PRAGUE (JTA) – 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 on Sunday night when as an honored guest at Hollywood’s most schmaltzy 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 told JTA by phone Monday from his room at the Le Parc Suite Hotel in West Hollywood a day after the Oscar triumph.
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.
In fact he had used his skills in Slovakia to save thousands of his fellow Jews during World War II.
Burger falsified documents that enabled Jews living in the Nazi puppet state to say they had converted to Catholicism before 1939. This proof of being “Aryan” allowed them to avoid deportation to Nazi concentration camps as part of an agreement made between Hitler and Slovakia’s wartime president, the fascist Roman Catholic priest Jozef Tiso.
Burger, caught by the Nazis in the act of falsifying papers, was shipped with his wife to Auschwitz a day before his 25th birthday on Aug. 11, 1942.
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 Sachsenhausen.
“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.
Instead of shooting the witnesses to their crime, the Nazis were in a rush and abandoned the prisoners after moving them to the Austrian Alps ahead of advancing Soviet troops in 1945.
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 pingpong 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 spritely young man.
He told JTA 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 he was contacted six years ago by German film producers who sought to bring his memories to the cinema.
“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.
Some inmates slow down the counterfeiting process and sabotage their own work, pitting them against others who make survival a top priority. The film is careful not to cast judgement on either side.
The film’s main character is Salomon Sorowitch, a Russian-born Jew who is Burger’s best friend in the camp and the counterfeiting mastermind.
Burger is played by German actor August Diehl, whose performance meets with Burger’s approval.
“He researched the part well and we spoke for hours,” Burger said.
As for the film Burger said it is accurate, but like a typical author notes, “The book, of course, has more detail and is grittier.” His memoir is now being translated into English.
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.
Ruzowitky and Diehl accompanied Burger to the Academy Awards ceremony, where he was unfazed by the glitz. Burger said he has been receiving many awards and media attention since the film’s release.
There was one odd moment for him Sunday night: “The Counterfeiters” beat out the Israeli film, “Beaufort,” for best foreign-film honors.
But Burger doesn’t feel that bad. As he tries to find comforting words for the Israelis, his laughing 25-year-old granddaughter, Petra, sitting by his side in the Los Angeles hotel room, starts giggling.
She pipes in, “His film was just better.”