A Reprieve From Death

Only one aspect of Adolf Burger's departure from Auschwitz was the same as his arrival - he traveled by train.

Assaf Uni
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Assaf Uni

BERLIN - Only one aspect of Adolf Burger's departure from Auschwitz was the same as his arrival - he traveled by train. Everything else was different. Weighing just 35 kilos (77 pounds), after surviving many months in the extermination camp, this Slovakian Jew boarded an express train sent by the SS to bring him to Berlin.

"I did not know what was going on," he recalled Sunday. "One day I was informed that the next day I was to meet the camp commander [Rudolph Hoess - A.U.]. I couldn't sleep the entire night. I was trembling with fear. When I arrived at his office the following morning I was told, 'You are going to live like a free man; you are going back to Berlin. I did not believe it. They even used my proper name, calling me 'Herr Burger.' "On the train, I was numb. Neither happy nor sad. I saw women and children in the streets. I just watched them. The train did not go to Berlin. It stopped at Oranienburg [north of Berlin - A.U.]. From there we were taken somewhere else. They had lied to us about freedom. On the gate were the words, 'Sachsenhausen Camp.' Burger, who worked as a printer in Bratislava before the war, was one of 143 Jews taken by the SS to participate in one of the largest economic fraud schemes ever - the attempt to ruin the British economy by counterfeiting the British pound.

The plot, named Operation Bernhard, after Bernhard Krueger, the officer in charge of it, is the basis for the German film, "The Counterfeiters," which is currently showing in the Berlin Film Festival. Among the Jews chosen for the plan were artists, painters, graphic artists and printers. They were all brought from death camps. This feature length film, by Austrian director Stefan Ruzowitzky is very loosely based on Burger's memoirs, "The Devil's Workshop," published several years ago. Burger, a short, slender man who moves with an ease that belies his 89 years, is currently participating in a campaign to promote the film in Berlin. He described to journalists from around the world how he and the other Jewish prisoners assigned to barracks 18 and 19 at Sachsenhausen lived as they helped the Nazi war machine.

Although the barracks were covered with barbed wire, Burger relates that conditions inside the two long wooden huts were comfortable - at least for those who had come from the death camps. Beds with real bedding, eight-hour workdays, Sundays off, sufficient food, medicines were just some of the conditions provided by Krueger, who decided to treat his prisoners "as if they were not Jews." According to some, he even addressed them in the third person, a sign of respect in German.

All this, of course, was on the condition that they collaborate and progress. The moment they fell behind schedule, he threatened to have some of them executed.

"Life was good, but we knew that we were only on reprieve from death," says Burger.

The Nazi plan was to flood Britain with counterfeit pounds that would be delivered from the air. The Germans figured that some of the United Kingdom's residents would hoard the money in their homes and thus undermine faith in the British currency and ruin the economy. The industrial-scale counterfeit task was assigned to SS Officer Krueger, who selected only Jews, who could then be liquidated immediately after the completion of the operation. The film revolves around a dilemma that apparently did not actually occur: whether to sabotage the German counterfeit operation in order to strike at the Nazis, who were exterminating the Jews. The film portrays the struggle between the film's hero, Salomon (Sally) Sorowitsch, a Jewish con man and counterfeiter who heads the efforts to counterfeit the American dollar, too (the real counterfeiter's name was Salomon Smoljanoff, a man of a similar background who was brought to the camp only in 1944), and Burger, portrayed in the film as a Communist idealist who constantly sabotages the counterfeiters' work.

There is a certain naivete in the way the film raises moral questions of idealism versus pragmatism in a concentration camp. The German press called it "selling your soul in order to live." "That whole idea is bullshit," says Burger. "The important thing was to survive. We didn't care about the others in the camp. I did not sell my soul and was not a hero. I worked in order to survive."

Jewish journalist and author Lawrence Malkin, who conducted a thorough investigation into Operation Bernhard, also says there is no evidence of sabotage or moral dilemmas among the Jews working for the Nazi project. In the last five years, Malkin, a former international correspondent for Time magazine, scoured archives, interviewed survivors and witnesses, and published a comprehensive book called "Krueger's Men," about the plot.

This dilemma was actually what appealed to Ruzowitzky as a reason to make the film. "I wanted to examine the confrontation of principles versus reality in an extreme setting such as a concentration camp," says Ruzowitzky. "I don't believe that the survivors had no moral dilemmas, that they had no guilt feelings about what happened," responds Ruzowitzky when asked why he even imagined there were moral dilemmas in the death camps.

"Even Burger tries to defend himself somehow when he avoids the issue," adds Ruzowitzky.

Ruzowitzky notes that he did not want to make a historical film. "I strayed from the historical truth at a certain point and went my own way. I thought it would be interesting to show the conflict even though it never really existed."

When he took out a forged 20 pound sterling note that he saved, Burger says that the workshop inmates knew they would remain alive only as long as they were of value to the Nazis.

"In a way, it was worse than Auschwitz because we knew for certain they were going to kill us because of what we had done," says Burger.

Both Malkin's book and the film describe how Krueger came to the barracks one morning in 1943, pulled out a pound sterling banknote and announced, "This note was accepted as real by the Bank of England itself." The inmates knew they had bought themselves more time.

At the end of that year the print shop began producing massive quantities of British pounds. Over 132 million pounds were forged by the Jewish prisoners. In today's terms, that money was worth 3 billion pounds. Instead of serving the original Nazi plan, the SS units used the money to finance the Third Reich's espionage and war efforts in Europe.

After printing counterfeit pounds, the workshop tried to forge dollars. This was why Smoljanoff, a spry Jewish swindler of Russian descent, was brought to the camp and put in charge of the project.

In his book, Malkin writes that it is reasonable to assume that Krueger tried to extend the counterfeiting operation as long as possible, including by trying to forge dollars, in order not to be sent to the Russian front. With the approach of the Third Reich's collapse, the Jewish prisoners were evacuated to camps in Austria, along with the printing presses and large quantities of counterfeit money. They were saved at the last minute, in the Ebensee Camp in Austria, after the SS attempted to gather all the prisoners in order to kill them. Some of the counterfeiters were delayed, and by the time they arrived the Germans had fled, leaving the Jews to their own devices.

Krueger also survived the war, remaining a controversial figure. He was tried in 1950, but was acquitted after some of the Jewish survivors testified that he had saved their lives. He lived out his days as a respected citizen in Frankfurt, and worked until his death in 1989 at the very factory that had supplied the paper for the forged banknotes.

Some of the survivors credit Krueger with keeping them alive. Burger says the SS officer was a murderer who was personally responsible for the execution of five of his friends. In the film, which presents life at the concentration camp in all its horror, that question, too, is left unanswered.

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