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World War II: Internment and Concentration Camp Money

Internment and concentration camp money played a number of roles during World War II. The use of local money first discouraged escape attempts, since anyone carrying prison camp scrip could be quickly identified. Camp canteens accepted only camp money; thus, prisoners were forced to exchange their national currency for camp scrip, typically at a discount. This served as a source of camp income, and the administrative control of the currency additionally deterred black market activity within the camp. Camp money also acted as an incentive for high performing workers. Finally, the substitute fake money represented yet another way to degrade the prisoners, by not allowing them the dignity of the normal means of commerce.

Viktor Frankl, in Man’s Search for Meaning (1946), described a typical use for camp money, in this case in Poland at Auschwitz. “At one time, my job was to dig a tunnel, without help, for a water main under a road. This feat did not go unrewarded; just before Christmas, 1944, I was presented with a git of so-called ‘premium coupons.’ These were issued by the construction firm to which we were practically sold as slaves: the firm paid the camp authorities a fixed price per day, per prisoner. The coupons cost the firm fifty pfennig each and could be exchanged for six cigarettes, often weeks later, although they sometimes lost the validity. I became the proud owner of a token worth twelve cigarettes. But more important, the cigarettes could be exchanged for twelve soups, and twelve soups were often a very real respite from starvation.”

This material was loaned by Steve & Ray Feller and exhibited in Olin Library at Washington University in fall 2022. See also their work Silent Witnesses: Civilian Camp Money of World War II (BNR Press, 2007).

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