Organized Music Looting

The Nazis took a special interest in the music and musical objects formerly belonging to Jews. A special task force for music called Sonderstab Musik seized large quantities of musical instruments, sheet music, gramophone records, and other musical material in Western Europe.

That included the Netherlands. The command unit, staffed by German musicologists, dispatched most of the spoils to destinations in Germany, practically none of which was recovered after the war.

Effects WWII cultural life
The persecution of the Jews during the Second World War had major effects on cultural life in the countries involved. The looting of art once owned by Jews has been discussed at length and continues to be a topic of relevance today, as evidenced even by the Koenigs Collection, for example. These were usually large, valuable collections. It was expected that museums and academies in the Third Reich would exhibit artwork once part of such an unwholesome Jewish heritage as a “warning” after the war was over. In actual fact, however, the Nazis simply plundered these objects. Furthermore, it is less well known that musical objects once owned by Jews were also looted.

The Sinister Duplicity of Nazism
During the Second World War, the entire contents of 29,000 Jewish homes were seized in the Netherlands. By that point, their owners had already been deported and sent on to extermination camps. Various destinations were found for their former possessions. The fact that all economic and cultural property once belonging to Jews in Western Europe was carried off and not destroyed, except as a result of the hazards of war, points to the sinister duplicity of Nazism. Jewish property was meticulously inventoried and selected, and household effects were subsequently distributed to German families who had been ausgebombt [“bombed out”]. Alternatively, these effects were stored in depots in such cities as Berlin and Leipzig, and later in rural areas, which were deemed safer.

Minister-president Göring and componist Strauss at the opening of the German Kulturkammer, September 5, 1936 (bron: NIOD/Beeldbank WO2)
Minister-president Göring and componist Strauss at the opening of the German Kulturkammer, September 5, 1936 (bron: NIOD/Beeldbank WO2)
Music Politics in Nazi Germany
As soon as Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933, measures were taken to limit as much as possible the role Jews played in musical life. Jewish musicians, teachers, academics, instrument builders, publishers, and others were no longer allowed to practice their professions. Those who were able to emigrate did so. Music by Jewish composers was dropped from the concert repertoire, their compositions were removed from libraries, and gramophone records featuring Jewish music were destroyed.

Alfred Rosenberg, Hitler’s party ideologue, organized the monitoring of all measures relating to arts and culture in the Third Reich. Specialists in their various fields, his staff were active in the areas of literature, the humanities, visual art, music, and theater. They ensured that the names of Jews who had been active in cultural life were put on lists and were cited in reference works as “polluted.” In 1939, Rosenberg had a staff of over 120, and Jewish participation in German cultural life came to a complete standstill.

Lexikon der Juden in der Musik
The musicologist Herbert Gerigk was appointed head of Rosenberg’s music division, known as the Amt Musik, in 1935. He collected as much information as possible on Jews who were active in musical life. He presented his Lexikon der Juden in der Musik in 1940, a printed reference work comprising 380 pages containing many hundreds of names, even of famous musicians and composers abroad. Full of pride, he announced in his preface to the work that German musical life had at any rate been “cleansed of Jewish elements.”

The Establishment of Sonderstab Musik
After the Germans invaded the Netherlands, Belgium, and France in May and June 1940, Reichsleiter [“National Leader”] Rosenberg was informed that a great deal of art and cultural objects in Paris had been left behind, “abandoned” by Jews who had fled. Rosenberg applied to, and received permission from, Hitler to seize this material belonging to the enemies of the Reich. He then formed the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) in Paris in July, staffing it with specialists from his pre-war organization of academics. The ERR’s most important task would consist in tracking down and confiscating not only the contents of Jewish book collections, publishing firms, antiquarian book dealers, and bookstores, but also the possessions of Freemasons, Rotary clubs, and other enemies of the Third Reich. Rosenberg was very quickly provided with a Sonderstab [“special unit”] for the visual arts, libraries, and music. The Sonderstab Musik was placed under Herbert Gerigk’s direction. The ERR set about its work with great vigor, quickly seizing the contents of a large number of Jewish libraries and art dealers’ shops in Paris. The looting of economic and cultural property once belonging to Jews on a scale never before witnessed in history had begun.

Rosenberg set up an ERR office in Brussels in August 1940 and one in Amsterdam in September. Gerigk was actively involved at all three branches. He made a big haul in Paris at the end of September when the entire possessions of the harpsichordist and pianist Wanda Landowska (b. 1879, d. 1959), who had fled the city, were confiscated and sent to Berlin. These included her substantial collection of valuable historical musical instruments and a library of some 10,000 volumes on music, scores, and precious manuscripts. Almost nothing of her collection was recovered after the war. The possessions of many other famous musicians in Paris were quickly confiscated, including those of the composer Darius Milhaud, the pianist Arthur Rubinstein, and the cellist Gregor Piatigorsky.

The ERR in the Netherlands
The ERR office in the Netherlands, located at Prinsengracht 796 in Amsterdam, opened on September 15, 1940. SS-Sturmbannführer Albert Schmidt-Stähler headed the office throughout most of the war with a staff of about ten academic German colleagues and Dutch assistants. Commandeered in July, the building of the invaluable library of the International Institute of Social History at Keizersgracht 264 was turned into a depot where other confiscated property was stored.

At the beginning, Herbert Gerigk had no permanent music staff in Amsterdam. He made regular visits to lead certain operations but also dispatched permanent staff members from Berlin to the office in the Netherlands, such as the musicologists Hannah Erfmann and Wolfgang Boetticher. The so-called Wochen- and Monatsberichte [“weekly and monthly reports”] drawn up by the ERR, some of which were preserved, describe the major operations and confiscations. Nothing of importance was reported about the last months of 1940 in connection with the Netherlands, and Gerigk still had his hands full with large individual confiscations in France. But things changed in 1941.

A thorough assessment was made of Jews’ business involvement in the field of music. Music stores—even those selling radios and gramophone records—were forced to close, and their stock was seized. In the best of cases, Jewish store owners were allowed to sell their business to a Verwalter [“administrator”], usually a citizen of the German Reich or a Dutch Nazi, for a nominal amount. Jewish instrument builders were forced to cease their activities. Jewish orchestral musicians working in the sectors of serious music and entertainment were dismissed. Dance schools were inspected to ensure that music by Jewish musicians and artists was not played there, “bad” gramophone records were confiscated, and the radio networks became subject to censorship.

In August, Gerigk and staff members from Berlin regularly started visiting Amsterdam to see the results of these operations for themselves. Over 7,000 music manuscripts from various libraries were checked to ensure their German or Jewish origin and were copied where necessary. The first crates of sheet music formerly owned by Jews was sent off to German schools.

The M-Aktion, or Möbel-Aktion [“Furniture Campaign,” the confiscation of all Jewish household items by the Nazis], was launched in the spring of 1942, coinciding with the first deportations. The large quantity of household effects left behind in Jewish homes was sent to storage depots and dock sheds, where it was gradually distributed to German families who had been bombed out. Everything relating to music (including instruments, books, sheet music, and gramophone records) was kept apart. Five large crates containing “modern music, literature, rare publications, and chamber music” were shipped off to Gerigk’s Amt Musik in Berlin, having been deemed valuable enough to be inventoried. In the course of the year, it became clear that a separate building had to be found where loot from the M-Aktion could be processed, consisting mainly of literature (both general and professional), music, and art objects. A Jewish art dealer’s shop at Rokin 116 was thus commandeered and renovated for this purpose.

The site located at Rokin was run with extraordinary efficiency. In the first few months, there were twelve crates of sorted music, while larger instruments such as upright and grand pianos were shipped off separately. Gerigk and his staff visited Amsterdam regularly throughout the year to check on progress and to organize operations. From then on, the Sicherheitsdienst (SD) was under orders to inform the ERR staff of all evictions so that any musical material could be secured in advance. From July, the number of crates of musical material increased dramatically. A selection of no less than 115 wooden containers was sent to Leipzig by train; Berlin had been heavily bombed, and Gerigk had been forced to move his headquarters. Some of the containers were transported to Schloss Langenau in Silesia, accessible via the Oder.

Reichsleiter Rosenberg came to Amsterdam personally in April, where he was presented with a list stating the number of crates containing material having belonged to Jews which was shipped off from the Netherlands between November 26, 1940, and January 14, 1944—2,277 in total. The number of effects from 29,000 Jewish households was impossible to calculate and was not included here. The clearing of Jewish homes of all household items (M-Aktion) was formally concluded in July, and Schmidt-Stähler received a letter of thanks from Rosenberg: “You and your staff are fully justified in being proud of the result of 29,000 cleared homes.”

From January to August 1944, 155 additional crates of music were shipped off, most of them to Schloss Langenau. Leipzig also sustained such heavy bombing that only the countryside was deemed “safe” from Allied air raids, but not from the Russian armies encroaching from the East, as would later be seen. No more Wochen- or Monatsberichte [“weekly or monthly reports”] were released after August. In response to Dolle Dinsdag [“Mad Tuesday”], the ERR withdrew from Amsterdam to the Dutch city of Enschede on September 5, 1944.

Jewish property continued to be transported from the storage depots in Amsterdam right up until the end of the war. No reports on the possible presence of musical material or instruments have been recovered. A shipment of another 158 crates from the Netherlands arrived at Schloss Banz (in the region of Franconia), where the ERR headquarters had been forced to relocate from Paris. The waybill lists only signierte Kisten [“signed crates”] with important book and literature materials.

So what happened to all that musical material? From reports preserved from the ERR in France, a picture emerges.

  • Valuable and antique instruments, manuscripts, and the contents of music libraries went to the Amt Musik in Berlin, where much was destroyed by bombing from 1942 on. The next destination was Leipzig, where Wanda Landowska’s instruments in particular also fell victim to bombing in 1943. After Leipzig, a small portion was sent to the monastery in Bavaria, where it was recovered after the war. The bulk of the remainder of the loot stolen in Western Europe by Sonderstab Musik went to Schloss Langenau in Silesia.
  • Several thousand upright and grand pianos were given to Bombengeschädigten [“victims of bombing”] in Germany, such as officers, army camps, and canteens of the Wehrmacht in Europe, as well as schools and associations.
  • Sheet music, scores, and music books went to choral societies, local orchestras, and libraries in Germany.

After the War
Schloss Langenau was seized by the Red Army of the Soviet Union in the spring of 1945. At the nearby train station, five railway cars were found carrying the inventory left behind from the loot stolen by Gerigk’s Sonderstab Musik, including countless musical instruments, books, and musical archives. The cars vanished eastward in the direction of Russia, where the contents are presumed to be to this day.

Germany sustained heavy damage from Allied bombing, and many of the looted musical possessions of Jews were destroyed as a result. From what remained after the war, practically nothing could be returned to the rightful owners. They had either died or were unable to make inquiries about “the black piano in their parents’ house” without a photograph or a certificate of ownership, as these had been confiscated as well.

Much of the musical material was stolen by soldiers and ordinary citizens at the end of the war. Even today, war booty continues to turn up in antique shops and in estates. But the vast majority of the property looted by Sonderstab is simply nowhere to be found.

Lyrics: Willem de Vries