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Currency Bills from The Terezin Ghetto

When the Nazis took power in Germany in January 1933, they began persecuting those who opposed the new regime, and also took upon themselves to persecute the Jews of Germany. Within just a few weeks of the political overthrow, many people were arrested: Social-Democrats, Communists, other members of the opposition, and Jews. These people were imprisoned in jails and concentration camps that had been established at an earlier stage. Among the first camps were Dachau, Ravensbrück, Buchenwald and Oranienburg-Sachsenhausen. At the Oranienburg-Sachsenhausen Camp, located near Berlin, the Nazis for the first time minted currency for use within the camp – bills that had no value beyond its fences. This arrangement was replicated in a few other concentration camps and ghettos, first in Germany, and subsequently in other occupied European countries.

There were several reasons behind the issue of special bills – in most cases at a low denomination. First, every prisoner at a camp – and later, every ghetto resident – was forced to convert his money and some of his property into the currency of the camp or ghetto where he was imprisoned. In this manner, the Nazis could immediately place their hands on the personal property of prisoners and use it for their dark purposes. Secondly, owners of the currency were unable to purchase anything with local currency outside the borders of the camps or ghettos. This was important for the Nazis in the case of escape: The moment prisoners succeeded in fleeing the camps, they had no means of acquiring food or clothes, posing significant obstacles to escape plans. In addition, the conversion of ordinary currency into the alternate bills at the moment of entering the camps or ghettos gave the prisoners a sense of being isolated and marginalized from the general society. Moreover: the bills for the various camps were not uniform. Each camp had different modes of payment and there were even camps where bills or other alternate means of payment were never issued. It is no secret that the Nazis well knew how to use psychological means of this type to humiliate their victims.

Bill (“receipt”) faces from the Terezin Ghetto

Bill ("receipt") faces from the Terezin Ghetto: One to ten crowns. The two upper bills show signs of use.

There were camps that invested in the design of the bills and even printed double-sided bills. Examples include Oranienburg-Sachsenhausen, Westerbork (in Holland) but also the Lodz Ghetto (where coins were even minted) and in Terezin (Theresienstadt). Naturally, in the ghettos, all of the prisoners were Jews, and ironically, this was reflected in the bills. The bills from the Lodz Ghetto depicted a Star of David. The same symbol appears on bills printed for use in the Terezin Ghetto in Czechoslovakia (most of which was occupied by the Nazis prior to the outbreak of WWII). The denomination of the bills was not the German mark, but crowns (koruna), the Czechoslovakian currency. The Nazis issued and printed bills – which formally were called “receipts” (Quittungen) – of denominations one, two five, ten 20 and even 100 crowns. It is known that these bills were printed in relatively large quantities – sometimes even in millions of copies – but there are many “receipts” that show no signs of use whatsoever, mainly those with a high nominal value. Apparently, large quantities of these bills never entered into circulation. In any case, the local bills of high denominations had no real use, since in the ghetto, there were no high-value goods available that prisoners could purchase. 

 

Bills (backs) of a high nominal value 

Bills (backs) of a high nominal value, without signs of use: 20, 50 and 100 crowns, including illustration of Moses with the tablets of the covenant.

 

In the Terezin Ghetto, there was even an active bank which was responsible for the bills, which bore the signature of the “Jewish committee” of that location. It seems that the bank, the bills and the “wages” received by many prisoners during imprisonment in the ghetto had an additional role: they gave the impression of “normalcy,” of an orderly and routine everyday life that the Nazis indeed tried to present to the official representatives of the Red Cross who visited the Terezin Ghetto. The collections of the Archives Department contain bills from the Terezin Ghetto that survived the days of the Holocaust. We have examples from all nominal values; some of them show signs of wear, but most seem completely new. These bills are a special documentation of the chilling reality in the days of the Holocaust: imaginary symbols of a “normalcy” that never existed, under the shadow of persecution and eradication.