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[Page 94]

Nazi Confiscation of Jewish Property in Belorussia

Leonid Smilovitsky

Galina Knat'ko, Vladimir Adamushko, and Natalia Redkozubova, compilers. Natsistskoe zoloto iz Belarusi, Dokumenty i materialy (Nazi gold from Belorussia: documents and materials), jointly issued by the State Committee of the Archive of the Belarus Republic, the National Archive of Belarus, and the Belorussian National Foundation for Mutual Understanding and Reconciliation. Minsk, 1998.413 pp.

This collection of documents deals with the confiscation of the personal savings and private property of Belorussian citizens.[1] 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.[2] The topic is a significant one that has begun to receive attention in Eastern Europe and well as in the West.[3] 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.[4]

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.[5]

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,[6] issued an order establishing an administration for registering and storing confiscated property.[7]

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.[8]

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;[9] 70% of such taxes were collected.[10] 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.[11] 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.[12]

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.[13]

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.[14] 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.

  1. This is the third volume in a series on the history of World War II, launched in 1995 by the Goskomitet po arkhivam (the State Committee of Archives), in Minsk. The first volume was Niametskafasbystski genatsyd na Belarusi, 1941-1944, Sbomik dakumentau (The German-fascist genocide in Belarus, 1941-1944, a collection of documents) (1995); the second, Belorusskie ostarbaitery, Sbomik dokumentov (Belorussian ostarbeitern, a collection of documents), 1-2 (1996-1997). Return

  2. Jewish topics have been dealt with before by the compilers and others who used Belorussian archives to illuminate Jewish life on the eve of and during the Holocaust; e.g.: “Jewish Refugees from Poland in Belorussia, 1939-1940,” documents introduced and edited by Emanuel Ioffe and Viacheslav Selemenev (head of the National Archive of Belarus), JEE 1(32) (1997), pp. 45-60; Galina Knat'ko, “'Prigovorennye k smerti,' k 50-i letiiu gibeli Minskogo getto” (“Sentenced to death,” in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the destruction of the Minsk ghetto), Narodnaia gazeta (Minsk), Oct. 19,21,22,26, 1993; idem, “Minskoe getto, iul' 1941Oktiabr' 1942” (The Minsk ghetto, July 1941-0ctober 1942), Staronki vaennai gistoryi Belarusi (Pages of the military history of Belarus), Vol. 2 (Minsk, 1998), pp. 171-190; V. Selemenev, “Dokumenty Belorusskogo gosudarstvennogo arkhiva 0 tragedii evreiskogo naseleniia v gody vtoroi mirovoi voiny” (Belarus State Archives documents relating to the tragedy of the Jewish population during the Second World War), Vestnik evreiskogo universiteta v Moskve, 2(9) (1995), pp. 128-134; idem, “Nespravedlivost' lomaet sud'by, no ne unichtozhaet pamiat'” (Injustice destroys fates but does not annihilate memory), Evrei Belarusi, Istoriia i kul'tura (The Jews of Belarus: history and culture), Vol. 2 (Minsk, 1998), pp. 147-162. Return

  3. See Gregg Bradsher and Stuart E. Eizenstat, compilers, U.S. and Allied Efforts to Recover and Restore Gold and Other Assets Stolen or Hidden by Germany During World War II: Finding Aid to Records at the National Archives at College Park (Washington, D.C., 1997); Marilyn Henry, The Restitution of Jewish Property in Central and Eastern Europe (New York, 1997). At an international conference in London, in 1997, which was devoted to the fate of Jewish property seized by the Nazis, experts estimated the value at $2.2 billion. The concluding documents of the conference, in which 42 countries and 11 international organizations took part, contained a list of 15 European countries that were considered to have the right to claim restitution of Jewish assets. Return

  4. These include the National Archive of the Republic of Belarus, the archive of the Committee of State Security of Belarus, the archives of Brest, Vitebsk, Grodno, Mogilev, and Minsk Provinces, and the city archives of Baranovichi and Bobruisk. Return

  5. Prestupleniia nemetsko-fashistskikh okkupantov v Belorussii, 1941--1944, Sbomik dokumentov (Crimes of the German fascist occupiers in Belorussia, 1941-1944, Collection of documents) (Minsk, 1963), pp. 347-349. According to Soviet estimates, the direct losses resulting from the invasion and occupation of the Belorussian 55R from looting, confiscation, and the destruction of property amounted to 75 billion rubles ($15 billion) in 1941 term. Almost one-third of this amount was due to the loss of property, including real estate, owned by individuals. It has not been possible to gauge the extent of personal savings lost during the war. Return

  6. Heinrich Lohse (1896-1964) fought in World War I from 1915 until 1916, when he was wounded. In 1921 he joined the Nazi Party. In 1925 he became gauleiter of the Nazi party in Schleswig-Holstein and in March 1933, ober-prezident of Schleswig-Holstein and obergruppenfiihrer of the 55. From November 1941 Lohse was Reichskomissar of Ostland and commissar of the Baltic area. He was sentenced to ten years imprisonment in 1949 but was released in 1951. Return

  7. Only people who had special permission were allowed to engage in financial operations involving currency and previous metals. Return

  8. Violators of these currency regulations faced imprisonment, confiscation of valuables, a fine, or, in some cases, a death sentence. Return

  9. A certain Boris Khaimovich recalled that, in September 1941, the Jews of Minsk were ordered to hand over 11 kilograms of gold and one million rubles. The Nazis employed the carrot-and-stick method: on the one hand, hostages were taken; on the other, ten tons of potatoes were promised if the “tax” was paid (Narodnaia gazeta, Oct. 26-28, 1996). Return

  10. A total of 169,909 Reichsmarks was reported to have been collected by General Commissar Wilhelm Kube in Minsk. Thus sum did not include gold and silver coins and objects. Return

  11. For example, the volume contains a copy of an order that requires all local residents to report any Jewish property they are holding and to hand it over to the authorities or face punishment. Return

  12. A. Rubin, “Stranitsy perezhitogo” (pages of the past), in Moi put' v Izrail' (My path to Israel) Gerusalem, 1977), pp. 83-93; D. Romanovskii, “Kholokost v Vostochnoi Belorussii i SeveroZapadnoi Rossii glazami neevreev” (The Holocaust in eastern Belorussia and northwestern Russia in the eyes of non-Jews), Vestnik evreiskogo universiteta v Moskve 2(9) (1995), pp. 93-103; idem, “Kholokost glazami evreev-ego zhertv: na primere V ostochnoi Belorussii i Severo-Zapadnoi Rossii” (The Holocaust in the eyes of Jews, its victims: the case of eastern Belorussia and northwestern Russia), ibid., 1(17) (1998), pp. 84-119; idem, “Otnosheniia mezhdu evreiami i neevreiami na okkupirovannykh sovetskikh territoriiakh glazami evreev: na primere SeveroVostochnoi Belorussi i Zapadnoi Rossii” (Relations between Jews and non-Jews in the occupied Soviet territories in the eyes of Jews: the case of northeastern Belorussia and western Russia), ibid., 2(18) (1998), pp. 89-122. Return

  13. For example, Natsional'nyi Arkhiv Respubliki Belarus' (The National Archive of the Belarus Republic; hereafter NARB),f 845, op. 1, d. 64, p. 35; G. Knat'ko, “Prosim vydat' nam odezhdu iz ostavshikhsia ot zhidov veshchei” (please give us clothes from the things left from the Kikes), Evropeiskoe vremia 10 (November 1993), p. 9; Gosudarstvennyi Arkhiv Minskoi Oblasti (State Archive of Minsk Province),f 623, op. 2, d. 1, p. 155; NARB,f 907, op. 1, d. 11, pp. 161-165. Return

  14. Of the total 2,571 names on the Belorussian list, Jews accounted for 7.1% in Bobruisk oblast', 2.8% in Mogilev, 2.7% in Baranovichi, 2.4% in Brest, and 0.6% in Vitebsk. Return

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