Flight and Plundering. The List of Moving Goods of Betty Levy

Hendrik Althoff

Source Description

Betty Levy, a native of Melsungen in Hessen, emigrated to South Africa in February 1940. To this end, leading up to her emigration, she stayed with relatives in Hamburg for the time being. Starting in November 1939, she thus underwent the prescribed emigration approval proceedings conducted by the Foreign Currency Office  Devisenstelle of the HamburgChief Finance Administrator Oberfinanzpräsident, in the course of which her financial circumstances were examined. In addition, she had to submit a list of all the items she wanted to take along with her when emigrating. The list totals ten pages of forms. The excerpt shown here details 125 items of various kinds, including furniture, kitchen utensils, cutlery, and books. For each item, the number, date of acquisition and, in some cases, the purchase price are noted. All items are assigned to one of three “sections,” depending on whether they were acquired before 1933, after 1933, or specifically in preparation for emigration. The list also shows numerous traces of subsequent examination by Foreign Currency Office Devisenstelle staff, such as deletions, stampings, and marginal notes. Betty Levy’s individual case file stems from the holdings pertaining to the Chief Finance Administrator Oberfinanzpräsident in the Hamburg State Archives, featuring about 10,000 other proceedings that have been preserved. The course of this particular set of proceedings is exemplary, even though the moving goods listed are unusual in this case: Most of them are new furnishings for a furniture store that Levy intended to open in South Africa. Her former store in Melsungen had been destroyed by the Nazis in the November Pogrom of 1938.

  • Hendrik Althoff

The foreign currency offices Devisenstelle between controlling and plundering

The list shown is taken from the documents of Department F within the Hamburg Foreign Currency Office Devisenstelle, which was in charge of approving applications for emigration. As in the entire German Reich, such a foreign currency office Devisenstelle had been established in Hamburg as early as 1931 to combat capital and tax flight abroad in the face of the economic crisis. Under National Socialism, the office soon developed into a central player in the plundering of the Jewish population. The officials cooperated closely not only with the Customs Investigation Office  Zollfahndungsstelle, which was also adjunct to the Chief Finance Administrator Oberfinanzpräsident, but also with the revenue offices, the bailiff’s office, and the Secret State Police  Gestapo.

Since December 1936, the foreign currency offices Devisenstelle had at their disposal a particularly effective instrument of plundering: By means of a so-called “security order” “Sicherungsanordnung”], persons suspected of capital flight could be deprived of control over their entire assets. However, after the November Pogrom of 1938, the authorities imputed to all German Jews the intention to emigrate – and thus potentially to commit capital flight. Many Jews forced to have their application for emigration approved by the Foreign Currency Office Devisenstelle had already had grave experiences with the authorities. Betty Levy (born on February 14, 1869), too, had been issued a security order by the Foreign Currency Office Devisenstelle in Kassel in February 1939. When she arrived in Hamburg in September 1939 together with her daughter Else (born on July 19, 1903) in order to organize her escape from there, the Hamburg Foreign Currency Office Devisenstelle upheld this order and promptly cut the monthly allowance for Betty and Else Levy by half to 500 RM.

The moving goods register Umzugsgutverzeichnisse as a biographical-historical source

As part of the approval procedure for emigration, emigrants had to provide this department with comprehensive information about their financial circumstances. It thus formed the bureaucratic conclusion of a protracted process of plundering and disenfranchisement, in the course of which company shares, real estate property, and inheritances had to have been completely settled already. Tax clearance certificates [Unbedenklichkeitsbescheinigungen] from various authorities were also required, and levies such as the so-called Reich flight tax [Reichsfluchtsteuera] had to be paid. A central part of the documents to be submitted consisted of the moving goods registers – lists of all items to be transferred abroad in the course of emigration. There were precise requirements in place for preparing this register. Lists had to be drawn up for baggage and hand baggage as well as for each individual piece of freight. In addition, separate lists were required to detail particularly valuable items such as precious metals, jewelry, and stamp collections, which could only be registered and sealed by appropriate experts. In the case of Betty Levy, who emigrated to South Africa together with her daughter Else, the complete list comprised ten pages. The excerpt shown describes the contents of one of several freight crates, so-called Liftvans (moving containers).

The authorities’ intention behind the meticulous listing was, on the one hand, to prevent the export of works of art-historical significance or technical equipment, for example, and, on the other hand, to keep the outflow of capital in the form of moving goods as low as possible. Since taking along cash was possible only subject to extremely high fees – they amounted to 81 percent from October 1936 onward and to 96 percent starting in September 1939 – the danger as seen by the tax authorities was that emigrants would specifically invest their money in high-value goods with a view to leaving the country. Therefore, in principle, only the export of “old property” that had already been acquired prior to January 1, 1933 was approved. In the case of all later purchases, taking them along was in principle permitted only “within the scope of what was necessary” and such assets were also subject to a levy, which is why the date of acquisition had to be specified in the list for each entry. The moving goods were thus broken down into three categories, depending on whether they were acquired before 1933 (section 1), after 1933 (section 2), or directly in preparation for emigration (section 3).

In Betty Levy’s instance, the list contains an unusually large number of entries with the acquisition date of 1939. She explained to the Foreign Currency Office Devisenstelle that she was uncertain about the allocation of these items: She had operated a furniture store in Melsungen, Hessen, which had been destroyed in the November Pogrom of 1938. In South Africa, she was planning to open a new store, and by then a large part of her moving goods consisted of the new store furnishings. These items were thus at the same time replacements for earlier property and they had been purchased specifically in preparation for emigration. In order to make clear the urgent need for this furniture, she noted several times by way of explanatory remark that it constituted a “replacement for the destroyed items!!!” – not at all comprising any unnecessarily expensive new purchases.

For historical research, these lists of complete household items provide remarkable insight into the living situation of the Jews prior to emigration. Together with the other documents from the approval proceedings, a detailed picture of family and financial circumstances emerges. The files are therefore also of great importance in historical-biographical research such as that conducted by the Hamburg Stolperstein Initiative. Beyond that, the objects declared for export – and especially the newly acquired ones – also show what expectations the emigrants associated with their life abroad. Sometimes they even stated them explicitly. Betty Levy, for example, argued in favor of taking along an electric stove that had been deleted from her list of items to be moved, saying that she would “be extremely limited in terms of space abroad and might have to cook and live in the same room. Under these circumstances, an electric stove constitutes a considerable relief, especially at my advanced age.” State Archives Hamburg, StaHH 314–15 Oberfinanzpräsident, F 1455, Betty Levy to Foreign Currency Office Devisenstelle, 13.12 [19]39, fol. 49.

Latitude in the audit process

By means of the lists submitted, the moving goods were subjected to meticulous scrutiny, with the Hamburg Foreign Currency Office Devisenstelle commissioning external experts from the bailiff’s office or the customs investigation office to this end. These experts checked the packed boxes and suitcases against the lists, assessed the plausibility of the acquisition dates provided, identified individual items whose moving was to be refused, and – mostly in the case of artwork – suggested further appraisals. They then submitted an investigation report and corrected lists to the Foreign Currency Office Devisenstelle. In the case of Betty Levy, these show some deletions. For example, judicial inspector  Justizinspektor Carl Bürkner, acting as an expert witness, barred Betty Levy from taking along, among other things, a coffee machine (marked “new”) and a lamp from section 3 (“not approved”). The checking of the list was documented by the stamp the expert applied.

Based on the stated acquisition dates and the purchase prices, the expert also drew up a “tax index” to calculate the levies due. The export of all items from categories 2 and 3 was only possible subject to a payment to the account of the Reich Ministry of Economics held with German Gold Discount Bank  Deutsche Golddiskontbank, the so-called DEGO levy. It usually amounted to 100 percent of the purchase price, but could also be significantly higher. In Betty Levy’s case, Bürkner’s estimate hardly deviated from the purchase price and valued the moving goods at 2,130.50 RM as detailed in a three-page invoice. Once this fee had been paid, the moving goods were cleared for export.

Using the files on emigration proceedings, researchers can specifically examine discrimination against and plundering of Jews as part of everyday administrative work. After all, the legal requirements afforded individual officials like Bürkner considerable latitude. Just which moving goods were considered “necessary,” which receipts and certificates were recognized, and how high the estimate was, remained largely at the discretion of a small group of experts. Their conduct can be examined based on the processed inventories, especially with regard to mechanisms of targeted antisemitic discrimination. At the same time, cases such as that of Betty Levy illustrate that the applicants had the opportunity, at least formally, to argue to the officials for taking along certain items – and actually made use of those means.

In this connection, one can also gain insights into the persecution process beyond the conduct of individual officials. For example, contradictory goals collided in the emigration approval process. On the one hand, the Foreign Currency Office Devisenstelle was charged with closely controlling emigration and the export of goods and with approving either only under certain conditions. Moreover, the authority was able to use its control to plunder on a comprehensive scale. On the other hand, there was initially no doubt about the political maxim aimed at encouraging the emigration of Jews on principle. The bureaucratic and economic hurdles were therefore not allowed to be so high as to make emigration seem unattractive or even impossible. Analyzing the conduct of the Foreign Currency Office Devisenstelle toward Jewish emigrants thus enables researchers to gain structural insights into the political practice of the financial bureaucracy under Nazism.

Neither the central position of the Foreign Currency Office Devisenstelle in the regional persecution network nor the course of the examination procedure is specific to Hamburg. What is remarkable in this context, however, is the favorable situation regarding the documentation preserved: According to the Hamburg State Archives, 97 percent of all individual proceedings have been preserved – overall some 10,000 case files of Jewish and non-Jewish emigrants between 1931 and 1945. These comprehensive archive holdings provide information about procedures within the authority, but also about the broad network in which the systematic plundering took place. Photograph, presumably depicting Betty Levy and her daughter Else.

The photography probably shows Betty Levy and her daughter Else. (c) Freedberg family, USA. With kind permission

Lists of moving goods in the LostLift provenance database

In the case of Betty Levy, the proceedings were successfully concluded on January 5, 1940, and taking along her belongings was approved with some restrictions. On February 25, 1940, she emigrated together with her daughter Else from Hamburg via Amsterdam to South Africa. However, the freight she had listed in her register was not shipped as planned due to the state of the war impeding civilian shipping; instead, it continued to be stored at the Ernst Vogt shipping company in Hamburg-Eilbek. In September 1941, it was seized there by the Secret State Police Gestapo, the “liftvans” were opened, and the moving goods were put up for public auction by Schopmann auctioneers.

In this way, Betty Levy’s fate resembled that of thousands of other emigrants who left the German Reich via the major emigrant ports. Around 3,000 “liftvans,” also known as “Jews’ boxes,” were stored in the port of Hamburg from 1939 onward, and another 1,000 in Bremerhaven. In the provenance research project entitled “LIFTProv – The handling of Jewish emigrants’ resettlement goods in Hamburg after 1939” conducted at the German Maritime Museum in Bremerhaven, the paths of this property are being reconstructed. The source holdings of emigration approval proceedings central to this research have been evaluated in cooperation with the Institute for the History of the German Jews. As part of the project, LostLift, a public online database, is being created to facilitate restitution. The provenance of Betty Levy’s belongings can also be traced there in detail.

The moving goods registers, which document te contents of the confiscated freight crates, are of great importance for this reconstruction. The separate listings of sealed moving goods such as jewelry sometimes contain precise descriptions and weight information that may enable the subsequent identification of individual valuables and artwork.

The database also makes it possible to link various cases via the persons involved in each case, thus enabling systematic research into the broad network of persecution. The database encompasses tax authorities, customs investigation offices, bailiff’s offices, and Secret State Police Gestapo, but also shipping companies, jewelry stores, auctioneers, and the many buyers. The plundering was a collaborative project involving broad social participation and numerous profiteers.

The registers of moving goods thus prove to be sources with multifaceted research potential. They make it possible to examine the biographies and imaginations of the emigrants themselves, shed light on the process of control and plundering within the network of the Nazi persecution bureaucracy, and they are of particular value for provenance research as well. At the same time, a systematic study of the files from the Hamburg emigration approval proceedings has yet to be conducted.

Select Bibliography

Kleibl, Katrin, Auswanderungsgenehmigungsverfahren der Devisenstelle - Oberfinanzpräsident Hamburg als Quelle für die Recherche nach NS-verfolgungsbedingt entzogenen Kulturgütern, in: Der Archivar 1 (2022), S. 37-40.
Kuller, Christiane, Bürokratie und Verbrechen. Antisemitische Finanzpolitik und Verwaltungspraxis im nationalsozialistischen Deutschland, München 2013

Selected English Titles

‘Aryanisation’ in Hamburg: The Economic Exclusion of Jews and the Confiscation of Their Property in Nazi Germany, New York 2002.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution - ShareAlike License. You may share and adapt the material in any medium or format as long as you give appropriate credit, provide a link to the license, and indicate if changes were made.

About the Author

Hendrik Althoff, M. A., is a research fellow at the Department of History at the University of Hamburg and is currently researching the treatment of Jewish Communities’ real estate in National Socialism and the post-war period.

Recommended Citation and License Statement

Hendrik Althoff, Flight and Plundering. The List of Moving Goods of Betty Levy (translated by Erwin Fink), in: Key Documents of German-Jewish History, September 01, 2023. <https://keydocuments.net/article/jgo:article-295> [July 19, 2024].

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution - ShareAlike License. You may share and adapt the material in any medium or format as long as you give appropriate credit, provide a link to the license, and indicate if changes were made.