The Strange Story of Holocaust Money

February 27, 2019 | Santi Elijah Holley
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In a number of camps and ghettos, Auschwitz among them, the Nazis issued currency to the prisoners that could be exchanged for cigarettes and sometimes for food. In some cases, it was bartered by the inmates and subject to the same fluctuations in value as any other currency. The form and function of this ersatz money varied from place to place, so that it would be completely worthless to anyone who escaped. Santi Elijah Holley writes:

The Lodz ghetto, in occupied Poland, was the first where the Nazis designed, printed, and distributed money to be used exclusively by the occupants. The pfennig notes that circulated among [the ghetto’s] 160,000 residents between 1940 and [its] shuttering in 1944 depicted a seven-branch menorah atop a chain of Stars of David, linked so as to resemble barbed wire.

The Third Reich was soon printing and distributing unique currencies throughout most of the ghettos in its occupied territories. These coins and coupons included the name of the ghetto, a monetary value, and, usually, the Star of David. The Nazi officials who controlled each ghetto were responsible for choosing an artist—often this was an occupant of the ghetto—and approving the final design.

The Theresienstadt getto kronen (ghetto crowns) were designed by an artist, playwright, and ghetto occupant named Peter Kien, originally from the Czech border town of Varnsdorf but educated in Brno and at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague, as well as the graphic-design school Officina Pragensis. Ordered by Reinhard Heydrich, the high-ranking SS officer Hitler had placed in charge of the ghettos, to include an illustration of Moses and the Ten Commandments in his design, Kien had his original effort rejected; Heydrich felt that Moses was too Aryan in appearance.

Under Heydrich’s [supervision], Kien redesigned the notes, giving Moses stereotypically exaggerated Semitic features like a hooked nose, curly hair, and excessively long and slender fingers. Heydrich also ordered that Moses’ fingers be positioned on the tablets so as to obscure the phrase “Thou shalt not kill.” The design was approved, and the notes were distributed throughout Theresienstadt.

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