The Real Estate Books of the German Occupiers
Organisation: Pointer (KRO-NCRV), De Monitor (KRO-NCRV), Follow The Money
Organisation size: Small
Publication date: 22 May 2020
Credit: Jerry Vermanen, Thomas Mulder, Peter Keizer, Anoek Hofkens, Thomas de Beus, Dirk Mostert, Marije Rooze, Joris Heijkant, Tanne van Bree, Wendy van der Waal, Wouter Hoek, Rene Sommer, Marlies v.d. Meent, Miranda Grit, Anne-Mae van Tilburg, Stefan Vermeulen
This is an astounding piece of data work on the painful subject. It was widely known that real estate in the Netherlands formerly held by Jews had been appropriated and stolen during the German occupation in World War II. What did not exist until Pointer (KRO-NCRV) journalists created it was a comprehensive database of such transaction — more than 7,100 properties across the country. Over the course of many months, reporters told stories derived from this novel dataset, including an online maps that allows people to see these properties are today. The impact was immediate: Municipalities, it was found, had rarely done this research themselves. As a direct result of this project, many began to do so. This project shows that sometimes the most powerful data journalism doesn’t involve fancy technology or sophisticated techniques. Sometimes flows from simply compiling the data and telling the stories within.
During World War II, the german occupiers made a registration of stolen Jewish real estate in the Netherlands. These books were digitalized recently. Pointer researched more than 7.000 transactions of disowned and sold Jewish property. We’re telling the stories of persons who came back from the war and found their homes occupied by the new owners. A lot of people ea We found that a lot of municipalities never researched their own shady past. More than 7.000 transactions of disowned and sold property could be researched. We also want to submit De Straat Die Niet Meer Bestaat as a separate
Because of our research, municipalities are starting to research their own role in the real estate theft. Before our research, just 3 had concluded their research. Thanks to our publications, we’re at 33 (of the possible 226) municipalities. These researches will conclude somewhere in 2021, and more municipalities are ready to follow their example. These investigations can lead to excuses by city councils, and monetary compensations to Jewish organisations and individuals.
We’re telling these stories in the 75th year of the Dutch liberation. The second world war seems a thing far in the past, but we’ve made these stories relevant by looking at the current consequences of this theft. A lot of Jewish people are still looking for closure of their family past. A lot of companies made a lot of money from these transactions. And municipalities still aren’t recognizing their own role in these transactions. In some cases, they asked the Jews coming back from concentration camps of hiding for overdue taxes on their homes. Municipalities sometimes bought stolen property, and afterwards frustrated the recovery of the property to the rightful owners.
We made the data sets public for anyone to look into. This led to a lot of tips from relatives, people living in these houses and historians. Our research led to at least 77 other publications, because we gave them the data to do their own investigations. We made 2 tv episodes, made somewhere near 20 publications, 1 interactive map and 1 interactive longread De Straat Die Niet Meer Bestaat (translated: The Street That No Longer Exists), which is now submitted to be archived by the Washington Holocaust Museum. We’ve provided translations of the key publications in the url’s (Google Drive with Google Translated texts).
We started with the data set in Google Spreadsheets and Excel. The stories we found, we’re researched with several national, local and online archives. We searched through old newspaper articles to find personal information, and we got access to archives which are hard to get into (because of sensitive information on war criminals). We also used old city maps of Amsterdam from around the war.
We made our interactive map with OpenStreetMap and a DMS in Google Spreadsheets. When one of the adresses has been located (because not all adresses still exist), we can change this location in Google Spreadsheets, which automatically updates our map.
What was the hardest part of this project?
When we started our investigation, the hardest part was to make an 75 year old database relevant in 2020. What stories haven’t been told in the past decades? This required a lot of preliminary investigation, and we decided to depart from the municipalities. They can still be held accountable for not researching their own past. We could tell a lot of stories around that premise.
After that, we had to find out where the interesting stories can be found in a database of more than 7.000 transactions. Our preliminary research helped a lot, and eventually every row in this spreadsheet is an interesting story to tell. We always tried to find key persons in our stories which could be a symbol for a larger group: victims, buyers, notaries, real estate agents, companies, etc. It’s hard to make a good story from just one row of data.
We used all sorts of archives to make substantial stories. It’s really important to factcheck every column in the spreadsheet, because the original documents were handwritten. So finding more evidence who the real buyer is, for what price is was sold, etc. was a key part in our investigations. We all wrote up our main lessons in a making-of article, so other people can do their own research with our tips.
What can others learn from this project?
What we learned, was that even the second world war (a part of our history that caused countless books, articles and movies) can be fuel for journalistic stories that are still relevant and important. Our combination of data journalism, archival research and classic journalism created an extensive investigation that was featured online in articles, an interactive map and our interactive longread, and two tv episodes. We gave the data personality and emotion.
Sharing the data and activating other journalists was important for our impact. Other regional and local journalists could go to work with our data. And because they made beautiful stories with the data, more municipalities felt the pressure of doing their own research. We also collaborated with our colleagues of De Monitor (KRO-NCRV) and Follow The Money on several parts during this investigation. Journalists working together on a data journalism project: that’s just awesome, and more newsrooms should consider opening up their shop to make information even more relevant.