Hundreds, thousands stood in a long line, just as they did in front of foreign embassies waiting for visas to enter countries taking in refugees. Much like the harassment they witnessed standing before the “Central Office for Jewish Emigration” established by Adolf Eichmann when waiting to leave the country, Austrian Jews queued up before the Dorotheum in Vienna on an indiscriminately-set date in March 1939: The Central Pawn Office in the “Ostmark” was the “official acquisition office” of the German Reich for the jewels and precious metals which Jews were no longer allowed to possess as of that moment and, subsequently, were made as deposits for a trifling sum. The objects were everything from family jewelry to the family silverware (salt shakers) to ritual objects. Only the most personal items, such as people’s wedding rings, were exempted from having to be deposited. Alone in terms of pure silver, about fifty tons were amassed in Vienna compared to twenty tons in Hamburg. Documents no longer exist for Berlin.
Jehoshua Guvrin, attorney in Tel Aviv, summarized it back in the 1960s: “There are also Jews who reported that diamond necklaces…..were weighed together with the diamonds and that the value of the weight was said to be valued as that of broken gold and that ridiculous sums were paid for it. One man told me that he had deposited gold nuggets, and when he asked for a receipt confirmation, he was beaten by the officials and thrown out.”
Files Numbering 18,537Only now, however, has an extensive file been released containing names of those robbed of their possessions. Some 18,537 cards contain names and addresses of all of the persons, a list of the objects deposited, a rough description of the object, the particular “purchasing price” and the date. This so-called “Dorotheum’s File” was discovered in the Austrian State Archive. After months of compiling data and with support of the Dorotheum, it was scanned and brought electronically up-to-date by the staff of the Vienna Jewish Community.
On one of the card files was noted that a receipt was given for “table silver” weighing a total of 13.5 kilograms. According to its value today, the equivalent purchasing price would be about one thousand euros.
On the file cards of Julius R. of Praterstraße in Vienna-Leopoldstadt, for example, one finds: • 1/ “1 golden match box – 1 diamond 24 grams, Gold 40,-“• 2,3 “Gold and Silver 195,-“
Written in long hand on the card file of Julius R. was the amount of gold nuggets amounting to 71 grams; the silver weighed, according to what was registered, 5,000 grams; in other words, five kilograms. Together, according to today’s currency, that amount would be sold for about 700 euros.
Only now has the search been taken up to find the legal owners or heirs of many of the silver objects from that time which were purchased and then later sold via the Dorotheum. One finds, for example, on the Art Database under www.kunstrestitution.at of the National Fund of the Republic of Austria a magnificent samowar totaling 2,235 grams of silver which was purchased by the Kunstgewerbemuseum in Vienna, today called MAK, during the NS era at the Dorotheum.
Whereas silver was either melted down on the spot or sold, the largest part of the deposited jewelry went from Vienna directly to the Central Office of the City Pawn Office to Berlin after 1939. The Dorotheum intervened by contacting Berlin, such as the former Reich’s Ministry of Economics, in order to maintain a say in what was to become of it. For example, a letter reflects efforts were made toward influencing what happened to the embezzled jewelry “in as far as it failed to bring in foreign currency, and therefore sold abroad.” The letter also guaranteed “quick liquidation” in Vienna for sales “also of the largest amounts.”
Historian Stefan August Lütgenau writes in the report issued by the Dorotheum that the embezzlement of objects consisting of jewels and precious metals has, apart from its material significance, a special ideological implication because precious metals often had a cultural value. They were Jewish cult objects or heirlooms. Lütgenau: “The embezzlement is to be viewed not only as the plundering of material objects owned by a disenfranchised group, but much more - as the annihilation and obliteration of all of Jewish culture as a whole as well as of everyday cultural life of Jewish families, the results of which would lead to the annihilation of their lives.”