by Roland Binet (Braine-l’Alleud/Belgium)
Having recently spent a few days in Germany, and watching different television channels, I once more realized that that country still broadcasts regular programs on the Holocaust. Nearly each and every evening during my stay, I had the opportunity to see fragments of such programs, broadcast on less popular channels (“ZDF History” for example). And, it is true, it is one of the things that I admire most in modern Germany — the regular televising of documentaries on the Holocaust, never hiding the enormous responsibility of the Nazis in the destruction of the Jews.
I had the opportunity to see an interview of Rudolf Vrba. In Holocaust Studies circles, the name of Vrba is familiar as he was one of the rare detainees in Auschwitz-Birkenau who successfully escaped from that death camp, lived to tell his tale and write a book about it (I escaped from Auschwitz), a book that remains a classic.
Half a century ago, Vrba had been called to Germany as a witness for the prosecution in that famous trial of some SS murderers from Auschwitz-Birkenau, a trial that, this year, celebrates its 50th anniversary. That trial, twenty years after the end of the war meant for Europe, Israel and above all the Jews, that the German Federal Republic had not abandoned the hunt for murderers and SS guilty of crimes against humanity and genocide of the Jews. Because, we now know that, until that time, the identification, the search, the arrest and the trial of Nazi murderers and henchmen from the SS, military or paramilitary organizations, had not always been an actual priority in democratic Germany, rebuilt in the aftermath of the war to develop a flourishing economy, a task which had been tackled at such an energetic pace that already in the sixties Germany – that country vanquished in 1945 – had become one of the gigantic production and consumption machines in Europe and the world.
Perhaps, it had been the kidnapping in Argentina of Eichmann. See what Wiesenthal had to write about this matter, the book by Peter Man/Uri Dan entitled The Capture of Eichmann, and also, Hanna Arendt’s well-known opus on the subject Eichmann in Jerusalem. The wide coverage his 1961 trial in Jerusalem received shook up and awakened the German judicial authorities to renew the hunt for and put on trial other murderers, henchmen, executioners and their collaborators. Even today, there is an ongoing trial in Germany of a former SS who was employed as a cook in Auschwitz.
That trial in Germany fifty years ago was a mega-trial, one of the biggest after the war, entirely instructed, led and processed by the German judicial authorities.
In part of the program I saw, there had been an item where one could see the judges, the members of the jury, the accused, some witnesses. They had over a three-day period visited the death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau, and one of the places they went to was the Effektenkammer.[i]
After that, the documentary showed an interview taken at the beginning of the nineties and that extraordinary man, Vrba, said something that stunned me: “We do not know whether six million Jews were killed, more or less, but one thing is sure, every single Jew killed was robbed of his possessions.”
And, this is perhaps an aspect of the Holocaust that has received less wide coverage. There was huge despoliation of the Jews in Germany first, then later in all the countries that the Nazis occupied.
The plundering process of goods, possessions and real estate began of course in Germany even before Kristalnacht, then later in Austria after the Anschluss. First of all, all Jewish industrialists and owners of large companies — but also the bosses of shops and smaller businesses — were forced either to sell their company for next to nothing or to take a silent Aryan partner who, sooner or later, inherited the whole trade enterprise when the rightful owner had been chased away, emigrated or had been deported to one or another concentration or death camp. The “Aryans” also stole Jewish houses and apartments whose rightful owners were chased away or who received a business proposal they could not refuse: sell to an Aryan at a friendly price.
When a whole series of countries had been occupied, first in Western Europe, the Balkans, and Poland, and later in the countries that the USSR had illegally occupied (the Baltic States and parts of eastern Poland), then later in the republics of the USSR itself, there was a massive hunting down and immediate killing of whole Jewish populations and, in Western Europe, the deportation of the Jews to death camps for murder.
In virtually each and every case, the Jews left behind all their movable as well as their real estate possessions as they stood and existed at the time when they were chased away, killed on the spot or arrested for subsequent deportation and murder. Some Jews took with them smaller marketable possessions (jewels, gold, currencies, silver, etc), which were systematically robbed, sometimes even killed the owners for them. In Ophuls’s French Film Le Chagrin et la Pitié (“The Sorrow and the Pity”), there is a passage from a Nazi propaganda film (“Der Wochenschau”) showing pictures of abandoned cars and vehicles on the French roads during the mass exodus from the North. The commentary: “These were cars of Jews with trunks full of gold.”
Nevertheless, it was not only the German regime, the SS or the members of the Einsatzgruppen who availed themselves of these thefts.
Ella Izrailevna Medalye (born Gutman), one of the four survivors of the killings at Rumbula at the end of November and beginning of December 1941 (where 28,000 Jewish citizens of Latvia were butchered in two days), relates that in Riga, the very evening of the first day of the German occupation, a group of Latvian youths led by a neighbor she knew well came into their apartment, took what they liked and led away her husband, whom she never saw again.[ii]
In a book written by another of the four survivors of Rumbula,[iii] Frieda Michelson recounts how when she was transported to the execution site in the forest of Rumbula. Each and every Jew had to take off his or her clothes, put them in specific heaps per category, and give away all their last possessions, before being led in front of the pits and killed.
Let us not forget that in Auschwitz-Birkenau as well as in in all the other death camps, there were special units, the Sonderkommando, whose task was to forcefully search the mouths of the gassed Jews as well as other persons and take off their gold teeth. Gold objects that were stored in the “Kanada” barracks, then later sent to Berlin in the central storing facilities of the SS.
The SS was also a commercial enterprise receiving, storing and selling all the money, the currencies, the gold, the watches, jewels, price-worthy objects, clothes, and other items stolen from the Jews and all other detainees. The SS administration that employed slaves in the principal German factories around the death and other camps at that time (including: IG Farben Industrie, Siemens, Krupp) was paid a daily wage per slave, and we must understand that the net profit was considerable as the functioning costs of the detainees in camps such as Birkenau – for the soup, bread they received, some water – were not of such a nature as to put a great strain on their budget. Let us not forget also that at the time of the Nuremberg trials, the German Minister of the Industry, Speer, should have hung too because his widespread responsibility in Nazi crimes was undeniable. First of all, his Ministry was responsible for the employment of slave workers (slave detainees in camps and death camps, as well as the forced labor carried out in Germany and other occupied places by many millions of men and women from Eastern and Western Europe), and, secondly because he said at the trial that he knew nothing at that time about what happened in the death factories.
In the German mini-series Unsere Mütter, unsere Väter (“Our Mothers, Our Fathers”) that a German channel broadcast two years ago, this aspect of theft of the Jewish possessions was not hidden. One of the five main protagonists – a Jew – survives and returns to Berlin after the end of the war, to his parents’ apartment, to ascertain that “Aryan Germans” have taken possession of it and do not wish to restitute it to their rightful owners.
In Latvia, some Jewish victims or their heirs have claimed restitution for their real estate, stolen from them during the war when the victims were arrested and deported to camps or death camps. The figure of robbed real estate properties for which a claim was introduced in that country is rather low – 270 in all –, I think too low compared to the reality of the thefts. The Latvian government has studied this matter and the result: “Five objects, and five laws have been proposed, one per real estate property.”[iv] Proposed but never passed.
The Nazi state and the SS profited largely from the properties and possessions they robbed from the Jews they deported and/or killed. In too many cases, civilians from Western and Eastern Europe also profited from the real estate properties or possessions they acquired from Jews legally, semi-legally or in a totally illegal way.
The issue of the restitution of stolen goods, properties, real estate and possessions the Jewish families lost during the war, has never been looked at in a thorough and rational way. The focus has always been on the loss of lives, and rightfully so, and only rarely on the loss of properties.
In judicial matters the burden of proof naturally lies with the plaintiffs. And, we know that the actual circumstances of the arrest, killing, deportation to ghettos or death camps, of Jews, were such that there were virtually no witnesses at that time, no inventory lists of possessions or properties, and rarely any documents left.
So, the question one might ask would be: given the abnormal circumstances related to these systematic thefts of Jewish possessions and properties during the Holocaust in so many European countries, would it not have been more equitable that all countries where such thefts occurred pass new laws simplifying the matter of the burden of proof and hastening the process of restitution of the stolen goods, real estate, or possessions, or if impossible, financial compensation?
Without obfuscation, without a legal process rigged to take dozens of years.
[i] A vast storage place where the SS held all clothes, utensils and other objects robbed from the Jews as soon as they arrived in Auschwitz-Birkenau (or in other death camps); one can thus see – in the display windows at the Auschwitz Museum, dentures, orthopedic prostheses, hair, saucepans, luggage etc. That place was called “Kanada” by the Birkenau detainees.
[ii] Testimony written by David Silberman in a book originally written in Russian (И ТЫ ЭТО ВИДЕЛ – “And You Saw It?”), translated into French under the title La Fosse – La Ferme aux Poux et autres témoignages sur la Shoah (“The Pit – the Lice Factory and other testimony from the Shoah”), published in 2011 by the Beate Klarsfeld Foundation.
[iii] Я ПЕРЕЖИЛА РУМБУЛУ (“I Survived Rumbula”).
[iv] Cf. Latvian Jewish Courier from New York/USA March/April 2015 and my article “Restitution of Stolen Jewish Property in Latvia to Victims and Rightful Heirs” published 3 April 3, 2015 in Defending History.