More than half a century ago, bags of counterfeit dollars, pounds and Soviet rubles passed through Adolf Burger's hands. Today he is 92 years old. Fascists forced the prisoners from all over Europe to make the counterfeit money. Burger is the only remaining living worker from the "devil's factory." He wrote a book about his experience that served as the basis for last year's film, "Counterfeiters," which won an Oscar for Best Foreign Film.
In Dr. Mengel's grip
Burger: I was arrested in 1942 in Slovakia. I'm a printer. I helped Jews falsify documents to keep them out of concentration camps. And as a result I wound up in a camp together with my wife.
KP: It was Auschwitz...
Burger: They split us up at the station — women to one side and men to another. Only a year later I learned that my wife had been sent to the crematory on the very first day. Auschwitz was a genuine hell. I'll never forget it. Dr. Mengel experimented on prisoners, and I wound up on his list. I was given a typhus vaccine. I was near death for 40 days. My friends hid me in the hay in our barracks. Five others who received the same vaccine were sent to the ovens.
KP: How did you become part of the counterfeit-money team?
Burger: They started looking for people at Auschwitz who had printing experience in 1944. A chancellery big shot who had previously only referred to me as "prisoner 6440" suddenly said: "Mr. Burger, the Reich trusts you with a mission for the Fatherland."
"Only a select few knew about us..."
Burger: Me and three others were sent to Sachsenhausen. There were two barracks behind two layers of barbed-wire fence and internal security. When they took us to the showers, they locked everyone else in the barracks. No one was supposed to see us or know what we were doing.
KP: Who was in charge?
Burger: Bernard Kruger came in the first day. He was an important SS officer who ran the counterfeit-money operations and personally reported to Himmler. He explained what we needed to do and said death awaited anyone who tried to sabotage the operation. He was a very cruel individual guilty in the deaths of many.
KP: What was your relationship with the Nazis?
Burger: What kind of relationship could exist between the victims and the executor? We were, though, granted certain privileges. We were fed better, allowed to grow our hair out and even given cigarettes at times. But many SS officers wanted to get rid of us as quickly as possible. Some of us were taken outside and shot — simply out of anger for losing the war. And one day in 1945, everyone just left...
Soviet identity cards from bench leatherette
Burger: Your workshop also counterfeited pounds sterling?
KP: We made almost everything. Soviet rubles, but in a smaller quantity... Soviet documents... I remember once we had to falsify 200 identity cards of Soviet People's Commissariat Security employees. It turned out the red leather we were brought was the wrong color. It was too bright. So Kruger came and took 10 men from our barracks. He said: "If the identity cards aren't ready by the day after tomorrow, we'll shoot these 10 men." Of course, we had to save our friends. You know what we came up with? There were benches in our barracks upholstered in red leatherette — the same color we needed. So we stamped the initials for the Soviet People's Commissariat Security on them and then made covers for the identity cards.
KP: Was it hard to counterfeit pounds sterling?
Burger: It was difficult to make the paper for the money. It was made from tissue, and we just couldn't make anything that looked like the original. And then one of my friends accidentally took an ordinary dirty rag...! It turned out the British made their paper from dirty tissue. But the Nazis were bringing clean tissue from Turkey. So when we finally learned how to make the paper, everything was fine. My friends and I made bills amounting to 133 million pounds sterling — 40 percent of Britain's money supply!
KP: Why did the Nazis need so much counterfeit money?
Burger: The Nazis divided our pounds into three categories. The first were impeccable counterfeits. Germany made payments at banks in Switzerland and Scandinavia and made currency operations with this money... The second were bills with flaws that were only visible to specialists. They were used to pay German agents in Europe. They didn't know they were getting paid with fake money. And the third had noticeable flaws and were dropped above English towns by plane, so people would pick them up, pay with them and ruin the British economy.
Poking at the king
Burger: We also counterfeited English postal stamps, besides money. Instead of the king's portrait, we put Stalin and the Star of David.
KP: But why?
Burger: German agents in England glued them on the envelopes instead of genuine stamps. The workers almost didn't notice, used the stamps and sent their post. The Nazis thought when people saw Stalin and the 6-pointed star, they'd start to hate the Communists and Jews. But people just started hating the Nazis even more.
KP: Was your counterfeit money really just like the original?
Burger: Even the Bank of England approved the counterfeits as "original." At the time, pounds sterling were unique in that they were very big — 13 cm by 21 cm. They weren't carried in wallets, but rather attached by a pin to the inside of your pocket so they wouldn't fall out. We poked holes through the portrait of the British monarch. We knew the British didn't do that and that's the only reason why some of the money was retrieved after the war. If all our pounds had ended up in circulation in Britain, the economy would have collapsed.
KP: Are you serious?
Burger: Yes. England even requested that this go unmentioned at the Nirenberg trials. Two years later, Britain changed all the bills up to 5 pounds (which were the ones we counterfeited) and the danger the economy would collapse disappeared.
Secret at the bottom of the sea
KP: What happened to Kruger? And the counterfeit money?
Burger: Bernard Kruger, who was guilty in the deaths of many of my friends, wasn't even tried. He lived in the Federal Republic of Germany and died 20 years ago. And the money... The Nazis drowned the printing presses, boxes of money and safes with information in Lake Toplitz in Austria. Expeditions have been held trying to find the remnants. People often die as a result. I don't believe in mysticism, but I know counterfeit money won't bring anyone happiness.
"I didn't take a cent from them for making the film based on my book," Burger said. "But I made one condition. I had to approve the scenario. It was redone three times and I agreed on the fourth version. I think the film is honest to the truth... They wanted to make me the hero of the film, but that wouldn't be right. Especially because the only professional counterfeit-money maker among us was Solomon Solyanov from Odessa. He was a talented man. He was always drawing. He even drew my portrait. We really became friends. I didn't see him after the war. He promised me he would never make counterfeit money again. I hope he kept his word.