Who, What and Why?
That day back in 2002 was uneventful, until I happened to go out to our mail box. That’s when I noticed a strange envelope postmarked “the Netherlands”, stuck in between the usual collection of bills, magazines and direct mail advertising. Inside was a letter written in Dutch. I could only decipher a portion, but it said it had something to do with the Shoa Foundation. When I finally had it translated, it looked like a bit of good news: I might be eligible for some form of WWII reparations because my Uncle Paul Rehfisch’s name appeared on a document called the “Puttkammer List”.
Included with the letter was a stack of forms for me to fill out, to support my eligibilty as an heir to whatever kind of claim this was, dating back almost 60 years to WWII.Coincidentally, when the letter arrived, I’d already been researching the tragic saga of my Uncle Paul (see “The Lost Transport”). But for me to better understand what this was all about, first I needed to find out what was this so called “Puttkammer List”. As I’d often done in the past, I turned to the Jewish Genealogical Society for answers. The replies came back almost immediately.
From JewishGen followers, I learned that this infamous list was created by Erich Puttkammer, a Dutch lawyer, during WWII – and that he’d been rewarded handsomely for playing a very cruel joke on Dutch Jews. Using a scam of the highest order, Puttkammer leveraged their fears of being arrested by the Nazis and deported to a fate unknown. His technique was to get them on his list by selling them tickets with an official stamp or “Sperre” that would ostensibly block any orders the Nazis might have to transport them out of the country.
At the same time I found a letter that Paul had written to his father while he was still in Germany. From it, I could sense his fear and desperation, since he had written it right after Kristallnacht. His plans to leave had already been made. But only after the daunting task of getting through the Nazi’s bureaucratic red tape.
Sanctuary and the Threat of War
As a sanctuary, he’d chosen to flee from his home in Berlin to the relative safety of Amsterdam. Because the Netherlands had remained neutral during WWI, many German Jews, including Paul, thought the country would be able to sustain the same non-beligerant status now, even as the threat of another war was looming.
Facing the realization that time was running out for him to get out of Germany, this is what Paul wrote to his father just before his departure:
“Dec. 7, 1938
Kaethe and I want to get out as soon as possible, and can barely afford to sacrifice a day. Therefore I want you to please be aware that we cannot spend much time with you in Hanover, after what I’ve experienced trying to make our departure possible …”
But 18 months later the Nazi’s invaded the Netherlands and began their systematic round up of Dutch Jews. As a result, Paul, hoping to delay any deportation by the German invaders, bought into the hoax, and ended up on what became known as “The Puttkammer List”
Answers from JewishGen
As the email replies continued, here’s what I began to learn about Puttkammer, the man and his scam:
Erich August Paul Puttkammer was born in Luppisch, Poland on September 30th 1891. It appears that he studied law in Germany, but then he became a Dutch citizen in June 1939. He lived in Amsterdam and worked there at the “Rotterdamsche Bankvereeniging”, or more simply, ROBAVER Bank.
Puttkammer had many strong ties with the Nazis, which lent a certain veneer of credibility to his “Sperre”. Meanwhile, the bank set him up in a separate office with a secretarial staff. This is where he received his “Jewish “customers.”, who by then were desperate. They would listen to any kind of promise of a delay that would bring them one day closer to the end of the war. It was out of this office that he offered them a place on his list in return for his price of 30,000 guilders per person – equal to roughly $18,000 U.S. – in order to be “safe” from deportation…at least for a little while. In a kind of cruel jest, the head of the Dutch Gestapo dubbed him, “Puttkammer Our Lord.”
Stole 10 Million Guilders
According to Dutch records, by the end of the war, he managed to rob at least 10 million guilders from his “Jewish customers” to add to the Nazi’s coffers. That’s equal to over 6 million dollars U.S.
Since many of his Jewish prospects were already sucked dry financially by other Nazi demands, Puttkammer was flexible enough to accept payment in the form of gold, jewelry, diamonds, paintings or anything else of value.
Puttkammer himself got paid for his “work’ by the ROBAVER bank throughout the German occupation. His compensation also included his spacious office with staff, and anything else he could skim from the loot he transferred to the Nazis.
Beginning in 1941, roughly 1300 Puttkammer-stamps were issued to those Jews who could afford to pay the required fee. But of course this was all a pretext for the Nazis to squeeze every last bit money and valuables from those who could still pay.
The list was practically useless. While it may have delayed the inevitable for some, it exempted no one from being arrested and deported. The Nazis had quotas to fill, and therefore paid little attention to a dumb Dutch stamp.
Although Paul succeeded in delaying his arrest and deportation for longer than many – in part because he was also a member of the Joodse Rad, the Jewish Governing Council – he, along with his wife and her parents were arrested on June 20, 1943. And like those both before and after him, were transported to Westerbork, which was basically a transition camp. But he was still in Holland.
Then every Tuesday, a complete trainload of deportees would leave the camp headed for Bergen Belsen and points east. But Paul, his wife Kaethe, and her parents remained there, officially still on Dutch soil – for another eight months, until they too were finally herded off to Bergen Belsen.
After the war Erich Puttkammer was arrested for war crimes. But because of insufficient evidence, he was released on June 7th 1946.
An article about Puttkammer appeared in the 1947 isssue “Der Spiegel”, the German quarterly. It was subtitled: “Herr Putkammer and his Stamp – Attorney & Supplier to the Concentration Camps”
A footnote: After filling out and submitting the lengthy insurance claim forms sent by the Shoa Foundation, they turned down my claim!