For whom the Claims Conference tolls?

Were the Jewish presses in Poland stolen during the war and transported to Germany worthless? Why this sudden loss of interest in stolen Jewish property? Is this not what the Claims Conference should take care of?

January 6, 2014 22:55
Hungarian-born Holocaust survivor Miriam Helman [file].

Hungarian-born Holocaust survivor Miriam Helman 370. (photo credit: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun)

A hoard of valuable paintings was found in someone’s flat in Germany; we can only guess their true ownership. These are also the last days of the search for those who hunted, robbed and killed and perhaps the last chance to seek justice for another, too-long-forgotten robbery.

On August 22, 2001, I wrote a long letter to the Claims Conference telling them all that I knew concerning the history of major Jewish printing presses in Poland, and in particular of those stationed in Warsaw.

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All of them were destroyed during the Holocaust, but the more valuable ones were dismantled and transported by the SS to Germany during the first months of World War II.

Most of this well-organized robbery took place in Warsaw on October 24-26, 1939, but it was meticulously planned even before the war began. It was carried out under the supervision of SS officer Anton Hergel, who arrived in Warsaw as a printing machinery engineer in 1923 and thus knew exactly what to take and from where.

My father sought Hergel’s advice whenever the purchase and installation of the new machinery was concerned and so did other Jewish press owners. Hergel left Poland during the summer of 1939 and returned as a SS officer and was appointed the Treuhandler (supervisor) of all Jewish printing presses in Poland. He also advised, before the war, the huge Polish government press, which was taken away to Germany with major Jewish presses at the same time.

The German industry stopped the manufacturing of the printing machinery long before 1939, when it started manufacturing guns, but allowed the repair and overhaul of the old printing machines, which had as a result become most valuable property.

All this is well known, and the act of robbery was described in great detail in all Polish and Yiddish publications.

The printing houses of the biggest Polish-Jewish newspapers like Nasz Przeglad (Our Opinion), Moment, Folkszeitung and many others were emptied of all their machinery, stores, lead and copper lettering, even the newsprint. The transport was supervised by Hergel, who was “assisted” by his Jewish “colleague,” Mr.

Kramarski, a well-known printing Jewish innovator.

Kramarski was later found dead after the machines which he disassembled had been loaded on the Zelazna Street train siding for transport to Germany.

The SS later established its own printing press inside the Warsaw Ghetto, set up from the remains of some small, confiscated printing presses. A few members of my family worked there, until the ghetto was destroyed and they were all sent to Treblinka.

The Jewish printing industry in Poland was one of the oldest in Europe. It employed thousands of workers and was one of the few industrial occupations in which Jews massively participated. All over Poland there were many printing presses, which were mostly manufactured in Germany, since the Poles had limited printing machinery production facilities. In Warsaw alone, there were about 500 Jewish printing presses, out of which only approximately 30 were major printing establishments.

Most were small and antiquated, but they all used the German-made printing equipment.

The Polish government supported trade ties with Germany and made it difficult to import American printing equipment after 1933 when many Jewish press owners started to boycott German goods.

It might be of historical interest for the reader to realize that at same time, at the end of October 1939, Hergel’s two friends: Julius Streicher, the notorious editor of Der Stuermer, and Wilhelm Liebel, mayor of Nuremberg and owner of the prosperous Wilmy printing house where the Stuermer was printed, had “helped themselves” to museums, libraries and printing presses, selecting those belonging to the Jews and to the Polish government.

Some witnesses of the robbery claimed that Jews were told the stolen machinery was a “gift” from Polish Jews to the German Organization for the Strengthening of German Culture.

Some machines were supposed to be shipped to Nurenberg, where Der Stuermer, was printed and which indeed shortly afterwards increased itself both in its size and number of pages.

Rumors were rife in those days that Germany might arrive at some sort of an agreement with England, and a Polish protectorate will be restored. The anticipation of this move spurred the Nazis’ stealing orgy. Hegel was very well acquainted with the Polish government press and the Jewish major presses in Warsaw, and needed no lists and no instructions. Few people realized at that time what had happened. Jews were in a state of complete panic during these first weeks of occupation, but the matter received considerable attention in the postwar Polish sources and Jewish publications.

It was described in great detail in Yiddish in the Jewish Printers Memorial Book, published in Poland in 1949. After the machines were taken away, large scores of Jewish refugees from western Poland found lodging in the empty premises.

AFTER THE end of the war and the passing of German reparation laws, a few Jewish claimants, including myself, applied for the recognition of their losses. German law required proof from the claimants that the equipment which they had owned was not only sent to Germany, but had actually arrived there and where.

This was very hard to prove because of the very obvious fact that the equipment was of German manufacture, bore no special marks and was easily disguised.

The SS did not inform Jewish owners where the machines were sent. The German manufacturers refused to cooperate, claiming that all purchase documents were destroyed during the war. Certain evidence pointed out to the Nuremberg firm MAN printing equipment manufacturers, which might have dealt with such machinery, which still needed adjustment to German printing standards.

The MAN people declared, just like the Linotype Manufacturers in Berlin, that all their records were destroyed by Allied bombings. When confronted by the US-prepared lists of stolen equipment brought to their plants not only from Poland but from all over Europe (these lists are deposited in US Army archives in Alexandria, Virginia), the manufacturers refused to acknowledge them. The German press owners kept their mouths shut.

At the MAN plant in Berlin a huge Moment rotary press was discovered. It had been sold to Ullstein Publishers.

General Prawin, of the Polish Restitution Mission, claimed it as part of the Polish equipment stolen from Warsaw Jews during the war.

The Keren Keyemet offices in Israel established a special branch assisting such Jewish claimants. I found a number of necessary documents and witnesses to prove the authenticity of my demands. Keren Kayemet lawyers had even located Anton Hergel in Germany, a sick and dying witness, since he was shot and badly wounded by Polish underground in Warsaw during the war.

Hergel gave sworn testimony that major Jewish presses were sent from Poland to Germany. However, after seven years of litigation the German Supreme Reparations Court ruled that while I had proved that my father’s and uncle’s machinery were dismantled and taken to Germany, since I could offer no proof regarding to whom they were delivered, both Keren Kayemet and myself had lost the case.

Apparently the guardians of the German justice firmly believed that their SS colleagues in the occupied Warsaw had provided the Jewish press owners with the relevant information.

I addressed the Claims Conference regarding their intervention as the last chance to regain what was otherwise lost forever. The answer which I received on September 5, 2001, stated that the Conference had discussed the issue, but that regretfully they were unable to help me, and indirectly others, in this case.

Since the documents which I presented indicated that I assumed that the printing presses were sent to Nuremberg, it would only be possible to claim compensation for the presses if they had been taken to the former German Democratic republic, now the new German state; claims are based on property law which only applies to the new German states.

The Conference realized that this was not good news for me. After discussing the matter in detail they were afraid that there is simply no way of asserting a claim for compensation. It was signed “Yours Sincerely.”

I wonder what were the subjects that the Conference discussed at such length before resolving not to pursue the case any further. True, I assumed that the presses were sent to Nuremberg, but if they indeed landed in East Germany why not to look for them there, after this part of Germany was liberated? After all, German Jews received full compensation for one of the biggest Ullstein Berlin printing press in Europe. May be our machines went to Ullstein, like the Moment printing press? Were the Jewish presses in Poland stolen during the war and transported to Germany worthless? Why this sudden loss of interest in stolen Jewish property? Is this not what the Claims Conference should take care of? Doesn’t this specific group of Holocaust victims deserve special consideration? Something seems to be wrong, very wrong, in the Conference’s attitude to a very simple matter that still needs to be investigated.

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