On the trail of stolen property belonging to Jewish refugees

Historical photo of the loading of a container with moving goods in the port of Hamburg. © Gustav Werbeck/HHLA photo archive, Speicherstadtmuseum Hamburg

What happened to the cargo that never arrived? An online database now provides information about the fate of Jewish emigrants' “relocation goods” that were confiscated from them in German ports during the Nazi era. The project by the German Maritime Museum (DSM) is intended to make the topic known, offer opportunities for research and also serve to further collect information. It has even led to contact with a 99-year-old victim of injustice, reports the DSM provenance research team.

They were just able to escape the mass murder: Due to the increasing threats in National Socialist Germany, more and more Jewish citizens emigrated abroad from 1933 onwards. To do this, many had their belongings packed in so-called lift vans and shipped into exile via the ports. But with the start of the war in September 1939, this process stopped abruptly: civilian ships were no longer allowed to leave the German Reich for enemy countries. That's why the loads ended up piling up en masse in the warehouses in the ports of Hamburg and Bremen. So they were ultimately declared the loot of these two cities: from the spring of 1940, the authorities confiscated the Jewish belongings and commissioned bailiffs and auction houses to sell them publicly to the highest bidders.

Processing a robbery story

The German Maritime Museum has dedicated two research projects to this special form of expropriation of Jews: Since 2018, Kathrin Kleibl and Susanne Kiel have carried out detailed detective work collecting and evaluating thousands of documents related to the topic from the state archives in Hamburg and Bremen. The “LostLift” database developed from this. For the entries, the route of an owner family's belongings was reconstructed as far as possible - from leaving the apartment to the confiscation and auction of the property.

In addition, there is sometimes more detailed information about the individual participants: in addition to the affected families, also about the freight forwarders, bailiffs and the buyers of the auctioned goods. There are already a total of 5,500 entries in the personal register. Freely accessible since September 1, 2023 LostLift database Descendants of the injured parties can now track down the processes involved in dealing with the expropriated property based on existing clues.

Additional data and entries continue to enrich the database and the team also hopes for spontaneous reactions to the project. “With LostLift we want to draw attention to this aspect of the deprivation of Jews under National Socialism, which has so far received little attention. We also want to encourage people – especially in Bremen and Hamburg – to give us further information,” says Kleibl. Specifically: Perhaps someone will notice special family-owned objects that were purchased during the war.

An affected contemporary witness comes forward

As the team reports, the project has already led to a particularly pleasing reaction: one affected person became aware of it. “Eva Evans is the first contemporary witness to come forward based on our research. Otherwise the descendants will do that,” says Kleibl. As the 99-year-old reported, she was 14 years old when her parents took the paintings off the walls of their Berlin apartment and put many other items in boxes to send to Great Britain. But after the family arrived in their new home, they waited in vain for the goods that were supposed to reach Great Britain by ship.

After all this time, Evans now had the opportunity to build on this story, reports Kleibl: “I sent her the auction protocol that I found in the archive, and she was able to help me identify some of the items. “That was very touching, because on the one hand she can work through a piece of family history, and on the other hand, provenance research gets important information,” says Kleibl

As her colleague Kiel concludes, the reappraisal is actually 75 years too late: “What we are doing should have happened much earlier. But during the founding phase of the Federal Republic, people remained silent in order to avert possible reparation payments and to avoid being further confronted with the guilt. “We are, if you will, following in the footsteps of the state reparations offices at the time, but we are going even further in our research: We are making it clear that the people who fled abroad were also victims of National Socialist Germany,” said Kiel.

Source: German Maritime Museum,
LostLift database

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