Mel Berger is usually found safely behind his desk in Midtown making book deals for the likes of Ray Romano, Erin Brokovich, and former New York Yankee star Paul O’Neill.
So it was out of character when the 53-year-old William Morris literary agent recently found himself on his hands and knees in a little-known forest on the French-German border, sifting dirt looking for buried World War II treasures.
But the high-powered New York agent says he was compelled to help his clients (Yaron Svoray, a self-styled Israeli adventurer and author Richard Hammer) search for 40 uncut diamonds hidden almost half a century ago in a foxhole by two American soldiers.
The so-called cursed "Life Diamonds" were believed to be confiscated from Jews forced into Nazi death camps, then stolen by SS officers: until the two GI’s liberated them from dead Nazis and hid them for a future retrieval that never happened.
The fantastic story of their recovery is the subject of a new book and a History Channel documentary to be aired next month, both called "Blood from a Stone: The Quest for the Life Diamonds."
Berger, who had never been to Germany before, said joining the diamond hunt was one of the highlights of his career. "It was an exciting opportunity for somebody who makes phone calls and does lunch for a living," said Berger, who is a congregant at B’nai Jeshurun on the Upper West Side.
The book traces the history of the large uncut diamonds, purchased by European Jews in the 1930s to be used in an emergency to bribe Nazis in exchange for freedom.
Svoray, a former Israeli policeman, heard about the diamonds from the surviving American soldier, and has spent nearly 15 years looking for them.
Using the ethically questionable ploy of pretending to be a journalist filming a documentary, he combed the hills of Alsace without raising too many questions from locals.
He assembled a covert search party last year, including Hammer and Berger, for a last ditch attempt at finding the loot. By this time Svoray had apparently decided that the diamonds should be used for charity.
The story of their re-discovery is fantastic, but what happens next is even harder to believe: After being found, the 40 diamonds were allegedly passed through a series of mysterious contacts to benefit "international children’s charities."
But Berger says neither he nor the other seven men on the search team knows for sure which charities, or the real value of the diamonds. After being spirited from Germany to Canada, "the diamonds passed to an emissary of a rabbi who made all the arrangements," Berger says. "I don’t know who the rabbi is."
"We do not know with absolute certainty what was expected and supposed to happen actually happened. None of us ever took anything for personal gain and the assumption has always been that the rest of the path, everybody acted the same way," Berger maintained.
In fact, Berger says it is "mystical" that Svoray’s search for the diamonds was fruitless until he decided the diamonds should be used for charity.
For Berger the experience was profound.
"I was able for the first time in my own life to touch the Holocaust. I was also able to sit inside a foxhole where American soldiers fought and died."