The recent discovery of more than 1,400 prized paintings in the Munich residence of Cornelius Gurlitt, an art collector whose father collaborated with the Nazis, has brought the pillage of the Jews back into the limelight. Yet the bulk of anti-Semitic looting during World War II was at once much more banal and more widespread.
In Paris, the plunder of Jewish possessions began with the arrival of German troops in June 1940. At first, it applied only to art collections. But as soon as the Final Solution was devised in January 1942, the confiscations spread to the entire Jewish population, most of which comprised poor immigrants from Eastern Europe. Stripping Jews of their belongings was part and parcel of the effort to destroy them; pillage was an essential tool of extermination.
But what would be done with these items? Could they be reused, or were they too Jewish for that? Were the dishes and the blankets that had been touched by Jews fit for use by Aryans?
In Berlin in February 1942, Hitler himself ordered Alfred Rosenberg, who had been overseeing the looting of artworks throughout Western Europe, to entirely empty the apartments of Jews who had been deported or arrested, or had fled. The spoils would then be sent back to the Reich.
This widespread plunder, known as Möbel Aktion, occurred in France, Belgium and the Netherlands. From 1942 to 1944, at least 70,000 dwellings were emptied; in Paris 38,000 apartments were stripped bare by French moving companies at the request of the German authorities. It took 674 trains to transport the loot to Germany. Some 2,700 train cars supplied Hamburg alone.
Everything was taken: toys, dishes, family photos, tools, light bulbs. The goods were placed in crates and taken to warehouses and sorting centers specifically established for this purpose in the heart of Paris. Pianos were stored in the cellars of the Palais de Tokyo in the 16th arrondissement. Porcelains and fabrics went nearby, to Rue de Bassano. Books and musical scores were gathered at 104 Rue de Richelieu, furniture at the Quai de la Gare. The plunder of the Jews spread far beyond the famous Jeu de Paume and Louvre museums, the main gathering sites for looted art.
With German soldiers busy fighting on the Eastern Front, the Nazis in Paris were short-staffed for the sorting and crating required for Möbel Aktion. So they turned three warehouses into work camps. And they resorted to Jewish prisoners from the Drancy internment camp, a vast cluster of lodgings under construction just outside the city, and an antechamber to Auschwitz.
From 1943 to 1944, nearly 800 Jewish men and women worked — ate, slept, lived — among these objects. Some saw their own possessions or those of family members pass before their eyes, and at that moment understood that they, too, had been slated for internment or deportation.
The contents of each apartment were divided into two groups. Damaged objects or personal ones, like papers or family photos, were burned almost daily in a bonfire at the Quai de la Gare. The other items were sorted and classified by category, rather than source. A saucepan taken from one family would be added to a stack of other saucepans rather than kept in the original set. Stripped of their provenance, items lost their identity. Belongings became goods.
The supervisors of Möbel Aktion set aside the most appealing items — porcelain, fine linens, fur coats — for themselves and their friends. Former prisoners from the sorting work camps later described regular inspections by German soldiers; they would come to shop “just like at the Galeries Lafayette,” the Parisian department store. Detainees who had been tailors, cobblers or leather workers before their arrest were forced to make luxury clothes for the Nazi dignitaries and their wives.
Shipments of spoons, dishes, clothes and other items were regularly sent on to Germany. They were distributed to German civilians as compensation for losses caused by the Allied bombings or to support their immigration eastward, where they were sent to populate newly conquered territories.
But the systematic looting and redistribution of everyday goods of little value and often in poor condition suggest a motivation that goes well beyond economic calculation in a time of hardship. Indeed, several Nazi services, including those of Hermann Göring, regularly questioned the financial rationale of Möbel Aktion. If the project endured nonetheless it’s because one of its fundamental objectives was to destroy all trace of the Jews’ very existence.
Since the end of the war, the French and German governments have offered some indemnities, though often partial, to the small number of looted owners or their descendants who have asked for compensation. The goods themselves could not be retrieved.
Unlike stolen works of art — some of which were preserved and continue to resurface — the colossal spoils of that other, mundane looting have vanished. Either they have been destroyed, or they remain with German families, who to this day probably have no idea where they came from.
Sarah Gensburger is a social scientist at France’s National Center for Scientific Research and the author of Images of Plunder: An Album of the Looting of Jews in Paris. This article was translated by Edward Gauvin from the French.