This collection of documents deals with the confiscation of the personal savings and private property of Belorussian citizens. The volume presents a picture of the Nazi policy of despoiling the local population during the occupation of this area between 1941 and 1944. Though the title does not indicate this, the volume actually concerns valuables and property taken from Jews. The topic is a significant one that has begun to receive attention in Eastern Europe and well as in the West. Despite the fact that Holocaust survivors have often dealt with this topic in their memoirs, an anthology of such materials has not previously been produced.
The present collection contains material from a number of Belorussian archives.
The documents reveal how the Nazi system of confiscation of valuables from Jews in Belorussia operated. Most of the documents are here presented for the first time. They may be basically divided into four categories: (1) orders, decrees, instructions, and the like, issued by Nazi institutions that functioned in Belorussia; (2) denunciations, reports, letters, and other communications of the German officials and their local collaborators about the liquidation of the ghetto, the killing of its residents, and the confiscation of valuables; (3) excerpts from transcripts of conversations between the Belorussian headquarters of the partisan movement in Moscow and informants in Belorussia (including former ghetto prisoners) about the situation in the occupied territories in regard to Jews and their property; and (4) documents related to Nazi crimes. A large part of the book is composed of documents in the last category, which come from regional commissions of the Extraordinary State Commission (ESe) of the USSR.
Many documents reflect the activity of the Nazis in the Generalbezirk Weissruthenian (General Region of Belorussia), which between 1941 and 1944 covered approximately one-quarter of the territory of present-day Belarus.
The documents are arranged in chronological order and are published in their original languages, with translations into Russian and English. They are accompanied by a preface, commentary, and indexes of names and places.
For decades, public discussion of the fate of private property in the former Soviet Union was taboo for two reasons. First, in the USSR private property was considered to be far less important than public property. Second, the Soviet authorities did not want people to realize how low the standard of living was, as was obvious from the very small scale of private ownership.
Immediately after the German occupation of Belorussia, all property belonging to the Soviet state, trade unions, public organizations, and cooperatives, as well as ownerless property, was declared the property of the German state. The police and security services regularly reported the expropriations carried out by their operational units. In October 1941, the Nazi commander of the region, Heinrich Lohse, issued an order establishing an administration for registering and storing confiscated property.
In terms of private property, a strict distinction was drawn between the property of Jews and of non-Jews. Everything that belonged to Jews was immediately declared to be the property of the Reich. In contrast, local non-Jews were given until January 15, 1942, to report gold and other precious metals in their possession to the German credit office.
Interesting information is contained in a document (dated June 22, 1942) regarding the confiscation and distribution of Jewish movable property. Furniture, livestock and agricultural machinery were confiscated by the gendarmerie and inventoried. Furs and fur coats were sold to the Wehrmacht and to civilian institutions, and the proceeds deposited in a government account. Less valuable items were distributed to local Belorussian aid organizations. Old and run-down houses that had belonged to Jews were sold to the local population. All revenue from the sale of Jewish property and all deductions from wages paid to Jews were transferred to the commissanats.
According to Wilhelm Janetzke, the German commissar of Minsk, in July 1942, after a four-day pogrom in the ghetto, in which 8,000 Jews were murdered, several thousand gold and silver items, over 600 watches, thousands of suits, etc., were collected and brought to the foyer of the Belorussian Theater of Opera and Ballet, where part of it was distributed to German officials and part sent back to Germany.
Monthly accounts pedantically reported the Nazi profit from confiscated property of murdered Jews in various locations. For example, the commissar of the Glubokoe region reported the amount of 358,032 Reichsmarks (for September 1942); Sopotskino, Kopteevka, Ezery, Zhidomlia and Gozha-4,874 (April 1942) and Vertelishki and Bershty-808 (May 1943).
It was not always possible to confiscate Jewish property. Like other people, the Jews did not surrender their money, gold, or furs willingly. Less cash than expected was collected. In order to extort gold from the Jews, tributes were imposed in the ghetto; 70% of such taxes were collected. From May through October 1943, a total of 333,639 Reichsmarks worth of previous metals, precious stones, and foreign currency were collected.
In the preface, the compilers note that documentation shows that the Nazis persecuted non-Jews who agreed to take care of valuables of Jewish acquaintances, friends, and neighbors. Unfortunately, the compilers of this work slight the issue of non-Jews looting Jewish property.
In most cases, Jewish property and valuables, including gold, came into the possession of Belorussians and Russians not for safekeeping, but as payment for hiding Jews and buying food or simply by looting or appropriation after the Jews were killed.
The volume does contain some documentation regarding looting by non-Jews. In July 1942, for example, the commissar of the Glubokoe region reported that the local population was so eager for Jewish trash that he could not carry out the normal sale of simple objects with the forces at his disposal. The local police were thus compelled to guard moveable items that remained behind after most of the Jews had been murdered. Items unfit for sale were sent to Jewish women doing forced labor for cleaning and then for repairs so that they could be sold. Many others archival documents, not included in this volume, provide testimony about the looting of Jewish property by the local population.
Overall, the compilers' criteria of selection are not clear. The volume contains no material about the attitude of the German military and civilian administrations to the valuables and private property of non-Jews, i.e., Belorussians, Russians and Ukrainians, which were also subject to confiscation.
The compilers do not explain the contradiction between the first part of the book, where the vast majority of documents relate to Jewish property, and the long list of the Ese, where Jewish names constitute only a tiny percentage of the people from whom the Nazis confiscated property. One may assume that the compilers of this work did not have access to all relevant information, since some still remains classified.
While the Belorussian archivists who compiled Nazi Gold have provided us with some useful information, this is only a start. For some time the authorities in Belarus opposed the Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany on the grounds that compensation for Nazi confiscation of assets should be paid not only to Jews but to all those who were thus victimized. This position was reiterated by the delegation, headed by Adamushko (one of the compilers of this book), at the international conference in Washington (November 3-December 3, 1998) that discussed Nazi gold, bank accounts, works of art, communal property, and other looted assets.
Finally, the appearance of this volume is interesting in the context of the current problems relating to gold and money of Holocaust victims in Swiss banks and the possibility of compensation for property confiscated by the Nazis in Eastern Europe.
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