Property stolen during the Holocaust made some communities richer, even 70 years later

The entrance to the former Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau with the lettering ‘Arbeit macht frei’ (‘Work makes you free’) (Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images)

One month ago, on July 9, Iraq’s prime minister announced the liberation of Mosul after three years of Islamic State rule. The violence displaced almost 800,000 civilians; more than 40,000 died, and large tracts of the city were turned to rubble during the battle that had lasted since October 2016. Beyond those dramatic losses, the war also fundamentally reshaped local communities — as the remaining houses, land and other assets changed owners.

Of the Iraqi refugees interviewed by the International Organization for Migration, 89 percent said they had their dwellings confiscated; some 35 percent lost farmland, and 13 percent lost businesses. In Syria, Eastern Ukraine and other conflict zones, the victors and survivors are also taking property from those who have fled or died.

Do communities experiencing such wartime plunder change their economic status and political views?

Learning from the plunder at a Nazi death camp

Our research examines how communities were affected by property transfers during the Holocaust, one of the largest and best-documented cases of mass violence and plunder. During this time, some non-Jewish Europeans took over the homes, businesses and other property of the Nazis’ victims.

We study the effects of plunder at the Treblinka death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland, where 850,000 to 900,000 Jews were murdered between 1942 and 1943. Believing Nazi assurances that they were sent to perform agricultural labor in Ukraine, many Jews took valuables with them. After they were gassed, their property — jewelry, golden dental work, money, clothing, tools and even hair — was collected, sorted and sent to Germany. At Treblinka, plunder occurred at a gargantuan scale: the camp’s Nazi commandant Franz Stangl spoke of stepping “knee-deep into money” and “wad[ing] in notes, currency, precious stones, jewelry, clothes.”

Even though the Nazis worked hard to secure all the loot, some Jewish valuables ended up in the hands of the local population. At first, some locals traded with the camp guards, who amassed considerable wealth and paid “without even counting the bills.” When the camp closed in October 1943, some people began digging through graves at the camp site to find valuables missed by the Nazis. In accounts from the area, observers often described the scene with terms like “Eldorado,” “Klondike,” and “gold rush.”

How did this change local communities?

How we did our research

Treblinka is important for this research, because the precise placement of the camp was chosen by a mid-level German official, and had nothing to do with the local population’s pre-Holocaust wealth or political views. The locals were not involved in the killing or in the camp’s day-to-day operations. Before the war, few Jews lived in this predominantly agricultural area. Thus we are able to measure the impact of the Jewish property stolen at Treblinka by comparing communities closer to the camp with communities farther away.

Of course, not all Treblinka-area residents benefited from the Nazi plunder; some even risked their lives to help Jews. But for those who did want to trade with the guards or dig for valuables, shorter distance to Treblinka meant greater access to Jewish property.

As we did not know who benefited from Treblinka and who did not, we decided to analyze the differences between communities situated up to 70 kilometers (or about 40 miles) away from Treblinka. We collected demographic, economic and voting data from both pre- and post-World War II periods to test whether distance to the death camp is correlated with economic and political characteristics.

Being near Treblinka improved neighboring communities’ housing

We found that proximity to Treblinka is associated with newer and better housing stock. The closer to the death camp, the higher the share of homes built in the post-World War II period and of roofs made of sheet metal, a more expensive material than other roof options, as measured by the 1988 Census. For example, in communities within 15 km of Treblinka, 45 percent of dwellings on average had metal roofs; in communities 16-35 km away, that was 38 percent of dwellings; and in communities 35-50 km away, just 25 percent. All these communities were economically similar before the war, and wartime destruction cannot explain these patterns.

However, proximity to Treblinka is not associated with higher levels of economic activity, education or income in the 1980s or 1990s. To the extent that some locals benefited from Jewish goods, they invested this wealth in real estate.

Being near Treblinka pulled communities farther right in Holocaust-focused election

Communities closer to the camp exhibited higher support for the League of Polish Families (LPR) — an extreme right, anti-Semitic party — in the 2001 parliamentary election. During that election, Poles debated both Polish-Jewish relations during the Holocaust and whether property should be restored to long-ago owners. In the community closest to Treblinka, the LPR vote share was 14 percent, or almost twice its national average of 8 percent.

However, we found no relationship between proximity to Treblinka and support for non-xenophobic right-wing parties or support for the LPR in the elections in which the Holocaust and restitution of property were not discussed.

As societies transition from war to reconstruction and reconciliation, wartime property transfers create legal, political and social dilemmas. The perpetrators of the violence may be punished, but that does not prevent cleavages from emerging between those who lost and gained property because of the violence.

Our analysis suggests that raising the issue of restitution — while necessary to do justice to the victims — can strengthen support for extremist parties. Even today, more than seven decades after the Holocaust, when most direct beneficiaries and victims of wartime plunder are no longer alive, restitution debates across Europe sow anger and frustration and apparently stirred up some anti-Semitic backlash.

While it is too early to evaluate the consequences of ISIS rule in Iraq, we can expect disputes over property between the returning refugees and their former neighbors in the liberated areas. Unless handled very carefully, those may destabilize this ethnically diverse society.

Volha Charnysh is a fellow at the Niehaus Center for Globalization and Governance at Princeton University.
Evgeny Finkel is an assistant professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.

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