The Legend of Nazi Spy Loot in the Catskills

(image: Otto Hillig (l) and Holger Hoiriis (r) in front of Bellanca monoplane, Berlin, 1931)

If we’ve learned anything recently, it’s that Nazis just can’t hold on to money. For example, there’s the story of the air battle of the Catskills.  Never heard of it?

Well, in World War II, as battles raged across Europe, Africa and Asia, after the shocking attack on Pearl Harbor for the most part America was spared.  We didn’t come out completely unscathed however; German U-boats operated off U.S. shores with a degree of success, including spectacular sinkings that could be seen from the Florida shore in Palm Beach County.

U-boats were also used to launch a series of unsuccessful raids by German saboteurs. Anyone who grew up in Florida in the decades since has heard tales of German spies coming ashore in the early 1940s, although official government archives recognize only a handful of documented incidents. Perhaps the most interesting, certainly the most exciting legend of all takes place above the Catskill Mountains of New York State and involves a daredevil pilot and a small fortune in Nazi funds.

Grossinger’s Catskill Resort

In the Catskill Mountains, near the town of Liberty, are the remains of Grossinger’s Resort, a sprawling vacation complex that closed in 1986. In 1942 Grossinger’s was one of the premiere resorts in the area. Only the golf course, called “Big G” by the locals, remains open today. But in 1942 that golf course was an airstrip that was used frequently by a local photographer and adventurer named Otto Hillig and his Danish pilot Holger Hoiriis. Otto, ironically a German immigrant, had a Bellanca monoplane at the airport that he and his pilot had used to cross the Atlantic by air in 1931, quite an accomplishment in that day.

Otto and the Nazi Spies

Accounts of exactly what happened that day vary, but as the legend goes, Otto and Holger were working on the Bellanca one night when they were approached by two men armed with revolvers. They forced Otto and Holger to fly them southeast toward Long Island. On the way the pair told Otto they were German saboteurs planning to blow up a railroad switching station. Apparently these spies also showed Otto a fortune in cash they were planning to use to buy the explosives they’d need for the job, making them the most conveniently talkative spies in the history of espionage.

In a maneuver that could have come straight out of a Humphrey Bogart movie, Holger flipped the plane on a signal from Otto, who then grabbed a gun they kept in the cabin and shot the spies. Returning to the airstrip Otto reported the incident to the FBI, which promptly and conveniently covered up the whole affair, swore the pair to secrecy and buried newspaper accounts of the incident. After that is where it gets strange.

In Otto’s account to the FBI he neglected to mention the money, which he kept for himself. No official account of the story or the money ever surfaced. Otto went back to building his own personal castle, which he’d started building in the 1930s.

Otto died in the fall of 1954 and left an unusual will. His assistant was to wait fifty years, dig up the Nazi cash and put it in a safe deposit box in a local bank. On the spot where the money had been buried the assistant was supposed to leave a gold coin engraved with the initials OH.  After that the assistant was to release an account of the whole affair to the newspaper, including clues to where the coin was buried. The lucky finder could then use the coin to claim the cash from the safe deposit box. Apparently the assistant followed through and Otto’s list of clues was published in the local newspaper in the 1990s, kicking off a mad treasure hunt.

Despite many people searching over the years the coin has never been found and no official accounting of the cash has ever been made. The bank where the cash allegedly resides has changed ownership three times and in New York safe deposit boxes are considered abandoned after three years. Is it even possible a stash of WWII-era bills remains hidden away in some undiscovered corner of the bank vault?

Whether the legend is true or not, who can say? It certainly is just as plausible as an eccentric castle-building German photographer who carries a gun in a plane and could accurately produce that weapon and put fire on two armed and highly trained Nazi operatives while upside down in an airframe. But if nothing else it makes a good story to tell your golf buddies this weekend.