Showing posts with label Aryanization. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Aryanization. Show all posts

Jan 16, 2020

Secrets in the Tax Collector's Attic By Ian Traynor




In 2004, the journalist Ian Traynor covered a story about secret German archives that documented how the household possessions of Jewish families deported to their deaths were acquired by neighbors in local auctions.  Secrets in the Tax Collector's Attic was orginally published in Centropa Reports.


Germany


  
  

SECRETS IN THE TAX COLLECTOR'S ATTIC

  
  

NAMING GERMAN JEWS DEPORTED TO THEIR DEATHS; NO PROBLEM.NAMING NEIGHBORS WHO TOOK THEIR FURNITURE; NO WAY.


  
  By Ian Traynor

  
  This remarkable article, written by Centropa contributor Ian Traynor and published in a much shortened form in The Guardian Newspaper (Traynor is the Central Europe Bureau Chief), tells us much more than how two branches of a German Jewish family found each other decades after the Holocaust.

The story began when a young German, Wolfgang Dressen, decided to publish the names of Germans in Cologne who had, in 1941, purchased the family possessions of the Levi family shortly before they were deported to Lodz, and then on to Auschwitz.

Here follows a chilling tale of how every pillowcase and blanket were sold off to neighbors and acquaintances, and what happens when someone like Dressen tries to “out” the names of those who stood in line to buy them sixty years ago.



Cleveland, USA, December 1998:

Rabbi Iliezer Levi has stopped trying to keep up with the world by reading his local newspaper. It was Bill Clinton's fault. The rabbi got so fed up with the president's sordid Oval Office antics that he gave up reading the Cleveland Plains Dealer over a year ago. It was a difficult vow for a man of learning who, at the age of 82, takes pride in knowing what's going on in the wider world. One cold Sunday morning last December, however, he was tempted to break his vow. He yielded to the temptation, picked up the Plain Dealer. What he found as he flicked through the pages was, he is convinced, an act of God.



Cologne, Germany, October 1941:
At their city centre flat at 108 Roonstrasse, just along the street from Cologne's main synagogue, a German Jewish businessman, his wife, and daughter were preparing to flee the Nazis. Salli Levi, a Cologne grain dealer, his wife Frieda, and teenage daughter Alma had paid out to a local travel agent to book their passage on a Transatlantic liner to America. They hoped to rejoin relatives who escaped Nazi Germany four years earlier.
Just as the Nazis were intensifying the speed and the scale of the mass
murder of Europe's Jews, the Levi's secreted some of the family gold and
valuables inside the cushion of a baby chair belonging to friends who were
having a container full of furniture shipped to the USA. The Levis' gold was all that arrived in America. The family was rounded up by the Nazis, their flat seized, their belongings sequestered and then auctioned off to ordinary German citizens who eagerly snapped up the bargains. The Levi's then disappeared.











Bonn, Germany, January 1999:
The phones were ringing in my office in Bonn. ''My name is Michael Levi.'' The voice was excited, shaky, slightly suspicious. ''I'm calling from New York. Is that the Guardian newspaper? I'm looking for the guy who wrote an article about a certain Salli Levi? This is just unbelievable. He's my uncle. We never knew what happened to him. Can you tell us anything else?'' In 58 years, no one in the Levi family has heard a whisper about what happened to their relatives in Cologne. Suddenly Michael is talking to a disembodied voice three thousand miles away, asking an unknown newspaper reporter for help. All he knew was that some of his uncle's gold arrived in New York a long time ago. Now Salli Levi's nephews, Iliezer from Cleveland, Michael and Yehuda from New York, are hungry for more information. ''The last the family heard about Uncle Salli was in 1941. Friends told us they were waiting to emigrate to America,'' said Michael, a New York rabbi who runs a girls' school in the city. ''My Uncle Iliezer went berserk when
he saw that article. He was hyperventilating.'' The report which stunned Iliezer when he suspended his newspaper boycott concerned crates of German documents from the 1940s, said to be tax files, which had just been unearthed in Cologne. The Cleveland Plains Dealer reprinted the article from The Guardian. That's why the phones were ringing in Bonn. The documents have been lying abandoned in the attic of the Cologne tax offices for more than half a century. They are not tax returns at all, though they are still classified as such. The damp papers constitute the German bureaucracy's painstakingly maintained record of the expropriation, plunder, and deportation of Cologne's Jews in the 1940s. They include a complete 150-page dossier on the Levi family. The Guardian article focused on the fate of the Levi family in order to illustrate the overall content and significance of the files. The Levi papers are dry and matter-of-fact, all the more sinister for that. The clinical listing of the intimate details of the family's belongings makes the flesh creep. There is a seven-page property declaration that all three family members had to fill in in copious detail and then sign: ''Clothing - Alma Sara Levi: one winter coat, one raincoat, four dresses, three skirts, one suit, six underskirts, four bras, five nightshirts, 12 pairs of stockings, one umbrella, one large bag, one small bag, two pairs of gloves, six handkerchiefs . . .'' The household inventory runs to the last teaspoon. It was these details about his relatives that Rabbi Iliezer was shocked to find in his local paper in Cleveland. He instantly got on the phone to family in New York, England, and Israel.



Brooklyn, March 1999:
In her purple jumper, wig, and spectacles, 82-year-old Bertha Stern sat in the dining room of a Brooklyn bungalow and summoned up the memories of her youth in Germany and of her Uncle Salli Levi before the Second World War. The Cologne flat is now part of a peeling tenement inhabited by students across the street from an Italian-owned pizzeria. Bertha, whose maiden name is Levi, vividly remembers visiting her uncle, aunt, and cousin there in the 1930s when the area was Cologne's vibrant Jewish quarter. She grew up in Fulda, while the Levi's hailed from Neustadt, a nearby small town. The Levi's took over the Cologne flat from friends who emigrated to America, imagining they would be safer there in the biggest city on the Rhine. ''Uncle Salli thought no one would touch them because he was a war veteran,'' Bertha remembers. She handed over a dog-eared certificate from November 1935. ''On behalf of the Fuhrer and Reich Chancellor Adolf Hitler'', it reads, conferring the Cross of Honour on Salli Levi for his service as ''a Front Fighter'' as a German army sergeant in the First World War. Bertha then produced old photographs of Salli proudly sporting his German army uniform. ''He was so handsome,'' she giggled. ''As a young girl I was absolutely in love with him. He was the first guy in Neustadt to have a car and they were also the first to have a flushing toilet.''



Dusseldorf, Germany, February, 1999:
''Oh, it's just unbelievable,'' whispered an elderly German woman to her neighbour sitting in the lecture hall of a little museum in Dusseldorf. ''To hear and see this after all these years. And it's all 40 years too late.'' On the rostrum, Wolfgang Dressen, a local university sociologist, was trying to explain why the Levi family is so important to him. He has never met the rabbis in Brooklyn or Cleveland. But two years of battling local bureaucracy resulted in him locating a cache of thousands of documents from the 1940s which remain closed and secret in Germany. These are the files which provide a precise and bureaucratically perfect record of officially licensed and organised mass robbery. They include the letters, inventories, invoices, and bank correspondence detailing how Salli Levi and his family lost everything. But Dressen is in big trouble with the authorities because he was granted access to the files only on condition that he revealed no names. He boldly ignored that injunction. ''You can't prove anything here unless you name names,'' he told a rapt audience in the museum. ''You can't research the structures from the Nazi years without the names.'' And then, to prove his point about naming names, he related how the Levi family from Brooklyn has just found out what happened to their Cologne uncle 58 years ago as a result of a British newspaper publicising his findings. ''If these files remain anonymous, as the authorities want, then the Levi's can't find out what happened to their relatives. There are many more like them who still don't know what happened to their forebears under the Nazis and these files could help them find out at last.'' Dressen is a dogged, bloody-minded leftwinger who has been teaching sociology at Dusseldorf university since 1994. He had long suspected that the local tax offices in the Rhineland cities of Cologne and Dusseldorf still harboured crucial files from the 1940s detailing the routine workings of the Holocaust. At the beginning of 1997 he phoned the Dusseldorf tax office to ask about their archives. Nothing there, he was told. ''Then I phoned Cologne. They said they didn't have anything either.'' A bit later, an unknown woman from the Cologne tax authority tipped him off that there were indeed crates of documents from the 1940s. He made a written research application to study the files and ran into a brick wall of official obfuscation. There may be some files in the archives, he was told, but they are classified as tax files and under 1988 legislation by the parliament in Bonn, they are to remain closed for 80 years. He contacted a local Greens MP, Annelie Buntenbach, who agreed to help him in his fight with German officialdom. She wrote several letters to the Finance Ministry in Bonn and tabled written questions in parliament. ''The answers were very unsatisfactory,'' Buntenbach recalled. ''First of all, they said no one could be granted access to these files. Then they agreed to very restricted access provided the files were subject to anonymity. They want to keep the files anonymous because they're frightened of litigation and restitution claims. It's all very embarrassing.'' But suddenly, early last year, Dressen got a letter from the Cologne tax office inviting him to come and have a look at the secrets in the attic.
''I was told I could see the files. But I was told I had to be alone. I couldn't make copies. I had to keep every name in the documents anonymous and it was made clear that I wasn't allowed to reconstruct any of the cases from the files.
''I signed everything they put in front of me,'' he chuckled. ''I called them and told them I was coming. The woman told me to wear old clothes because the place was very dirty.''
Dressen embarked on his wanderings through the Kafkaesque maze of the old Cologne tax offices. He ended up in the attic.
''It was stuffed with old files. It was damp and dirty. Candles and boxes. I couldn't find any files relating to Dusseldorf. Then the woman showed me into another room in the attic. It was stuffed to bursting, 50-60,000 files. I got frightened. I thought I'd never be allowed back in. So I smuggled as much out as I could under my coat, copied them, and then smuggled them back in.''
It took Dressen months to study and digest what he had uncovered: tens of thousands of wartime documents which provided a chilling insight into how ordinary Germans in villages and small towns knowingly profited from the Holocaust by eagerly buying up the household chattels of their deported Jewish neighbours on the cheap.
''There are children and grandchildren in Germany today sitting at home with objects and furniture and they don't know where these things came from,'' said Michal Friedman, a prominent German Jew and television talk show host. ''Or maybe they do know.''
In painstaking detail, the files list the expropriation and plunder of the Cologne region's Jews in the 1940s. They include court records, bailiffs' orders, removal firms' invoices, auctioneers' listings, and the signed property declarations all Jews were required to submit before surrendering their goods and being sent to concentration camps.
''German thoroughness means every detail is recorded,'' said Dressen. In the 1940s, the Nazi regime put Germany's network of local and regional tax and finance authorities in charge of the mass robbery. The records and the paperwork were all lodged with those offices. They still are.
In the 1950s, the Bonn parliament slapped a 30-year closure order on the files. In 1988 it extended that for a further 80 years, employing the same bureaucratic definition of the papers applied by the Nazis - that these are tax files and thus subject to confidentiality. But they are not tax files. A bailiff's record from the small Rhineside town of Hennef, for example, shows that an auction of 287 items belonging to deported Jews yielded 3,492 marks for the Third Reich's treasury on September 7, 1942, with the goodies eagerly snapped up by the deportees' neighbours.
Five pillowslips went to Schumacher for four marks, one bucket to Beielschmidt for one mark, one sewing machine to Schmitz for 30 marks, and so on, in excruciating detail.
It is names like these that Dressen was not supposed to disclose. The embarrassment triggered by his whistleblowing has brought discreet pressure from Bonn on his local education authority to have him fired, or at least reprimanded and disciplined.
''Did Dressen really break the rules?'' asked Manfred Gerlach, amazed at the material found lurking in his archives. He is a senior official at the finance ministry in the state of North-Rhine Westfalia which includes Cologne and Dusseldorf. ''The priority here must be to help the victims and not to stick to the rules. We support Dressen and we won't bow to pressure to have him punished.''
Besides, Dressen is confident that his discovery will have a much wider impact since his inquiries have concentrated only on a tiny part of Germany. ''These are just the Cologne files. Such files are lodged with the local tax authorities all over Germany. They are locked away, though the files contents themselves have nothing to do with taxation.''
The cache graphically reveals how the Levi's of Cologne were robbed as a prelude to their deportation and murder. The 150-page dossier on the family opens in October 1941 with city officials serving Salli with a standard document confiscating his property since he is deemed to be ''an enemy of the Reich.''
A signed statement from a bailiff confirms Levi was given the expropriation order personally. The three family members then had to fill in and sign the seven-page property declaration cited above.
Two weeks later a Cologne Gestapo official confirmed in writing that he had searched the property, then the North Cologne tax office delivered a further report on an inspection of the flat, noting that it had already been given to 'an Aryan'.











There follow invoices from lawyers, Mr Levi's bank, his insurance company, and the Cologne travel agent with whom the Levi's had deposited 700 marks to cover the cost of organising the ship passage to the United States. ''We've been arranging the emigration of this Jewish family since March 1941 and the departure would have been in November or December, had they not been deported,'' the agent, Josef Hartmann, wrote to the head of the city tax office.
As late as 1944, an insurance broker contacted the tax authority, seeking reimbursement of the 100 marks he had lost in fees as a result of the Levis' disappearance. ''It is surely not in your interest that I should lose my cash to a Jew,'' the broker complained.
That was the year the Levi's were sent to their death at Auschwitz. Two years after receiving his military decoration in the name of Hitler, Salli Levi took his family to Cologne in 1937. Four years later, in October 1941, they were deported to the Lodz ghetto, to Room 5 at 81 Kelmstrasse, the waiting room for the death camps.
The ghetto address is disclosed by a letter in the files from a Kassel lawyer who wrote to Levi's bank in Cologne demanding payment of a bill for 63 marks. The lawyer, Helmut Niemann, complained that he had sent the invoice to the Levi's at the Lodz ghetto address but that the letter was returned with a German post office stamp stating that no mail was being delivered to that street.
The Levis' file is unusual in that it is entire and intact. But tens of thousands of names and fates of Nazi victims are recorded in the files. And so are the names of the ordinary German individuals and families, churches and associations which wittingly profited from the plunder.
Dressen has already been proved correct in his suspicion that the Cologne find was but the tip of an iceberg. In the state of Hessen, crates of similar records were found in Frankfurt and Wiesbaden this year. Uniquely in Germany, the state government ordered all tax offices to check their archives and turn over the wartime files for research purposes.
In Bavaria the financial authorities first denied all knowledge of such files. Then the head tax office in Nuremburg admitted there were such records, but they were inaccessible because of ''tax secrecy'', and, in any case, the sales of stolen Jewish property were put down to the chaos of the last days of the war.
But innumerable documents located by Dressen prove that the same officials who were organising the auctions of the stolen goods were often the same people in charge of local tax offices, courts, and other authorities after the war, with a vested interest in covering up what happened in their parishes.
In 1950, for example, the files show, two Jewish Holocaust survivors returned to their Rhineland hometown of Garzweiler and demanded their property back. The official who adjudicated their claim was the same man who organised the local auction of their belongings in 1942. The household goods, the tax inspector reported, ''were auctioned off legally since, in the absence of the owners, the correct ownership situation could not be established.''
''This is a topic which has been taboo for decades,'' said Gerlach of the North-Rhine Westfalia finance ministry. ''We didn't want to touch any of this because it shows how the financial authorities behaved in the 30s and 40s. Now we need to find out how much of this stuff still exists. I rather fear that lots of files were destroyed after the war by individuals and institutions who were implicated.''
The scale of the stealing and its meticulous planning and recording are breathtaking. The systematic plunder was dubbed Operation 3 by the Nazis. Then there was Operation M, which referred to the ransacking of Jewish property in Nazi-occupied western Europe and its transportation to Germany where it was sold off.
By 1944 72,000 flats in western Europe had been stripped and 29,436 railway wagons used to transport the loot to Germany.
Sometimes the chattels of a deported Jew would be sold off directly to neighbours in a block of flats. Or the goods would be taken to a warehouse, with local removal firms competing for the contracts, to be auctioned off there. The dates and locations for the auctions were advertised in the local press.
''The main thing is it was the neighbours and the locals who got involved,'' said Michal Friedman who is on the board of the German Jewish Community's Central Council. ''It again throws up the old question of ordinary Germans saying they neither wanted nor knew about Auschwitz. In taking part in these auctions you had to know that these people were not coming back.''
Thomas Kreuder agrees. A former senior official at the Hessen finance ministry in Wiesbaden, he has examined the files unearthed in his state and was shocked by what he found:
''There are official letters from one office to another with civil servants complaining about the extraordinary demand from the public to take part in the auctions. There are also internal documents where civil servants lay claim to some of the seized objects. In these records you can see the involvement of the broadest layers of the public in the expropriation.''
And while ordinary people enriched themselves on the losses of disappearing neighbours, the gargantuan warrant sale was wrapped in the veneer of legality so that the purchasers of stolen goods were confident they were behaving decently.
If the local taxmen, the judges, the courts, and the bailiffs were in charge of the sales and the auctions were being advertised in the local papers, then surely it was okay to pick up a bargain.
This fresh evidence of mass public involvement in the robbery of the Nazis' victims is deeply uncomfortable for Germany in 1999 and is provoking a hostile reaction. Since the files were uncovered in Hessen earlier this year, says Kreuder, only one letter has arrived from relatives of a Jewish victim inquiring about restitution. By contrast two out of three letters sent to the Hessen finance ministry have been ''crassly anti-Semitic and negative.''
The government insists on keeping the files anonymous in order, it says, to protect the victims and safeguard their identities. ''I can't understand that,'' says Friedmann. ''It's not about protecting the victims. It's protecting the perpetrators that's been made the priority.''
In the Cologne area alone, for example, a city orphanage snapped up bedding and children's clothing from a Jewish orphanage which was closed down. Hospitals run by the Roman Catholic and Lutheran churches acquired bedding and furniture from a Jewish hospital. The university of Bonn's law faculty gratefully bought up book collections which were going for a song.
Keeping the files anonymous protects the identities of these beneficiaries as well as those of countless ordinary German families.
But the new evidence of broad public profiteering from war crimes and complicity in the Holocaust also feeds into a debate currently raging about the war in Germany.
Daniel Goldhagen's 1996 book, Hitler's Willing Executioners, with its controversial thesis that the Holocaust was powered by endemic ''eliminationist'' anti-Semitism permeating every corner of German society, sparked a furor in Germany and was a bestseller.
His contention that ''ordinary Germans'' were utterly complicit in the Nazis' crimes coincided with a torrent of new evidence, historical research, and court cases, all of which detail how Germans were much more broadly culpable than has been hitherto accepted.
A traveling exhibition on the Wehrmacht, exploding the long-cherished myth that the German army's hands were clean and that the atrocities were the fault of the Nazi party, the SS, and the Gestapo, has just ended a four-year itinerary, seen by 850,000 people in 32 towns and cities. The exhibition triggered an anguished national debate and reappraisal of the role of the World War Two German military, as well as furious marches and violence from neo-Nazi protesters.
At the same time, the current rash of litigation for damages from Holocaust survivors and former slave labourers against the biggest names in German industry is also extending definitions of complicity and accountability after decades in which the German government insisted only it could be held accountable for the crimes of the Nazis. The state has shelled out more than 100 billion marks in reparations since the 1950s.
But now the likes of Daimler, Siemens, Deutsche Bank, Volkswagen, and Allianz are being compelled to pay up for their exploitation of slave labour during the war, a process motivated by fears for their prospects and profits in the lucrative north American markets.
Discussing the Goldhagen book, the Auschwitz survivor and Nobel peace laureate, Elie Wiesel, wrote that: ''Ever since the day after the Allied victory, attempts have been made, for various reasons, to paper over the complicity of 'ordinary Germans' in the extermination policy that their government directed against the Jews. From all sides, and for motives of convenience and of global strategy, it was presented that only specific groups the SS, the Gestapo, the Nazi party had taken part in the genocide, and that the Wehrmacht, the police, the civilians had nothing to do with it.''
Wolfgang Dressen agrees and adduces the long-held secrets of the attic in Cologne in evidence. ''First everything was blamed on the main war criminals. Then it was the Nazi Party. Then the Waffen-SS. Then it was the Wehrmacht. And now we see it's also the public.''

Back in the Brooklyn bungalow, three generations of the Levi family are gathered around the dining room table over heaped platters of fried chicken, potatoes, and salad.
They grieve and they laugh, remember or ask about a Holocaust in a faraway country half a century ago after years of suppressing painful memories.
The family therapy session in front of a stranger has been precipitated by the unexpected news of the relatives in Cologne 58 years after they disappeared without trace. The extended family lost 15 members in the Holocaust. Tonight appears to be the first time they have all come together to dwell on the family history.
''I couldn't talk about it before,'' says Bertha. ''But now that I'm older I can.''
Ellie, a chic 28-year-old architecture student, is thinking aloud. ''For some strange reason we always thought our family emerged unscathed.
''I'm sympathetic to the average person in Germany,'' she goes on. ''But there are Germans in our class at school and when I'm talking to my Jewish friends we lower our voices. It's comical.''
''Ah, we had a good life,'' sighs Bertha in thickly accented English, lost in the world of her father's butcher's shop in 1930s Germany.
But Michael, 55, a tall grey-bearded Brooklyn rabbi, is impatient, struggling to contain his indignation. ''Hmm, Germans are Germans,'' he snorts. He wants redress for the injustices done to his uncle in Cologne and has engaged a Berlin lawyer to pursue a restitution claim.
''Our lawyer, Mr Schutz, says we have no chance. But how can that be true when we're dealing with patently criminal activity.''
His brother Yehuda, 51, is sceptical about trying to go to the courts. ''Look, an auction is an auction is an auction.''
''Oh, come on,'' Michael splutters. ''A blanket for 10 cents, you call that a proper auction?''
Yael, a 30-year-old teacher of Jewish history, is exasperated. ''Oh, Uncle Michael. I just don't know that this is about money. It just isn't. It's about making them fess up.''

That's exactly what Wolfgang Dressen has been vainly pushing for two years, trying to get German officialdom first to acknowledge the existence of the Cologne attic's secrets and then to open the files.
Solely as a result of his efforts, the government in Bonn and the finance ministers of the 16 German states recently agreed to make the so-called tax records accessible to scholars, but ''in an appropriate way.''
''Appropriate,'' Dressen explains, ''means anonymous, no names allowed.''
  

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Ian Traynor, Europe editor of the Guardian, died in 2016 at the age of sixty. 



http://www.centropa.org/reports.asp?rep=&ID=7000&TypeID=0