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John Alzate

Auschwitz-Birkenau: Plundering of the Jews 
Evidence and accounts, which detail the plundering methods of the Germans at the Auschwitz concentration camp, provide an in depth look at the inhumane brutality of the Nazi party. The officers did not hesitate (in fact they were ordered and encouraged) to steal all the belongings of the Jewish people who were exterminated at Auschwitz. This technique not only robbed the Jews of their material belongings, it also stripped them of their humanity. By doing so it became easier to completely annihilate the Jewish population because they were no longer dignified as humans were.

Plundering began even outside the concentration camps. Jews had been isolated from society and Germans confiscated their public lives as well as their personal business. In the infamous ghettos, many Jews were obliged to give "forced contributions" to the Nazi cause. Also the German officers did not falter when given an opportunity to take over and control the apartment buildings the Jews left behind after they were relocated, nor did they falter to make use of the immovable furniture that the Jews were forced to leave behind.
The section which managed and organized the confiscation of belongings from the extermination victims was the Schutzstaffel (SS); more specifically Department IV, Administration and Economy. This sector of the SS was first led by Captain SS Rudolf Wagner, then by Major SS Willi Josef Johann Burger and finally by Lieutenant Colonel SS Karl Ernst Mockel. The branch which became the most intimate with the association of confiscation was the Administration of Inmate Property and it was commanded by Obersturmfuhrer SS Theodor Kratzer. Though the possessions passed through many different hands and German Nazi agencies, from the moment of confiscation the loot was deemed property of the Third Reich.

As the years progressed the purpose of this concentration camp evolved, and with it so did the practices of theft and the amount of loot stolen. During the beginning of World War II, the prisoners at Auschwitz suffered a very controlled and restricted sum of plunder. This was modified, however, after the Nazi policy toward all concentration camp prisoners progressed toward total carnage. In 1942, the process of extermination took lead as the course of action that would be applied to the Jews at Auschwitz and almost every where else in the world. This inevitably led to a total and absolute German raid on prisoner possessions. These included clothing, jewelry, money, food, medicine, gold teeth, and even human hair.

The first two years of Auschwitz saw very little plunder and the personal property was hardly ever taken away. At that time, all incoming prisoners were told to hand over all belongings upon arrival, and these were sent to the storage rooms. Upon the death of the inmate, the authorities would then try to contact the family members of the dead and have them pick up the possessions. If the family could not be contacted, the belongings then became part of the Reich and it was called "effects of the deceased". Plundering increasingly changed as the number of prisoners at Auschwitz grew. By 1944, there had been specific instructions issued by the Reich Main Security Office (RSHA) of the SS as to how to apportion property, not only Jewish but of all prisoners, whether they were Poles, Soviets, French or Gypsies. This also restricted the amount of prisoner belongings that reached the relatives after their death.

On the other hand the latter years of Auschwitz saw the German officers plundering a huge number of Jews and therefore accumulating a mass amount of wealth. The plot began when Nazis lured the Jews in the Ghettos into relocating. Deceived the Jewish people believed that they would be relocated to better and maybe safer parts of Europe. With this hope in mind, they would pack with all their personal belongings that they though would be useful and necessary for their new lives. In the end, the Jews would ultimately follow the Nazi instructions and they would arrive at Auschwitz with luggage weighing approximately 66 to 100 pounds. Among these personal belongings were a wide range of items that would have been useful for resettlement: clothes, household items, rugs, sheets, professional tools, pots, etc. Though many were instructed to not take large sums of money with them, many Jews disobeyed and hid money and valuables among their other items.

Upon their arrival, the Jews would enter Auschwitz by way of train and they would disembark in the ramp that received a huge influx of incoming prisoners. Dubbed the "Jewish Ramp", this location is where the looting began. Under the supervision of heavily armed Nazi soldiers, the Jews were ordered to leave their large baggage inside the cart of the train. Any who refused would be severely beaten or shot outright in order to serve as an example. The suitcases left behind were then thoroughly checked and sorted by other prisoners. This was done as the newly arrived Jews were sent to the gas chambers. After the loot was sorted huge trucks would arrive and haul the cargo to the storage rooms. Also at this time, there was a special group of prisoners that would rummage through the belongings and collect any food that was found. This was later transported to the kitchen.

Prior to entering the gassing chambers, all the prisoners were required to take off all their clothing and personal possessions and leave them in a heap on the floor. While in these changing rooms, the Jews believed that they were preparing to shower therefore they did not hesitate to leave all their belongings, for they assumed that they would get it right back. As soon as the Jews enter the gas chambers, other prisoners would immediately sort the bundles. They would then separate the money, valuables, and clothing that they found into specific piles which were preset by the supervising German officers. When the piles were large enough, they were transported to the storerooms.

The exploitation of the Jews did not end in death. Even after their bodies were used to harbor and accumulate human raw materials. Among the most prevalent were gold teeth and hair. Himmler ordered the removal of dental gold from corpses, on September 1940. When entering Auschwitz prisoner's dental work was examined by dentist and all false teeth, and gold teeth were noted. Later, after the extermination of the victim, the metal teeth were extracted by means of pincers, chisels and crowbars. The pieces of bone and flesh still attached were then removed by dunking it in acid.
Before entering the gas chambers, many times, the Jewish prisoners had their head shaved. In the beginning, this was done because it helped in preventing the escape of an inmate, and also it aided in maintaining sanitary conditions. Later, it was ordered by the Economic-Administrative main Office of the SS (SS-WVHA) that all hair longer than two inches was to be collected. This accumulation of hair was recycled and used to produce felt and thread. The SS-WVHA also said that it would use the longer hair to make socks for submarine crews and manufacture felt stockings for railroad workers. In total, it is roughly estimated that a total of 60 tons of hair and 6 tons of dental gold were plundered from the corpses of Auschwitz victims. Of course, because Nazi records were destroyed this is a rough estimation based on an approximated number that four million prisoners passed through Auschwitz.

Works Consulted

Lipstadt, Deborah. Denying the Holocaust. New York: the Free Press, 1993

Gutman and Berenbaum. Anatomy of the Auschwitz Death Camp. Indianopolis: Indiana University Press, 1994

Penkower, Monty. The Jews Were Expendable. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1983.


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