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The Holocaust: Ghetto & Concentration Camp Money

Marisa Natale (January 6, 2016)

Ghetto or camp money was currency issued by the Nazi administration, or its collaborators, for the exclusive use by the population incarcerated in a work camp or ghetto. The monetary system created by the Nazis served as part of a large, complex, economic system of theft, deception and genocide.
In terms of parallels between camp and ghetto money, both money systems came about in similar ways. Internal money existed both in occupied territories as well as within Germany, and some regional variation can be seen that implies that the implementation of this money did not take place in a centralized fashion. Individual camp commanders decided to put this monetary system in place, and competitive careerism encouraged the spread of this concept to other camps and ghettos across Europe. A degree of centralization did emerge over time because camp and ghetto directors usually collaborated on their schemes and “improvements” to their institutions, including the use of their own currency.

Ghetto Money

The two best-known examples of money being issued in ghettos are Lodz in Poland, and Theresienstadt in the Czech Republic.1 The majority of notes that remain from the Holocaust period are from one of those two ghettos. The ghettos known to have had money are Lodz2, Theresienstadt3, Bielski-Podlaski4 and Sokolka.5 All of these ghettos were in occupied territories, not Germany proper.

The inception process for each ghetto was different, but the patterns are similar. Often ghetto inmates would be charged with designing the face of the currency, artists specifically selected by the Nazi administration. The Nazi heads of each ghetto ordered the creation of the internal monetary system, chose an artist, approved the design and arranged the production of the money.

The Lodz ghetto was the first to issue its own currency, on May 15, 1940. The first notes were printed July 8, 1940, though not all denominations were issued at once. These general notes were part of a larger ghetto economy, including the underground economy, ration cards for food, and the special scrip issued to the Council of Elders.6 The Nazi administration ordered the notes to be designed and implemented, and charged Chaim Rumkowsky with selecting an artist to do so. Ignacy Gutman designed the notes that would eventually become the ghetto’s currency, but he was not the Council’s first choice; artist Wincenty Brauner was originally selected, but his designs were rejected for their bold and subversive content.7 Pinkus Schwarz was responsible for designing the coins, drawing the banknotes and printing them.8

At first, Hans Biebow, Nazi head of the Lodz ghetto, only issued bank notes, but it quickly became clear that smaller denominations were necessary to make the money functional. Rumkowsky requested that the Nazi administration put a 10-pfennig coin into circulation, and submitted a design for such a coin. Biebow rejected it outright due to its combination of German and Jewish elements. Rumkowsky was eventually able to get a final design approved that was visually distinct from German coins.9 Toward the end of the war hyperinflation made Lodz coins more valuable for use as fuel (coins were made of a highly flammable alloy) for fires than for spending.

As for the Theresienstadt ghetto, its money came into circulation in March 1943. Peter Kien, an inmate of Theresienstadt designed the notes, but unfortunately his design was warped to suit Nazi aims. When Kien submitted his original design, Reinhardt Heydrich rejected it. Though Heydrich had specifically instructed that Moses and the Tablets of the Law should appear on the Theresienstadt notes, he felt that Moses needed to be changed. He ordered that Kien redesign the notes, featuring Moses with a hooked nose, curly hair and long claw-like fingers, in order to align the image with a stereotypical Nazi portrait of a Jew.10 He also commanded that Moses's hand be arranged so as to cover the phrase “Thou shalt not kill” that appeared on the Tablets of the Law.11

Unfortunately, little is known about the money originating from Sokolka or Bielsk-Podlaski. Sokolka had a .91 mark note, which Zvi Stahl believes was used to pay a day’s wages in the ghetto.12 Scholars estimate that it was issued between 1940 and 1941 by the city treasury, prior to the outbreak of the war on the Russian front in June 1941. These notes are exceptionally rare, possibly because few copies were issued in the first place and they were only used for a short time.13 Bielsk-Podlaski had its money issued by the mayor of the ghetto, for use in Jewish stores of the city. They were printed in 1941, after the invasion of Russia, but little else is known about them.14

The process of obtaining ghetto money was fairly regimented. Upon deportation to a ghetto, Jews often had very little time to collect any belongings, and even when they did, they were not permitted to carry much with them. When they arrived at the ghetto, they were allowed to keep most of their belongings, but valuables and cash would be confiscated at the discretion of the supervising official. Once ghetto money was instituted, the Reichsmarks possessed by incoming Jews would be exchanged for this worthless internal currency.15 For Jews already living in the ghetto when the ghetto money went into circulation, they were required to exchange their marks for it.16

Once imprisoned in the ghetto, often Jews would get assigned to a job, such as producing textiles or leather goods. The wages for this work were a pittance, not nearly appropriate compensation, but it was the only way to legitimately earn money in the ghetto (though some people participated in the underground economy). Unfortunately, even this small amount of money did not truly permit ghetto residents to support themselves. The money was hardly usable even inside the quarantined ghetto economy, as food was rationed with separate cards, and other consumer merchandise such as clothing or shoes were often unreasonably expensive. In fact, it was not uncommon that the shops that had items available for sale were simply facades, designed to give the appearance of civilization and normalcy, without legitimate goods for sale. Even if the shops did really have items for sale, items stolen from Jewish homes or incoming residents, they were marked up at such ludicrous prices that no ghetto resident could ever hope to afford them.17

Still, this money was a crucial component of survival in the ghetto. Though food was rarely available for purchase outside of ration cards, the amount of food a person could get with a ration card still left him in starvation. The opportunity to purchase any additional food could save a life, and if one managed to find a coat or pair of shoes for sale that was affordable, it could mean the difference between life and death in the winter.

Concentration Camp Money

Concentration camp money was much more prevalent than ghetto money in the Nazi system, and can be found in many more locations. Camp money was issued within Germany as well as occupied territories, and more of it has survived to the present than has ghetto money. Institutional money was present in twenty camps across Europe:

There does not seem to be any geographic consistency between where money was issued and where it was not. Camps that issued money were mainly located in Germany proper, but also areas of occupation where Germany had a lot of influence, such as Poland or the Netherlands. The Third Reich was able to convince other countries, such as Italy, to establish concentration camps with monetary systems before occupation.

In terms of types of camps, this list is a mix of transit camps, concentration camps, work camps and death camps. However, there is an interesting distribution balance between concentration camps and death camps. Though almost 40 percent of all camps were death camps, only 15 percent of the camps in this group were death camps, just Auschwitz and Stutthof. There is no money known to have been issued at Chelmno, Treblinka, Sobibor, Majdanek or Belzec, and even the money known to have come from Auschwitz is rare.

Though the reason for this is unknown, some scholars suggest that the government did not view it as useful. A significant incentive to create camp money was the economic benefit to the Reich, in the theft of Jewish belongings and money. However, by the time someone reached a death camp, they likely had almost nothing of value left in their possession; many people flowed through concentration camps before being sent to killing centers, and at that point it would have been unusual for them to have any property remaining.

The process of creating this money was similar to the process that occurred in the ghettos. Particular camp administrators ordered notes created for their institutions, and the practice spread from there. The earliest known camp money is from Oranienburg, a camp that began as an institution for political prisoners in the early days of the Reich, but later became a work camp.

On May 15, 1943, S.S. Major-General Oswald Pohl issued a memo regarding the distribution of handouts to workers. Pohl was responsible for the administration of all concentration camps, and handled the slave labor economy until 1944.19 This document covers a variety of “bonuses” that could be used to encourage prisoners to work to their limits, and its message ostensibly reached virtually all of the concentration camp heads. The orders contained in the document provide information about the exact use, distribution and regulation of premium notes. It is unknown whether or not these standards were adopted at all camps.

The third section of this document deals with the distribution of camp money. Prisoners could receive a productivity bonus, the value of which ranged from half a Reichsmark to 10 RM per week, though Pohl is explicit that this was to be only for very exceptional cases. For prisoners working in industries where this system is not practical, such as tailors and shoemakers, the awarding of “premium notes” is then to be left to the determination of the supervisor.20 The memo then goes on to explain that premium notes give prisoners first preference in the sale of tobacco products, and that the truly exceptional performers could apply for permission to visit a camp brothel. Even the regular, non-premium camp money was difficult to get and thus incredibly valuable. One “mark” could be used to buy twelve portions of soup or twelve cigarettes.21

Sources: 1 It is possible that some ghettos may have issued money, but no physical evidence of it remains. The paper used in the existing ghetto money is of very poor quality, and likely would degrade quickly if not cared for properly. Additionally, some ghettos have contentious reports about whether or not internal money was issued; for example, there seems to be no clear answer as to whether the Warsaw ghetto issued money.
2Martin Dean, Robbing the Jews, (NY: Cambridge University Press, 2008), p. 187.
3Yasha L Beresiner, “Theresienstadt,” The Shekel, Vol. 16, No. 2, (March-April 1983).
4Zvi Stahl, Jewish Ghettos’ and Concentration Camps’ Money 1933-1945, (London: D. Richman Books,, 1990), pg. 55.
5Edward Schuman, “Sokolka Ghetto Money,” The Shekel, Vol. 28, No. 3, (May-June 1995), pg. 16.
6Stahl, Jewish Ghettos and Concentration Camps’ Money (1933-1945), pg. 40.
7Anna Augustowska, “Coins from the Lodz Ghetto,” Virtual Shtetl,, (April 18, 2011), accessed June 2015.
8 ibid.
9 ibid.
10Alan York, “The Paper Money Used in the Theresienstadt Ghetto: The Inside Story,” The Shekel, Vol. 16, No. 2, (March-April 1983), pg. 27.
11 ibid.
12Stahl, Jewish Ghettos’ and Concentration Camps’ Money (1933-1945), pg. 54.
13Stahl, Jewish Ghettos’ and Concentration Camps’ Money (1933-1945), pg. 55.
14 ibid.
15Beresiner, “Theresienstadt,” The Shekel.
16Augustowska, “Coins from the Lodz Ghetto,” Virtual Shtetl.
17Beresiner, “Theresienstadt,” The Shekel.
18Though other camps may have issued money, their names were not uncovered over the course of this research.
19Jan Erik Schulte, Zwangsarbeit und Vernichtung: Das Wirtschaftsimperium der SS. Oswald Pohl und das SS-Wirtschafts-Verwaltungshauptamt 1933-1945, Paderborn, München, Wien, Zürich: Schöningh, 2001.
20 ibid.
21Stahl, Jewish Ghettos’ and Concentration Camps’ Money (1933-1945), pg. 59.