A Letter from the Shoah Foundation?
It was an uneventful day back in 2002 , 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 Shoah 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”.
But before I could proceed I had to fill out a multipage form to support my eligibility as an heir to whatever kind of claim this was, based on something my Uncle Paul signed almost 60 years ago. Coincidentally, when the letter arrived, I’d already been researching his tragic story. ( “The Lost Transport”).
But I still didn’t know what this “Puttkammer List” was all about. So, to find some answers, as I’d often done in the past, I turned to the Jewish Genealogical Society. The replies came back immediately.
From JewishGen followers, I learned that this infamous list was created during WWII by a Dutch banking lawyer by the name of Erich Puttkammer. As an artist in blackmail, he’d been rewarded handsomely for playing a very cruel joke on Dutch Jews through his collaboration with the Nazis.
Already the masters of extortion with a world wide network under the supervision of Adolph Eichmann, the Nazis found that they could raise vast sums of money to underwrite their massive war effort by demanding huge payments from wealthy victims – mainly Jews – under the guise of offering them or their loved ones protection from deportation . . . or worse.
Puttkammer, through his banking connections, easily tapped into this racket. Using a scam of the highest order, he was able to leverage their fears of deportation to a fate unknown. His technique was to get them a place on his list by selling them tickets with an official stamp called a “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 my Uncle Paul had written to his father while he was still in Germany. From it, I could sense the fear and desperation he already felt, since he had written it right after Kristallnacht. By then his plans to leave were already made. But only after the daunting task of getting through the Nazi’s bureaucratic red tape.
Sanctuary under the Threat of War
As a safe haven, 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-belligerent status again, even as the threat of another war was looming.
Facing the realization that time was running out for him to get out of Germany, here is what Paul wrote to his father just before his departure:
“Dec. 7, 1938
Käthe 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 Hannover, after what I’ve experienced trying to make our departure possible . . . “
But the Nazis prevailed, and 18 months later they invaded the Netherlands, and within a short time they began their systematic round up of Dutch Jews. As a result, hoping to delay any deportation by the German invaders, Paul bought into the cruel hoax, and ended up on what became known as “The Puttkammer List”
Answers from JewishGen
With additional information from JewishGen and other sources, here’s what I began to piece together about Puttkammer, the man and his scam:
Erich August Paul Puttkammer was born in Luppisch, Poland on September 30th 1891. He studied law in Germany but later moved to Amsterdam when the opportunity arose to take a lucrative position at the “Rotterdamsche Bankvereeniging”, or more simply, ROBAVER Bank. Whether he was ever a German citizen is unknown, but he became a Dutch citizen in June 1939.
Having developed many strong ties with the Nazis, Puttkammer gained a veneer of credibility for himself and the “Sperre”, his official stamp. Meanwhile, the bank gave him a separate office with his own secretarial staff. This became the place where he received his “Jewish “customers.”, who by then were desperate.
As a result they would listen to any kind of assurance for a delay that offered to bring them one day closer to the end of the war. Here in the privacy of his office he would propose to them a place on his list in return for payment of 30,000 guilders per person – equal to roughly $18,000 U.S. That was Puttkammer’s price to buy protection 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.”
10 Million Guilders Stolen from Jews
According to Dutch records, by the end of the war he managed to extort at least 10 million guilders from his “Jewish customers”, which were added to the Nazi’s war chest. 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 amenable to other forms of payment such as gold, jewelry, diamonds, paintings or anything else of value.
Puttkammer did well for himself and continued to get paid for his “work” by the ROBAVER bank throughout the German occupation. His compensation, which included his spacious office with staff, also allowed him 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 exorbitant fee. But of course this was all a pretext for the Nazis to squeeze every last bit of money and valuables from those who could still pay.
But in reality the list was 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 and his father in-law, Max Franken, were members of the Joodse Rad, the Jewish Governing Council; the Rehfischs and Frankens were arrested on June 20, 1943. And like those both before and after them, were transported to the transit camp at Westerbork.
Every Tuesday at Westerbork, a complete trainload of deportees would leave the camp headed for Bergen-Belsen and points east. But Paul, his wife Käthe, and her parents remained there, officially still on Dutch soil – for another eight months, until they too were finally herded off to Bergen-Belsen.
As a cruel bit of irony, one could say that Paul’s place on Erich Puttkammer’s list bought him an additional eight months in Holland before he was officially deported out of the country.
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 Shoah Foundation, they turned down my claim!