Sunday, February 24, 2019

The Hidden History of Holocaust Money

No, not the Swiss loot, this is a story of scrip, create-a-coin, if you will.

From Topic Magazine:

The Third Reich confiscated the money of Jews under their control and replaced it with currencies meant to manipulate the population—and eliminate any means of escape.
In September of 1942, an Austrian Jewish doctor named Viktor Frankl was deported, along with his wife and parents, to the Nazi-controlled Theresienstadt ghetto in what is now the Czech Republic. Two years later, after he and his wife were processed at Auschwitz, Frankl was sent alone to the notoriously deadly Kaufering concentration camp in southern Germany, part of the larger Dachau complex. In his 1946 memoir, Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl reflects on a particular pecuniary feature of the camp, where he and others were subjected to forced physical labor, including the digging of trenches and tunnels:

“At one time, my job was to dig a tunnel, without help, for a water main under a road,” he writes. “This feat did not go unrewarded; just before Christmas 1944, I was presented with a gift of so-called ‘premium coupons.’ These were issued by the construction firm to which we were practically sold as slaves: the firm paid the camp authorities a fixed price per day, per prisoner. The coupons cost the firm fifty pfennigs each and could be exchanged for six cigarettes, often weeks later, although they sometimes lost their validity.”

In his 1947 memoir, Survival in Auschwitz, Italian Jewish chemist Primo Levi makes a similar reference to what he calls “prize-coupons,” which he and other prisoners would exchange for cheap tobacco or bread. Levi describes how the coupons, distributed by Nazi camp officials, “circulate on the market in the form of money, and their value changes in strict obedience to the laws of classical economics.” Levi goes on to relate how the value of these coupons would fluctuate at random, and how some days “the prize-coupon was worth one ration of bread, then one and a quarter, even one and a third; one day it was quoted at one and a half ration.”

The very existence of Holocaust currencies—from the notes printed by Nazi authorities and distributed in Jewish ghettos to the “coupons” or “camp money” used by prisoners in concentration camps—has seldom been investigated in studies of the era. It is a history blotted out of the public conversation. In fact, for some seventy years after the defeat of the Third Reich, the specifics of Holocaust currency were known mostly to a small community of collectors, scholars, survivors, and curators at Holocaust museums such as those in Houston and Washington, DC, and at Yad Vashem in Israel. Then, in the spring of 2015, a collection of bills and coins found their way to the Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, having been donated by Robert Messing, a Clark alumnus and an amateur numismatist—one who studies coins and currencies. By making this material available to students, Messing and the Strassler Center have helped to ensure that future generations can continue to analyze this largely overlooked piece of world history.

After graduating from Clark with a BA in philosophy, and with MBAs from the City University of New York and New York University, Messing spent much of his fifty-year career in the computer automation industry. But it was during a trip to Israel in 1959 that he first became interested in numismatics. Messing has visited Israel over thirty times since his first visit, participating in archaeological digs and helping to uncover ancient mosaics, Roman glass, and monetary items like Jewish coins minted in the second century BCE by the Maccabees. His most surprising discovery, however, came at an American coin show in 2009.

“I’m walking up and down the aisles, saying hello to dealers I know,” Messing says. “And I look over at the notes on the tables, and I did a double take, because I saw a note that said ‘Koncentrationsläger Dachau,’ which meant ‘Concentration Camp Dachau.’ I’d never seen a note like this before. . . . So I went home and I started investigating, and I found out many of the Nazi concentration camps, and some of the ghettos, had their own money.”...