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.