marked a turning point for Ústí nad Labem. And as part of that story, the museum decided to showcase some of the findings from Schlattner's former home.
A public viewing
The unveiling of the exhibition revealed the contents of a few more of the packages. Some contained simple things such as stationery or cigarettes. In one particularly eye-catching box, there was an elaborate-looking board game. There were also an incredible amount of editions of the newspaper Die Zeit first published during World War II.
A letter weight proved to be a curious find. And there were two boxes that seemed to be full of badges, pendants, and other similar things. Upon closer inspection, though, it turned out that these badges were what people would have received for donating to Winterhilfswerk, or "Winter Relief of the German People," a contemporary charitable drive.
Everything and anything
A child's umbrella. A fruit bowl. There didn't seem to be any rhyme or reason to the things that had been kept hidden for so many years. The packages were certainly not kept out of sight because the items inside would be important to history. Instead, it seems that these valuables were secreted away so that the family could return to normality when they finally came back home.
A revealing interview
In August 2015 Rudi Schlattner gave an exclusive interview to Respekt, a Czech magazine. And the 83-year-old revealed that he had never stopped thinking about the items. "I never forgot [the stash,]" he said. "I carried it somewhere in the back of my head, but at the same time, I never spent time on the past and reminiscing. I didn't even tell anyone about her."
Schlatter also told the publication why he decided that had been the moment to relive the past. "I was the last person alive to know about the stash, and I felt it was my duty to reveal it before I died," he said. "I am very ill now. This was the last thing I wanted to do so that nothing in the world would be left open for me."
There was one item in particular that Schlattner had been eager to see again. "In the music room hung a painting of a landscape on the Saxon-North Bohemian border, which my father bought from our tenant, the painter Josef Stegl," Schlattner said. "I remembered how we cut it out of the frame, rolled it up, and carried it to the stash."
Of course, the 83-year-old was also able to provide more context to the discovery. "Father was a businessman. He exported zippers and had the greatest success with the export of quality buttons," he explained. He then added, "My mother used to send parcels full of buttons from the post office, mostly to Bombay. A box full of buttons of various shapes and sizes was also found in the hiding place in Libouchec."
A place in history
But his family had another role during the war. "Especially for [WWII's] last months, when around fifty refugees lived in our villa," Schlattner explained. "My father's task was to distribute to individual houses people who fled to us from the Russian front and from bombed cities. It was, to put it ironically, a very rewarding task."
A compassionate family
"Compassion was lacking," he went on. "Sometimes my father didn't want to impose himself anymore, and that's why he accommodated so many of them at our house. Women, children, old men; the others were at war. I remember my parents sleeping on the couch and a mother with four children living in their bedroom."
After the deportation, Schlattner's father was arrested and spent 11 months in prison. "He was a member of the NSV, a National Socialist charity affiliated with the Nazi Party," Schlattner said. "However, my parents were not members of the party, they were strictly Catholic, and such people, at least in our country, did not join the party. It was only charity, solidarity, which took care of the aforementioned refugees from the front."
More to discover
Schlattner is not the only person to uncover personal history in his attic, of course. One day back in August 2013, an Imgur member who went by the username of todirerl was “snooping around” his grandma’s ceramics room. Eventually, his investigations bore fruit when he happened upon a surprise discovery. Stashed inside a hidden time capsule, there lay some long-forgotten yet intriguing fragments of family history.
The room where it happened
The room where todirerl found the capsule was a haphazard jumble of boxes filled with sundries and knickknacks. The shelves were packed with vases, candlestick holders, and assorted statuettes, which had presumably been handcrafted by grandma herself. The area of particular intrigue, however, lay behind a nondescript cupboard in the corner.
An unremarkable cupboard with a remarkable secret
Surrounded by a sea of clutter, a cupboard stood worn and dirty, its doors streaked with white plaster. Stacked precariously on top of it, musty old boxes appeared to contain jigsaw puzzles and art supplies. Ostensibly, there was nothing interesting about this storage unit. It was, by all outward appearances, unremarkable.
Indeed, the interior of the cupboard was disappointingly dull, too. It was completely bare. Or, at least, it seemed to be. For, on closer inspection, it also appeared to contain a false floor. And underneath that, there was a gravel-covered hole. Outward appearances, it seems, can be deceptive after all!
Combination safe too intriguing to bypass
Brushing the gravel away to the side, todierl found a rusty old combination safe. And he was apparently so excited by this that he immediately announced his discovery on the public discussion website Reddit. Under a subreddit thread entitled “WhatsInThisThing,” he wrote, “My grandma… thinks the combination might be written down somewhere.”
A devastating setback
A short time later, however, he posted a disappointing update. He wrote, “My grandma has looked all over and she can’t find the combination. On the bright side… she’s given the go-ahead to open it with force. I can’t get over to her house today but I’m pretty confident I’ll be able to open it tomorrow evening.”
Getting to work
Meanwhile, todirerl’s dad decided to take the initiative. He took the old safe outside and set to work. First, he smoothed down the rusty edges with an electric grinder. Then, he prized open the lid with an old-fashioned chisel and hammer. No combination was necessary. And soon enough, he’d cracked it!
Cracking the safe
Of course, the safe wasn’t the sturdiest construction to begin with. Not only was its surface deeply corroded – so much so, as it happened, that it resembled a block of rust – but its lock was also completely ruined. Apparently, the combination dial was so old and delicate that it had broken apart.
What was inside
Todirerl then shared a photo of the unopened box on Imgur, accompanied by a one-line teaser that read, “What’s inside?” Of course, there was, by that point, fevered speculation about its contents. Commenters on Reddit had suggested it might contain everything from war mementos to Nazi gold to “Grandpa’s porn stash.”
However, there was also a fair chance that the safe might not contain anything remotely of interest to anyone. Indeed, the discovery of a rusty old divider seemed to hint that there was no treasure lying in wait. But then, todierl opened it up properly and found that it was stuffed with all sorts of things.
“Not empty!” todirerl proclaimed on Imgur. The box – which had belonged to todirerl’s late grandpa – was badly tarnished inside and out. But there was, in fact, an object safely preserved inside it. It appeared to be a mysterious black bundle, lightly dusted with flecks of orange rust.
“Looks like a sealed package,” wrote todirerl. But a sealed package containing what, exactly? Money? Trinkets? Family heirlooms? The possibilities were endless. And naturally, if todirerl’s grandpa had deemed the package important enough to lock up in a secret safe, there was a reasonable chance that it might contain something valuable.
On top of the bundle, there was a mysterious message. It said, “Abandon All Regret Ye Who Enter Here.” This was, in fact, an adaptation of a well-known line from Dante’s Divine Comedy that read, “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.” In the tale, this was infamously inscribed above the gateway to hell.
Taking a look
The rust-caked bundle within the safe was wrapped in a black cloth with an insignia signifying “double happiness” in Chinese calligraphy. The symbol is featured frequently in Chinese marriage ceremonies. And wedding gifts, too, are often adorned with the double happiness symbol, usually in red but sometimes in black.
That said, “double happiness” has also been used to decorate a staggering variety of everyday objects. And not all of them have been related to weddings. But in recent years, it’s been somewhat commercialized, too. Cigarettes, soy sauce and tableware have all featured the double happiness symbol as part of their branding.
Furthermore, the figure that framed the double happiness symbol – which resembled a stylized stork or a crane – was something of a mystery, too. In western cultures, storks are often associated with fertility – a logical pairing if the bundle was actually a wedding gift. But in Chinese culture, cranes are symbols of Confucian wisdom.
One final check
Having removed the mysterious bundle, todirerl gave the safe a final check. Aside from a few shards of rust, it was devoid of contents. And judging from its sorry condition, it was quite possible that no one had looked inside it for decades. Now, it was time to unwrap the bundle and see what – if anything – his grandpa had squirreled away.
Upon opening the bundle, todirerl discovered a collection of personal little treasures. There were, for instance, photographic plates, a mysterious suede pouch, a pen, a plastic box and a lamp. And frankly, none of it appeared to be particularly valuable at first glance. But it did nonetheless look rather intriguing.
Apparently, the first photographic plate was a portrait of todirerl’s great-great-grandma. If true, that could make the image around 150 years old. In fact, her ornamented dress in the pic did suggest the Victorian era. In any case, images such as this one did often serve as precious keepsakes – especially before the advent of modern photography.
A dapper gent
In another photo, this dapper gentleman appears to be todirerl’s great grandpa. Many commenters on Imgur seemed to be greatly impressed by his swagger. “Holy hell, great-grandpa was a classy man!” wrote one user going by the username of CoeusDarksoul. Another, named nerdextreme, added, “Your great grandfather is so classy it hurts.”
Inside a suede pouch, todirerl then discovered an object of potential value – a vintage Elgin pocket watch. This, quite possibly, might once have been owned by his stylish great-grandpa. Operating from 1864 to 1968, the Illinois-based Elgin National Watch Company was once the largest watch manufacturer in the world.
A hint to the past
Interestingly, an Imgur member called tevyethemad – who described himself as a “history major and First World War re-enactor” – had their own thoughts. They believed that the watch may have been wrapped in British Army barrel cloth. Such cloths were sometimes applied to gun stocks and barrels to protect hands and faces during cold weather.
Also inside the pouch was a bundle of stamps – always intriguing, whatever their monetary value. Spanning both time and distance, stamps offer historical and geographical snapshots, as well as illustrated glimpses of national and political narratives. And they’re often simply beautiful works of art in and of themselves.
This specific mysterious and colorful collection contained stamps from far-flung places such as Uzbekistan, Rwanda and the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. It even included stamps from countries and regimes that are no longer in existence. Examples of such places were the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia. Given all this, it was undoubtedly a cool find.
As to whether or not they were worth anything, though, it seemed unlikely – at least, that was the consensus in the comment sections. One Reddit user called CommercialPilot wrote, “Those stamps look fairly modern… I don’t see any that particularly stand out as being valuable… Now the gold pocket watch… that’s the bread and butter.”
Genie in the lamp
But that wasn’t all. This old lamp, for instance, looks suspiciously like something that might have appeared in Aladdin. But as todirerl conceded, “Unfortunately [it’s] not a genie’s lamp.” But we nonetheless hope that he gave it a little rub, just to make extra sure!
Hidden compartment finds
Elsewhere in the hidden compartment, todirerl came across a little plastic box. Upon doing so, he must have felt that the thing looked rather promising. Indeed, inside it contained a wealth of little shiny trinkets, including a collection of old coins. But were these as geographically diverse as the stamps?
Indeed, the coins were from all over the planet. There were some from Venezuela, while others were from Cuba, Jamaica, Pakistan, New Zealand and Southern Rhodesia. This latter region is now known as Zimbabwe. Also, the dates on the coins varied widely, with the earliest having entered circulation in the 1920s.
However, one Imgur user called IstealCommentsFromReddit was skeptical, having spotted a relatively late coin. This person wrote, “This safe is not too old. The coin from United Arab Emirates says that it is from the year 2007.” And their conclusion was quite harsh for todirerl. As they wrote, “Maybe this post is FAKE.”
Meddling with medals
These medals were perhaps the most interesting objects found in the stash. Awarded for service, medals connect the personal with the political, the struggles of individual heroes with the wider theater of war. Their histories are invariably entangled with potent memories and stories – tales connecting current generations with generations past.
World War I
One of these medals dated back from between 1914 and 1918. According to an Imgur member called kmikl, it was awarded to Commonwealth troops who served in the First World War. If so, it might confirm the theory that the pocket watch was wrapped in an old British Army barrel cloth.
Overall, then, todirerl’s find was amazing. While these objects may not have had great financial worth, thanks to their intimate association with deceased family members, their sentimental value was surely priceless. In some ways, they posed more questions than they answer. But that said, they did suggest that todierl’s predecessors were incredibly well-traveled.