Adolf Burger is clearly a very tough man. At 91, he is still strong enough to travel to Britain and still able to jump to his feet, deliver a strong handshake and speak through an interpreter in an unwavering voice about his experiences, which underline his simple, uncompromising attitude to life.
The Slovakian-born former printer gained fame late in life through his memoirs, The Devil’s Workshop, which were adapted for the Oscar-winning film, The Counterfeiters. This is one of several films which could have been made about Burger’s wartime experience. He was an inmate at Auschwitz and survived selection for the gas chamber on a number of occasions despite his weight dropping to 5½ st. He even survived being infected with typhus fever in an experiment performed by the notorious Josef Mengele.
However, he will be most remembered for his part in Operation Bernhard, the counterfeiting scheme in which a handpicked group of highly skilled Jewish prisoners in Sachsenhausen death camp forged perfect replicas of foreign banknotes in a bid by the Nazis to undermine the economies of the Allied countries. So was the film accurate?
Burger shakes his head. “No, it was a movie. You have to read the book [the English-language version of which has just been published] and then you will know the truth. The SS officers never screamed at us as they did in the movie. They never shot anyone in front of us as they did in the film. Six prisoners who fell ill were murdered, but never in front of us. And in real life, I was not such a revolutionary as I was made out in the movie. The actor [August Diehl] who played me came to see me before the film was made, but I didn’t recognise myself in his performance.”
Still, Burger is clearly proud of the film, for three times during the interview he reaches into his bag to flourish a replica of the best foreign language film Academy Award it won last year.
Being chosen to work in the counterfeiting workshop enabled him and his colleagues to eat relatively well and exist in reasonable conditions. However, at the time, he did not see it as a stroke of luck but rather as a death sentence. “We were certain that we would be killed. Operation Bernhard was such a secret that no one was meant to survive — that is why they chose Jewish prisoners to carry out the work. We were kept in a secluded block. When the [Soviet] Red Army came, they moved us to Austria. Even here, everything was mined. What saved us was that the Americans arrived so suddenly.”
Whether or not Burger had a fortunate break or two, his survival did not come down purely to luck. “It wasn’t just that. I wanted to survive. The Germans conducted medical experiments that I was part of. They injected me with typhus. I was sick for six weeks. Fortunately I had a friend who hid me, because the Germans would have thrown me in the gas chamber if they saw that I was so sick. Everybody who was sick was murdered. After the war I took the German company, IG Farben, to court, because it was under their supervision that the typhus was administered. I got 5,000 Deutschmarks compensation,” he says with a bitter chuckle. He adds that Mengele was very courteous to the prisoners, even those he was about to murder. “He was very polite. He would always speak nicely to us.”
The one thing which was not a problem for Burger or his colleagues in the workshop was producing counterfeit notes good enough to fool the Bank of England. “If one is a printer then one can do anything. The Czech central bank gave me some of the notes to see if I could recognise them. I was the only one who could.
“At the time, the British did not use wallets, they folded their notes and pinned them together with safety pins. I pierced my notes through the picture of the Queen [actually an image of Britannia] — the British would not have done that.”
To emphasise his point, Burger pulls something else out of his bag — a £5 note, one of 300 banknotes he brought out of Sachsenhausen when he was liberated. “This is a genuine forgery,” says the interpreter with unintended humour.
Burger admits that his efforts were of help to the Nazis, even if the operation did not achieve its primary aim of destabilising the world currency market. “Of course it helped them. It was a lot of money and they were able to purchase weapons and food with it. They took our notes around the world and exchanged them for local currencies and then bought what they needed.” He did not lose any sleep over this fact. “We did not think about that. In a camp your objective is to survive. And if someone is standing over you with a gun, you do whatever they ask you to do.”
However, he and the other forgers did hold up the dollar counterfeiting operation for a month. “Jacobson, a Dutch printer, was in charge of making the gelatine for the process. On purpose he always did it a little bit wrong. The resulting banknotes were not of good quality. After that, Kruger, the SS officer, lost patience. He said that if we did not complete the job he would shoot four prisoners. So then suddenly we managed to get it right. But by this time it was too late for the Germans because the Soviet army was already near.”
Burger was quite happy to defy the Germans in other ways. There would be games of table tennis between inmates and guards which the other prisoners always deliberately lost. Burger was able to beat all the Germans and did so frequently. “My friends said you are stupid, you should let them win. I said if they can’t play they should go and learn. One of the Germans only wanted to play me even though I always beat him. Anyway, he needed me to make his banknotes.”
The surviving forgers were liberated by the Americans, but not before a frightening incident when armed former prisoners approached the remarkably clean and well-fed forgers whom they thought were German officers wearing prison clothes. Their suspicions were allayed only when one of the counterfeiters rolled up his sleeve to show the tattoo on his arm. Burger rolls up his sleeve to display his own, the green ink still clearly visible after nearly 70 years.
The physical marks are present, but what of the emotional scars? Burger maintains that he felt no elation nor relief when he was liberated. Nor did he ever suffer from survivor guilt or any other psychological disturbance. He did, however, have an overwhelming urge to inform the world of what the Nazis had done. “When I was released I immediately went to the local village and found a camera. I returned to the camp to take pictures. You can see them in the book.”
His next stop was Prague, where he informed the Czech central bank of the grand forgery. The director of the bank was certain they had no forgeries. A meeting with Burger persuaded him he was wrong.
Having fulfilled his obligations and written his account, first in Czech and then in German, Burger was happy to settle down quietly. “I didn’t have any problems re-adjusting. I started work in a print shop immediately. I don’t feel any pain about what happened. If I did, I would not have been able to do all the speeches or write the book.”
However, when Burger returns to his home in the Czech capital he plans to retire from promotional work for good. “If you come to me in Prague, I’ll give you a cup of coffee and tell you all you want to know. But I’m not leaving my house again.”