2007-04-20 Ian Willoughby
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The Counterfeiter

Wartime portrait of Adolf BurgerWartime portrait of Adolf Burger
A new German film examines a little-known but fascinating episode in the Second World War. The Nazis had the amazing idea of causing the collapse of the American and British economies – by flooding them with counterfeit banknotes. The Jewish printers who made the fake money survived the Holocaust, among them Adolf Burger. Radio Prague’s Ian Willoughby has been hearing his incredible story.

Among the films premiered at this year’s Berlin Film Festival was a German-language picture called Die Falscher – The Counterfeiter. It is based on the remarkable memoirs of Adolf Burger. Along with 140 other Jewish concentration camp prisoners, he survived the war after being enlisted to take part in an ambitious Nazi counterfeiting plot aimed at crashing the economies of the Allies.

Bernhard KrugerBernhard Kruger
Burger, now 89, has been living here in Prague for six decades, though he was born in Slovakia’s High Tatra mountains. A book printer by trade, he was living in the capital Bratislava when Slovakia became a Nazi puppet state under Monsignor Jozef Tiso. Today, at home in the Prague suburb of Sporilov, Adolf Burger recalls his arrest by the Gestapo.

“The only underground organisation in Slovakia in those days was the Communist Party. They recruited me to print counterfeit birth certificates or documents showing they had been Roman Catholics in 1938. I did that for three years before they arrested me and my wife on my 25th birthday, August 11 1942. We were planning a celebration, but that didn’t happen.”

A few days later they were sent on a Nazi transport to Auschwitz/Birkenau. Burger managed to avoid one mass execution, but was deliberately infected with typhus as part of a so-called medical experiment. At one point he weighed less than 40 kilos.

Adolf Burger todayAdolf Burger today
In the end, ironically, it was the reason for Adolf Burger’s arrest which led to him, unlike his wife Gisela, surviving the gas chambers. One day he was called out of his cell, and braced himself for a beating. Instead he was treated with unexpected civility by the camp commandant.

“He looked at me and said, are you Mr Burger? He called me, a prisoner, mister. I stuttered that I was. You’re a typographer? I said yes, I was. He stood and said, Mr Burger, tomorrow you go to Berlin. We need people like you, typographers, in a printing plant. You’ll work like a free man again. I couldn’t believe a word of what he said. Because at Birkenau there was an order NN – Nacht und Nebel, Night and Fog. That meant that whoever went to Birkenau could never leave.”

Counterfiet wartime noteCounterfiet wartime note
Adolf Burger had just been recruited into a remarkable Nazi operation run by SS Major Bernhard Kruger. The aim of Operation Bernhard was to counterfeit huge amounts of English pounds and US dollars, flood the countries with the notes and thus cause their economies to crash.

He was transferred to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp near Berlin, where he and around 140 other Jews with similar skills worked in top secret conditions.

Movie PosterMovie Poster
“The windows were painted over so nobody could see in. When they took us to wash once a week – they were afraid we would die – the whole camp, prisoners and SS men, had to go indoors. Nobody was allowed to see us, not even the Sachsenhausen camp commander. Only secret service.”

When Adolf Burger says the Nazis didn’t want him and his co-counterfeiters to die, he means in the short-term, before their work was complete.

“We 140 Jewish typographers were not meant to survive. We should have been liquidated. But things turned out differently. After we’d made 31 million pounds sterling they then wanted dollars. There was one Jew called Jakobson from Holland, my superior, so to speak. He said, if we print those dollars we’ll drag the war out. We have to sabotage it. But that’s easier said than done.”

Dollars were harder to counterfeit than pounds, and Burger and his co-prisoners did manage to drag out the process of successfully producing fake greenbacks. Until, that is, they were told to do so within six weeks or face a firing squad.

But by that time the Soviets were close to Berlin. Soon afterwards the counterfeiting group were abandoned in the Austrian Alps by their Nazi guards. They were free.

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