Puttkammer’s List – The Extortion of Dutch Jews

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”.

Steven Spielberg, the founder of the Shoah Foundation.

Steven Spielberg, the founder of the Shoah Foundation.

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.

Paul Rehfisch in Berlin, 1937

Paul Rehfisch in Berlin, 1937

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

Dear Father,

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 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.

Kaethe

L-R: Kaethe’s father, Max Wolfe, Kaethe & Paul Rehfisch.

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.

The Wolfe

#11 Jan van Eijck Straat. The Wolfe’s lived upstairs, the Rehfisch’s downstairs.

Although Paul succeeded in delaying his arrest and deportation for longer than many – in part because he and his father in-law, Max Wolfe, were members of the Joodse Rad, the Jewish Governing Council; the Rehfisch’s and Wolfe’s were arrested on June 20, 1943. And like those both before and after them, were transported to the transit camp at Westerbork.

Amsterdam to Westerbork

Amsterdam to 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 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.

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!

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Pete Vanlaw - The information regarding his birthplace came from the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation. So I have to assume that the information originally came from Puttkammer himself when he applied for Dutch citizenship in 1939. I agree that it must have been in Prussia. Otherwise, Der Spiegel says he was born in Germany, but lists no town.

Karolina Szymaniak - A short historical note, though not of a great relevance. Puttkamer couldn’t have been born in Poland in 1891. Poland lost its independence ultimately in 1795 only to regain it in 1918. Than the name sounds German, so it must have been in Prussia. Anyway, I couldn’t identify the location. Are you sure of the name and the place?

Pete Vanlaw - Trini, that’s the way I started, looking for my family’s history. With the internet and so many genealogical web sites out there, you’ll find it.

trini majorossy - Most of my relatives died in Poland, Germany, France, etc etc, but I am TRYING to create our family again … or at least learn ANY of “our story” for myself and anyone left who cares about our personal history. And this is where I’ll begin.

Pete Vanlaw - Sonia, I just reread the article in Der Spiegel and I can assure you that it was definitely sardonic. I you’re interested, I can send you the translation of the article that I have. Just send me your email address.

Sonia Kovitz - Terrible story of making money from fear yet there is “no evidence” because the victims are gone. Puttkammer was free by the time the 1947 issue came out. Was the subtitle “Supplier & Attorney to the Concentration Camps” sardonic or straight, i.e. condemnation or praise? Either way, I wonder what kinds of comments on the story were sent to “Der Spiegel.” I may try to try to find the issue.

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