Hitler’s Jewish Counterfeiter

By Katharina Goetze

Published February 16, 2007, issue of February 16, 2007.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Although life in the “golden cage” of Sachsenhausen was deceptively comfortable for Adolf Burger, he believed that the secret he shared with the Nazis was too precious for him to survive. Yet survive the Jewish printer did, and at 89 he is still around to tell his tale. Now, Austrian filmmaker Stefan Ruzowitzky has made a new movie based on Burger’s memoirs. The film, “Die Fälscher” (“The Counterfeiters”), which will come to German cinemas next month, tells the extraordinary story of the Nazi forging factory that changed the Czech printer’s life — and saved it.

It all began in the hell of Birkenau, Burger said, the concentration camp to which he and his wife had been brought after being caught manufacturing fake baptismal certificates on their printing presses. Burger had already suffered countless beatings from the guards for sharing his first name with the Führer, when one day an SS officer told him to come with him. The officer informed him that he was a free man now, and that he would be traveling to Berlin, where people like him were needed: Burger had been handpicked to be part of one of the largest counterfeiting plots in history.

Operation Bernhard, as the project was dubbed, was a large-scale attempt to cripple the American and British economy with fake banknotes. In a clandestine factory, secluded from the rest of Sachsenhausen, Burger — alongside 140 other chosen Jewish printers, fine artists and bankers — forged millions for the Nazis.

To keep the counterfeiters motivated, they were largely spared the routine cruelty and degradation many had experienced in previous camps. Once recruited for the project, the valuable prisoners received civilian clothing, books, cigarettes and board games. On the weekends, there was no work and they were allowed to shower.

“In Birkenau I had experienced such pain,” Burger said in an interview. “In Sachsenhausen we had enough to eat and a radio. I even played pingpong with an SS officer.”

The plan worked: The 134 million British pounds printed by Burger and his companions were near perfect, and putting them into circulation caused the British currency to lose 75% of its value. A significant part of the fake money ended up floating in the European black market. (From 1944, Swiss banks refused to accept even sterling because too many duds had been registered, and members of the Jewish underground later used some of the cash to finance immigration to Palestine.)

Ruzowitzky’s film shows the moral predicament the counterfeiters faced. Although the factory guaranteed their survival for the moment, the work they did was destined to help their oppressors win the war. Though the movie depicts Burger as a young and energetic communist who tries to sabotage the operation, and who refuses to collaborate with the Nazi regime, the real Adolf Burger said he did no such thing. “Sabotage meant getting the bullet,” he noted.

Yet it was true, he conceded, that the counterfeiters had to win time. After they had mastered the British pound, they were given orders to continue with the dollar. The inmates knew that if they were too efficient, their time would soon be up and they wouldn’t be needed any longer. One of Burger’s colleagues tampered with the gelatin needed to produce the banknotes. It worked for a short while, but the SS quickly became suspicious.

“The officers told us that if they didn’t get a perfect dollar within six weeks, we would all die,” he said. The Nazis got their dollar, but too late. The war was almost over, and as the Red Army approached from the East the counterfeiting factory was moved to the Alpine fortress of Ebensee in Austria. In the end, only 200 dollar notes were printed before the Americans freed the camp.

After the war, Burger moved to Prague, where he worked again as a printer. He couldn’t go back to his hometown, because everyone he had known had been killed in Auschwitz. At first he kept silent about his past, but in recent decades the ex-counterfeiter has made it his mission to tour Germany and tell his story to young audiences as a warning against fascist groups.

“It is not their fault, what happened back then,” he said, “but it is their fault if they become neo-Nazis” today.






Find us on Facebook!
  • Are Michelangelo's paintings anti-Semitic? Meet the Jews of the Sistine Chapel: http://jd.fo/i4UDl
  • What does the Israel-Hamas war look like through Haredi eyes?
  • Was Israel really shocked to find there are networks of tunnels under Gaza?
  • “Going to Berlin, I had a sense of something waiting there for me. I was searching for something and felt I could unlock it by walking the streets where my grandfather walked and where my father grew up.”
  • How can 3 contradictory theories of Yiddish co-exist? Share this with Yiddish lovers!
  • "We must answer truthfully: Has a drop of all this bloodshed really helped bring us to a better place?”
  • "There are two roads. We have repeatedly taken the one more traveled, and that has made all the difference." Dahlia Scheindlin looks at the roots of Israel's conflict with Gaza.
  • Shalom, Cooperstown! Cooperstown Jewish mayor Jeff Katz and Jeff Idelson, director of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, work together to oversee induction weekend.
  • A boost for morale, if not morals.
  • Mixed marriages in Israel are tough in times of peace. So, how do you maintain a family bubble in the midst of war? http://jd.fo/f4VeG
  • Despite the escalating violence in Israel, more and more Jews are leaving their homes in Alaska to make aliyah: http://jd.fo/g4SIa
  • The Workmen's Circle is hosting New York’s first Jewish street fair on Sunday. Bring on the nouveau deli!
  • Novelist Sayed Kashua finds it hard to write about the heartbreak of Gaza from the plush confines of Debra Winger's Manhattan pad. Tough to argue with that, whichever side of the conflict you are on.
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.