In amongst my sprawling and growing assortment of books is another collection, and one that takes up very little space. Arranged in two folders, red and green, are a number of banknotes. The red folder contains a currency that was never a currency, and the green contains one that should never have been. They are a tenuous, yet tangible, connection to the recent past. And their value to me is priceless.
A Currency of Need
As early as 1914, when faced with the depreciation of the German Papiermark and the fact that the metal used to mint coins was worth more than the coins themselves, institutions that were unaffiliated with the German banks began printing a makeshift currency that could be used in certain specific locations within the towns of their origin. This currency has come to be known as Notgeld (“Necessity Money”), and it takes a variety of forms. Largely worthless at the time (although in some cases their usage did help to stimulate the economy), they quickly became an object for collectors. Some of them are exceptionally rare.
Given that they were of limited usage, and given the interest that people had in them as works of art, many institutions that produced this currency (be they hotels, or post-offices, or town councils) took the time to decorate them with motifs of religious or cultural value. After the defeat of Germany in the Great War and the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, several of the Notgeld issued were of an antisemitic character. The following are the items (all uncirculated) that I have thus far collected.
Brakel, Germany (2 mark, 1921):
The inscription on the front tells of a [Jewish] man who suspended his youngest child out of the window to defecate, but to his surprise a councilman was walking by at the time. It concludes by noting that this was a “true story” (Wahrhaftige), which occurred in 1655.
On the back, you can see the guilty Jew chained to a post, with a vulture looking down upon him:
Sternberg, Germany (1 mark, 1921):
These ones comprise a series (a Serienscheine), which concerns itself with the purported desecration of the host in 1492, when a priest named Peter Däne alleged that the local Jews had been torturing Jesus after death. The first item in the series shows him selling the hosts to the Jews:
The second item in the series depicts the Jews torturing the hosts:
The third and final item in the series shows the Jews being punished for their desecration:
The backs of the three notes are all decorated with a picture of Sternberg in 1492, the year that 26 Jews were burned at the stake for this fictitious crime:
Tostedt, Germany (50 pfennig 1921):
The front of the note depicts two Jews, hanged from a tree and surrounded by ravens. The German declares that “this should happen to all of the profiteers and Germany would be better off”.
Frankfurt, Germany (25 pfennig, 1921):
Presented in the style of the surrealists, this note depicts crooked and, in one case, possibly hornéd Jews. The symbol on the chest of the man in the foreground is possibly reminiscent of the communist hammer and sickle. Unlike the other items, there is nothing overtly antisemitic about this one, and it is only the historical context that makes of it something foreboding.
The Currency of Death
As they had done in Oranienberg as early as 1933, the Nazis introduced money to Theresienstadt concentration camp in 1943, and for much the same reason. A “model camp”, and one to which the Red Cross had access, it was important to carefully decorate the thin veneer of normalcy. In the infamous and unreleased propaganda film that the Nazis made of Theresienstadt, Jews can be seen lining up outside a bank, waiting to deposit their money. Depositing it in the bank was one of very few things that could actually be done with it, as a result of which they are almost all of them in uncirculated condition.
The designer of the notes was a Jew named Peter Kien, who was under instructions from Reinhard Heydrich to make the Moses on the banknotes look semitic, and to ensure that the sixth commandment (“Thou shalt not kill”) be excluded from the picture. This second stipulation has led to the erroneous claim that Moses’ hand is obscuring the sixth commandment. This claim can be found in Joel Forman, “Holocaust Numismatics” (1997), John Sandrock, “The Use of Banknotes as an Instrument of Propaganda” (2004) and Stephen Feinstein, “Art and Imagery of the Ghetto – During and After the Holocaust” (2005). Embarrassingly, this misinformation is even perpetuated by the Tauber Holocaust Library and Zachor, 2005: two sources whose authors I would expect to be more familiar with Hebrew. In actual fact, Moses’ hand is partially obscuring the fourth commandment (the letters כו of the word זכור can be glimpsed through his fingers, meaning that this version of the decalogue is the one found in Exodus 20), and completely obscuring the fifth (“Remember the Shabbat” and “Honour thy parents”, respectively).
The Nazis wanted the money to serve as part of an elaborate illusion. Simply introducing the notes was not sufficient for this fantasy to appear real. Therefore, they made a significant effort toward having the money seem like it was actually being used. Around eighty people were given jobs keeping track of payroll, coupons, and salaries. Meticulous records were kept, all as part of the illusion that the money had some sort of value. Everyone who worked in the ghetto, or was a prominent figure, was paid a monthly salary that varied by job, sex, and status…
The Nazis wanted to get the money to circulate, but without a real value, the inmates did not see a lot of incentive in earning the money or spending it. Everyone was required to save some of their wages, but ultimately there was nothing to spend them on. Shops were set up in which it was ostensibly possible to buy the items that had been confiscated from prisoners upon entering the ghetto. These items were priced so high, however, that the money was never really taken seriously.
- Ray Feller and Steve Feller, Silent Witnesses: Civilian Camp Money of World War II (ed. J.E. Boling; 2007), 81.
The design on all of these notes is the same, although the notes increase in size as the denomination increases. Each note is dated January 1st 1943 (although they only became available mid-April of that year) and features on the back the signature of Jakob Edelstein, who was the first Elder of the Jews in Theresienstadt and who was murdered in Auschwitz in 1944:
(The above images are not photos that I have taken of my own banknotes, but are images that I downloaded.)
Unlike the notes from Theresienstadt, the notes from the Lodz ghetto are all thoroughly well-used. There, having a little money might mean the difference between life and death. As is discussed in Ray and Steve Feller’s Silent Witnesses: Civilian Camp Money of World War II, providing the ghetto inmates with a currency of their own was but one of many ways in which the Nazis were able to reappropriate all of their property. Instead of simply stealing what they wanted, they purchased it from them and converted the money (minus a 30% tax) into the ghetto’s currency. Were somebody to escape, the currency would be useless to them outside the ghetto. Inside the ghetto, it was needed in order to survive.
This item is a postage stamp, valued at 10 pfennig. All such notes are dated either “17 April 1942″ or “15 Mai 1944″, the latter date being within three months of the liquidation of the ghetto and the extermination of its remaining members.
The following images are of the actual items that I purchased. They each feature the use of the menorah as an image, as well as that of the magen david – both by itself and in the form of barbed wire. Although it may be hard to see on the images below, each note also features an identifying mark that, together with its serial code, the nature of the printing and the fabric of the note, helps to identify counterfeits. The identifying mark is always on the face of each note; where I also have a photograph for the back of the note, the face of the note is shown first. Each note also features the signature of the Elder of the Jews of Lodz Ghetto, the controversial Chaim Rumkowski, also printed on the face.
The identifying feature of the 20 mark note is a dot within the loop that is formed by the top of the initial /Z/ in “Zwanzig”. There is also a 50 mark note, but it is somewhat rarer and therefore more difficult to acquire.
My final item is an example of a promissory note (Konversionskasse), to the value of 5 mark. These notes were given to people (primarily Jews) who wished to move abroad and keep their money. After paying an exorbitant tax, the remainder of their wealth was transferred into notes of this nature, which they would soon discover were completely worthless. They are almost always stamped with WERTLOS (“worthless”) or with ENTWERTET (“cancelled”).
I receive very mixed reactions from people when showing them my collection. While some are impressed with the connection to history that holding such items in one’s hands can create, others still are repulsed with the horror of it all, and uncertain as to why one might wish to acquire them. Myself, I have very mixed feelings. At times, I find myself drawn to them: they are something solid, tangible, real. They are silent witnesses in the true sense of the term, but even voiceless they speak louder than words. They testify to a period of utter hatred, and one that I remain uncertain of how to understand. While the antisemitism of the Notgeld is connected, for me, with a long history of political antisemitism (itself predicated upon broader social and religious forms of Jew-hatred), the horrors of the Holocaust are exploitative of such attitudes, though not necessarily a natural development from the same.
It is telling that the images on the antisemitic Notgeld are all either set in the distant past, centred on usurers and profiteers (rather than explicitly “Juden”) or, in the case of the Golem from Frankfurt, offensive by association only. There is a yawning gulf that lies between the contents of the red folder and the green, and while the items in the two folders interest me, challenge me, repulse me and inspire me, it is that gulf that I find most worthy of deliberation.