Surviving counterfeiter celebrates Oscar victory

prague | He is the only Auschwitz inmate turned counterfeiter ever to win an Academy Award.

Well, he didn’t exactly win, but Adolf Burger sure felt like he took home an Oscar Feb. 24 when as an honored guest at Hollywood’s most shmaltzy film ceremony, he heard “The Counterfeiters” announced as the winner in the Best Foreign Language Film category.

“The Counterfeiters” is based on Burger’s memoir, “The Devil’s Workshop,” published in the 1950s and again in the 1970s in Germany.

His book chronicles a little-known Nazi operation that forced 143 concentration camp prisoners in Sachsenhausen, Germany, to make vast sums of English pounds and U.S. dollars in an attempt to destabilize the Allied economies.

“This is the high point of my life, the pinnacle, ” Burger said.

The 90-year-old native of Slovakia, now a resident of Prague, may not have understood all of host Jon Stewart’s goofy Oscar jokes — Burger does not speak English — but he is very clear on what the award means.

“Now more people will see this film and know that the Nazis were not just murderers, they were common criminals,” he said.

As was the case with other Holocaust survivors whose skills saved them from death in the camps, Burger, a typographer, was plucked out of Auschwitz to serve the Nazi criminal scheme.

His wife was murdered at the camp and Burger was purposefully infected with typhus as part of the demonic Auschwitz medical experiments. He weighed less than 80 pounds when the Nazis sent him to Sachsen-hausen.

“I thought somehow I would survive Auschwitz, but was sure I was a dead man in Sachsenhausen,” Burger said. “The Nazis planned to kill us so we would never tell anyone what they were doing.”

What they were doing was minting 134 million British pounds as part of Operation Bernhard, named after Bernhard Kruger, the Nazi major who led the counterfeiting effort.

However, the counterfeiting plan to undermine the British economy failed just like Hitler’s dream of a Teutonic Europe. Most of the currency was stolen by the Nazis or discarded.

As the film depicts, the counterfeiters received much better treatment than other camp prisoners: They ate regularly, took showers and even had recreational time because their talents were needed.

“I played ping pong with the Nazis, but I knew underneath they were monsters,” said Burger, who recounts details of his ordeal with the clarity and crispness of a sprightly young man.

He said that he wrote his memoir so people would not forget what the Nazis had done. But Operation Bernhard was ignored, even by scholars, for decades.

Burger knew that would change when German film producers who sought to bring his memories to the cinema contacted him six years ago.

“I had an inkling that this would be big,” he said.

He was right.

“The Counterfeiters” opened to critical acclaim in Europe last year.

The film owes its drama to the prisoners’ anguish over helping those who plan to destroy them, their families and everything they hold dear.

That an Austrian descendant of Nazis and Nazi sympathizers directed the adaptation of a Holocaust memoir raised eyebrows on both sides of the Atlantic.

But Stefan Ruzowitzky won accolades by telling journalists that it was precisely because of his country’s Nazi past, and the Nazi sympathies of his own grandparents, that he felt compelled to make a film about the Holocaust.

Jewish Oscars