These Currency Bills Were Used in the Theresienstadt Ghetto

The alternative currencies set up by the Nazis in ghettos and concentration camps across Europe served to establish a false sense of "normalcy".


A bill (formally, a "receipt") from the Theresienstadt Ghetto, representing 100 Czechoslovakian crowns, the National Library of Israel collections.

When the Nazis came to power in Germany in January 1933, they began persecuting all opponents of the new regime, with the Jews of Germany automatically included in that category. Within just a few weeks of the National-Socialist political victory, thousands 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.

Bills ("receipts") from the Theresienstadt Ghetto: The two upper bills show signs of use. From the National Library collections.
Bills (“receipts”) from the Theresienstadt Ghetto: The two upper bills show signs of use. From the National Library collections.

There were several reasons behind the production of these special bills – in most cases at a low denomination. First, all camp prisoners – and later, all ghetto residents – were forced to convert their money and some of their property into the currency of the camp or ghetto where they found themselves imprisoned. In this manner, the Nazis could immediately place their hands on the personal property of prisoners and use it for their own 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 in the interest of preventing 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 alternate bills gave the prisoners a sense of being disconnected 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 also 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.

Bills of a high nominal value. These show no signs of use. In this image we see the back side of the bills, featuring an illustration of Moses with the tablets of the covenant. Tellingly, "Thou shalt not kill" and the other ethical commandments are hidden from view.
Bills of a high nominal value. These show no signs of use. In this image we see the back side of the bills, featuring an illustration of Moses with the tablets of the covenant. Tellingly, “Thou shalt not kill” and the other ethical commandments are hidden from view.

Some camps invested in the design of the currency and even printed double-sided bills. Examples include Oranienburg-Sachsenhausen, Westerbork (in Holland) but also the Lodz Ghetto (which also minted coins) and Theresienstadt (Terezin). 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 Theresienstadt 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 rather Czechoslovakian crowns (koruna). The Nazis issued and printed bills, formally called “receipts” (Quittungen), which were attributed different values: one, two five, ten, twenty and even one hundred crowns. It is known that these bills were printed in relatively large quantities – sometimes even 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. These bills feature an illustration of Moses holding the ten commandments. Tellingly, the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” is hidden from view – a subtle, and likely intentional effort on the part of a Jewish artist to express a measure of protest at what was taking place across Europe.

Dr. Yoel Finkelman, curator of the National Library's Judaica Collection, reviews bills from the Theresienstadt Ghetto donated to the Library by Mrs. Ruth Brass in memory of her late father, Lionel Schalit.
Dr. Yoel Finkelman, curator of the National Library’s Judaica Collection, reviews bills from the Theresienstadt Ghetto donated to the Library by Mrs. Ruth Brass in memory of her late father, Lionel Schalit.

There was even an active bank in Theresienstadt which was responsible for the bills, and these bore the signature of the local “Jewish committee”. 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 Theresienstadt. A number of these bills from the Theresienstadt Ghetto are preserved today in the Archives Department of the National Library of Israel. The Library recently expanded its collection with an additional six bills in excellent condition. The currency was donated by Ruth Brass in honor of her father, the late Lionel Schalit, a prominent Zionist and community activist and a leader in the European Maccabi Movement.

We have examples of all the various nominal values; some of them show signs of wear, but most seem completely new. These bills serve to document one of the chilling realities of the Holocaust – the efforts invested in hiding the evils of the Nazi regime behind a façade of order and reason. These bills are symbols of an imaginary “normalcy” that never existed, during a period of persecution and eradication.


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Divided Germany, relations with Israel and the reunification of Germany

The partitioning of Germany into occupied areas was, in effect, the beginning of the political division of the state which endured until 1989. Each of the Allied powers advanced its interests in the area under its control

Berlin Wall

As a result of World War II, not only were many countries in Europe and elsewhere in the world destroyed and their residents murdered by the German Army, but in response to the activities of the Wehrmacht, the SS and other units in occupied countries, dozens of cities in Germany itself were bombed, entire neighborhoods destroyed, and large numbers of civilians killed. The winds of war sowed destruction.

For the first time since the days of Napoleon, Germany became an occupied country. Its territory was divided into four occupied areas, with the British in the Northwest, the Soviets in the East, the Americans in the Southwest, and the French in the West. With the military surrender, the German government ceased to function. Hitler, Goebbels, Himmler and later, also Goering, committed suicide. The remaining Nazi leaders were arrested or changed their identities and tried to flee. Very quickly, many Germans from the ranks of Nazi rule became “victims” who ostensibly knew nothing about the deeds of the German soldiers in the occupied countries, and certainly nothing regarding the murder of European Jewry in the Holocaust. Taking responsibility was not a high priority. Most German civilians were occupied with obtaining food and essential products, and rebuilding what had been destroyed as a result of the extensive bombing throughout the war. Holocaust survivors and freed concentration camp prisoners tried finding a new direction in life. Tens of thousands of Jews, a large portion of them refugees from the East, took refuge in displaced persons camps established in the western occupied areas. Millions of German refugees who had been deported from areas in East Germany tried to find housing and employment, and were not always kindly accepted by local residents.

The partitioning of Germany into occupied areas was, in effect, the beginning of the political division of the state which endured until 1989. Each of the Allied powers advanced its interests in the area under its control. Very quickly, it became clear that Josef Stalin in Moscow had different ideas and intentions than the leaders of Britain, France and the United States. The conflict of interest grew worse over the years, and as a result, in 1949, two German countries were established: The Federal Republic in the West, and the Democratic Republic in the East. The so-called “Democratic Republic” turned out to be democratic in name only, never fully implementing the rules of democracy. The leadership of the Soviet Union ensured the founding of a socialist community country in the East, after expanding Poland hundreds of kilometers to the West, such that Germany lost vast swaths of its territory. The Allied powers subsidized the territories under their control, and supported the development of a democratic government in the western part of Germany. As a result, beginning in the 1950s, the West German economy recovered and began once again to flourish. Large portions of East Germany’s industry were dismantled by the Russians and transferred to the Soviet Union as reparations, such that from the outset there was no economic parity between the two Germanys. Later, the rules of communist economics also failed to advance East Germany’s development.

The political partition was also reflected in the approach of the two countries towards the State of Israel. Until 1989, the year when East Germany ceased to exist, it did not recognize the State of Israel. West Germany, in contrast, began negotiations with Jewish representatives and the State of Israel regarding reparations for Holocaust victims, a concept that was unacceptable to portions of both the Israeli and German populations, though for different reasons. In Israel, many people opposed any kind of contact with Germany, and were not prepared to receive money as compensation for genocide. In contrast, Nazi supporters (who remained in Germany after 1945) were opposed to giving “gifts” to the Jews. Despite the difficulties, the Reparations Agreement between Israel and West Germany was signed in 1952 in Luxemburg. Following the agreement, additional steps were taken in the economic realm, and in 1960, Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurion met with West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer in New York.

Reparations Agreement

The 1960s saw many changes and developments. In 1961, the partitioning of Germany became more pronounced due to the construction of the Berlin Wall between East and West Berlin, as well as the construction of a border fence between East and West Germany. In both Israel and Germany, notable members of the Nazi leadership were tried and convicted. The Eichmann Trial in Israel and the Auschwitz Trial in West Germany were both followed very closely by the media and international community. In 1965, the governments of Israel and West Germany finalized the decision to initiate diplomatic relations. Later, additional informal steps were taken to bring the countries closer, including translation of German literary works into Hebrew, and vice versa. In the 1970s, West German society was rocked by terror attacks perpetrated by groups on the radical left. These terrorist groups collaborated with Palestinian political and terror organizations. The terror attack against Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, as well as the hijacking of airplanes (the Air France jet that was the focus of Operation Entebbe was hijacked by both Palestinian and German terrorists) were a manifestation of this state of affairs. During these years, young German volunteers also began coming to Israel to volunteer on kibbutzim, in order to get to know Israel and its residents.

In the 1980s, the two Germanys grew closer to one another, and the Communist government in the East was weakened both economically and ideologically. In the autumn of 1989, flight of citizens to the West and mass demonstrations led to the collapse of the Communist government, and ultimately to the fall of the Berlin Wall, which took place on November 9. Alongside this historical development, similar changes occurred in almost all of the Communist bloc countries, completely changing the face of Europe. A year later, the two countries were united into today’s Federal Republic of Germany.

Letter of First German Ambassador, Rolf Pauls, to Chava Steinitz (Buber)

Some of the Israeli public opposed the establishment of relations

After the agreement to establish diplomatic relations between Israel and Germany, it was necessary for the decision to assume a practical form. The first Israeli ambassador to Germany was Asher Ben Natan (1921-2014), a native of Vienna, while Germany sent Rolf Pauls (1915-2002) to Israel. Some of the Israeli public opposed the establishment of relations and especially the appointment of Pauls due to his activities from 1933 through 1945. Pauls was already an officer in the Nazi Wehrmacht in 1934 and went on to fight in World War II, where he was gravely wounded, ultimately receiving the prestigious Knight’s Cross military honor. After the war, he began studying law, and later became part of the West German diplomatic corps

The Israeli press covered Pauls’ appointment and arrival, as well as his first activities as ambassador. The Davar newspaper, reporting about the West German diplomat’s first speech on the front page of its August 12, 1965 edition, quoted Pauls as saying, “I come with a single thought in mind: The Germans and the Jews are living with a horrific past that cannot be forgotten, that must not be forgotten, and that we are not forgetting. But I think that there is a future for the Jews and the Germans, and our generation must pave the way to a clear future of freedom, peace and justice together.” Pauls’ words clearly reflect that at the official level, Germany viewed the State of Israel first and foremost as the Jewish state, and approached every issue accordingly. During his three years as ambassador, Pauls tried to advance economic and cultural ties between the two countries. Throughout his tenure, he proved to be a skilled diplomat in the complex and charged role with which he was vested. He later served as the West German ambassador to the United States and China.

Immediately after the death of philosopher Martin Buber in 1965, a motion was put forth to name a West Berlin street in his honor. A small street in Berlin-Celendorf was selected, which had previously been called Kaiserstrasse (in honor of the Kaiser). When the formal process was completed, the new name was given on June 13, 1966. A year after Buber’s death, Rolf Pauls sent notice to Martin Buber’s daughter, Chava Steinitz (née Strauss), announcing the change in the street’s name. The embassy clerks were apparently not yet proficient in Hebrew names, and slightly misspelled Steinitz’s name; they also mistakenly noted that the ceremony took place two years after Buber’s death. Today, many German cities have streets named after this important Jewish philosopher.

The letter displayed here reached the National Library’s archives approximately two years ago, together with many other letters, as an addition to the Aryeh Ludwig Strauss Archive.

Source: Aryeh Ludwig Strauss Archive, ARC. Ms. Var. 424/7/105

The Student Demonstration against the Nazis and against Anti-Semitism, Munich, 1960

"It is impossible to define anti-Semitic activity as a prank. It is directed not only against the Jewish citizens who live with us, but against the basic rights of our country. What is called for is not punishment, but education!"

On Christmas Eve, 1959, two young, 25-year-old German men scrawled an anti-Semitic slogan and swastikas on the synagogue in the city of Cologne in West Germany, as well as on a monument in memory of the victims of the Nazi regime. Local citizens took note of the deed and called the police. A few days later, the police caught the vandals, who were members of a small extreme right-wing party known as “The German Reich Party.” Although most German citizens were to a certain extent still accustomed to such slogans and to the sight of a desecrated synagogue, the act captured public attention and resonated strongly. Ministers condemned it on the radio, and the still fledgling television stations broadcast special repots about the incident and the progress of the police investigation. The Israeli press also reported the incident, such as the December 27, 1959 article appearing in Davar. On one hand, desecration of the synagogue actually encouraged the occurrence of similar incidents around West Germany, and yet, on the other hand, it also spurred a wave of anti-Fascist demonstrations and public events in which discussions of the incidents were held.

One of the public discussions took place in the city of Munich in February 1960. Residents of the trainee and student dormitories at Massmannplatz, part of a democratic group of young people, called for a meeting in one of the halls of the Technical University for a public discussion about the new-old wave of anti-Semitism and about the necessity of grappling with the Nazi past of Germany and its people. One the speakers at the Munich event was Helmut Hammerschmidt, the Assistant Chief Editor of the Bavarian Broadcasting Authority, whose Jewish father had been murdered during the Nazi period. The organizers of the event, residents of the dormitories, issued a special edition of the organization’s newspaper, which featured reporting on the event – which took place precisely during Carnival, a coincidence of dates which was one of the reasons for the relatively small number of participants. A number of the speeches from the evening in Munich were printed in the newspaper, a copy of which was sent to Israel.

Paradoxically, the anti-Semitic act of the two extremists in the city of Cologne ultimately yielded a positive result: following the desecration of the synagogue, official and unofficial individuals and organizations criticized and condemned German society, and even the German government, which was forced to take concrete steps to initiate a public discussion of Germany’s past up to 1945. One minister in the East German government, who had a very active Nazi past, was forced to resign. Following the event, Chancellor Adenauer visited a former concentration camp for the first time, and participated in a ceremony in memory of its Jewish victims. The Germania Judaica Library in the city of Cologne, established in 1959 on the initiative of the author Heinrich Böll, which focuses on the history of Germany’s Jews, has since developed, and today is presently the most important library of its kind in Germany. A few universities in West Germany established institutes of Jewish studies (Berlin, Frankfurt, Cologne, Freiburg) and in 1963, 25 years after the Kristallnacht pogroms, a large exhibition opened on the history of Germany Jewry, drawing more than 100,0000 visitors. In 1960, David Ben Gurion and Konrad Adenauer met for the first time, and shortly afterwards, student exchanges between the two countries began to take place. In 1965, the two countries also established diplomatic relations.

Translation of the announcement:

Youth Demonstration, Munich

Friday, February 12, 1960, 20:00

Large Physics Hall of the Technical University (Arcisstrasse entrance)

Nazis and Neo-Nazis – Preservers of the Democracy?

Panel Participants: Helmut Hammerschmidt and Representatives of the Community and the Youth

The Past We Haven’t Dealt With – A Motto for our Time.

The recent events require every one of us to grapple with the past and take an unequivocal stand.

We protest the fact that former Nazis who have no reservations about the past occupy key positions. We demand their resignation.

It is impossible to define anti-Semitic activity as a prank. It is directed not only against the Jewish citizens who live with us, but against the basic rights of our country. What is called for is not punishment, but education!

We must no longer remain silent!

Ethical and political apathy endanger the good name of our people and the existence of our democracy.

Therefore, we all want to demonstrate with them

The University Student Council

The Catholic Youth

The German-Israeli Student group

The Protestant Youth

The Youth of the Professional Guilds

The Political Youth Organization, and 16 other youth and student organization

Source: Arvchives Department, V 2115