The Academy Award-winning Austrian film, The Counterfeiters, recreates the German counterfeiting scheme toward the end of WWII, aimed at toppling the British economy. Out of 143 Jews employed in the secret operation, four are still alive. Avraham Sonnenfeld, 82, the youngest of the counterfeiters, speaks about the Germans' most highly guarded plot.
Avraham Sonnenfeld does not have the telltale blue tattoo on his forearm. But he does not need this reminder to recall the horrors of the Holocaust. Day by day, he relives his tortured existence in the Nazi labor camps, especially the terror that constantly gripped him in Barracks 19 in Camp Sachsenhausen. "The conditions there were far better than that of our fellow Jews in other camps. Nevertheless, we harbored no hope. Knowing that the moment our project was completed they would destroy us made us live in constant fear. They wouldn't dare leave us alive."
Sonnenfeld, who came from a family of printers in Transylvania, was selected by the SS to participate in one of the greatest deceptions of all times — the Nazi scheme to destabilize the British economy by flooding the country with huge quantities of counterfeit bills.
"Operation Bernhard," named after the officer in charge of it, Bernhard Kruger, is the central theme of The Counterfeiters, a film that sheds light on one of the most audacious, brazen chapters of World War II.
Among the 143 Jews chosen to participate in this operation were craftsmen, artists, graphic artists, and printers, all of them transferred from death camps. Four of the original 143 counterfeiters are still known to be alive: Adolf Burger, a 91-year-old Czech Jew who wrote the 1983 memoir The Devil's Workshop, on which the film is based; Jack Lefler who lives in Berlin; Avraham Sonnenfeld, now 82, the youngest of the group and therefore nicknamed Der Yungster; and Avraham Krakowski, a chassidic Jew whose 1994 memoir, Counterfeit Lives, was published by CIS as part of their Holocaust Diaries series. Krakowski, now 89, suffered several strokes in recent years and is unable to communicate.
Adolf Burger took a job in a printing house in Bratislava in 1938. During World War II, before Slovakia began deporting its Jewish citizens to concentration camps in 1942, Burger received a deportation waiver as someone with skills indispensable for the country's economy. Working with Resistance members, Burger began to print false baptismal certificates for Jews scheduled for deportation, which stated that they were Roman Catholic from birth or had been baptized before the war. Holders of such documents were spared deportation. The Nazis discovered Burger's underground activity, and he was deported to Auschwitz in 1942 with his wife of seven months, who was murdered soon after. He was assigned to work at the new arrivals selection ramps, and his life was spared when Bernhard Kruger discovered his talent for forgery.
"For years, I was silent. I didn't want to speak about this anymore," Burger said. "It was only when the neo-Nazis started with their lies about Auschwitz that I began to travel through Germany and give my speeches, to tell people what happened."
But before Austrian filmmaker Stefan Ruzowitzky adapted Adolf Burger's memoir, a British film producer named Marc Ezra approached Avraham Krakowski's family for rights to his story, which was loaded with personal drama. Krakowski, a Radomsker chassid and outstanding Torah scholar, was shipped off to Auschwitz together with his fiance, and were dramatically reunited after the war. On the train to Auschwitz, Avraham Krakowski gave Pola, his kallah, a diamond ring, a gold watch-chain and four hundred German marks which he took from the lining of his pants. "Take these," he told her. "They may save your life someday."
Indeed they did. Pola, on the brink of death from typhus, dragged herself outside her barracks and traded the ring and the watch-chain for four carrots and a ration of bread. For Ezra, this was great big-screen material. But the family ultimately refused the offer. They didn't want their parents' personal miraculous redemption turned into a Hollywood love story.
"He always talked about the war," says his daughter Rina Rieger. "He believed it was imperative to share God's miracles." The war, she says, was always part of her too. "I remember as a three year old in New York, wandering around the house looking for a place to hide from the Nazis."
On the train to Auschwitz, knowing he was going to a place from which few, if any, would come out alive, Avraham Krakowski committed to keeping three mitzvot under all circumstances. He pledged never to eat bread with out first washing, to always eat the melave malkah meal even if it only consisted of a crumb of bread; and, mindful of the opinion that whoever recites Kiddush Levanah will be protected from harm during the entire month, committed to recite this prayer at the beginning of every month.
Wanted: Printers and Gardeners
World War II was barely two weeks underway when the heads of the Nazi Party convened together with Germany's financial experts, on Wilhelmstrasse No. 16. The scheme formulated on that 18th of December, 1939, was simple: to order the Bank of the Third Reich to print up millions of Sterling notes, to release them by parachute over British skies and stand by gleefully and watch the enemy economy disintegrate. The idea of counterfeiting the enemy's money did not originate with the Nazis; in fact, similar notions had been toyed with around the tables of Churchill and Roosevelt.
One hundred and fifty years before, during the French Revolution, the British government minted bogus Revolutionist coins, to fuel the already spiraling inflation. In the 18th century, Friedrich the Great, who created Greater Germany out of many Prussian principalities, had no qualms about forging fake enemy currency to undermine his foes. But these tricks took place before the Industrial Revolution. The idea here was that by the time the massive war machine of Adolf Hitler would be ready for the all-out onslaught, the job would be so much easier and simpler than in the past.
The plan was to eliminate them immediately after completion of the work.
The Nazis discovered, however, that carrying out the operation wouldn't be simple. SS Officer Bernhard Kruger, who was appointed to oversee the project, chose his manpower from Jewish artisans and printing experts. For him, the profit was twofold: highly professional cheap labor, as well as invisible collaborators who would not be around to tell the tale. The plan was to eliminate them immediately after completion of the work.
Here is where the paths of Kruger and the Sonnenfeld family converged, to their mutual benefit — Nazi ambitiousness and Divine protection for the Jewish family.
Grandfather Sonnenfeld owned a publishing house in Transylvania — then part of Hungary, today part of Romania — the business end of which he transferred to his two sons. At the time, national borders between these countries were somewhat ambiguous, but all this changed in the spring of 1944, when the German army invaded Hungary and Adolf Eichmann was personally authorized with the annihilation of the Hungarian Jewish population.
"Then the change was very rapid," Sonnenfeld reminisces. "Within a month, we were forced to wear the yellow star patch and a month later, we were corralled into a ghetto. By the following month, we were already en route to Auschwitz." There, Sonnenfeld saw his stepmother (his biological mother had passed away when he was a year old), aunt, and sister wrenched away from the family. His young cousin refused to be parted from his mother and Mengele sent him to the gas chamber as well.
"They separated the men and women and that was the last we ever saw of them. We were taken, two days later, for forced labor in an Austrian quarry — from which no one returned. None of those I knew, friends and neighbors who were with us on that transport, survived to tell the grisly tale.
"At the very last moment, before we were all shipped off to that vale of death, the Germans asked us if there were any professionals among us, in any field. Gardeners and printers were ordered to step forward. I have no idea what they did with the gardeners, but we were taken to a huge print shop which had been set up in Auschwitz. We were tested to see if we really knew how to operate the presses."
The Greeting Card Exam
At the time, the Sonnenfelds had no idea what the Germans had in mind for them, nor did they have any idea how to convince the Germans that they really knew how to operate printing machinery. "My grandfather had owned the print shop and knew all about the actual printing process, but my father and uncle had only managed the business end. As for me, I was a student. My only acquaintance with the mechanics was from a brief introduction during the vacation break between eleventh and twelfth grades. To my relief and luck, the German 'exam' was short and superficial, and our combined knowledge was enough."
Sonnenfeld recalls that "entrance examination" to this day. "They told us to print up a greeting card. Not knowing how or where to begin, I busied myself cleaning the press on the outside, to appear as if I knew what I was doing. Apparently, our supervisors were no great experts, either, because somehow, we passed that test."
The group of printers left Auschwitz the same way they had come — by train. His father and uncle, who had arrived at Auschwitz beribboned with medallions they had garnered for their service in World War I, left it, like all the rest, in striped prisoners' pajamas. "The only difference in our mode of travel this time was that we each had a seat. The trains were heavily guarded by SS officers, but they were a grade higher than the previous human cattle cars."
Along the way, the group was joined by Jewish artists and graphic experts, including Adolf Burger. This trip was the first time the Nazis had referred to him as Herr Burger, but that, having just lost his entire family, he sat in total apathy throughout the journey. He weighed in at 77 lbs (35 kg). A large sign over their new "home" read: "Camp Sachsenhausen."
"Sachsenhausen boasted 8,000 victims, because of its proximity to Berlin. Today, Israeli heads of state and officials are taken there for guided tours. We were housed in Barracks 18 and 19, in a special barbed wire area, totally isolated from the rest of the prisoners."
The project was so well-guarded that even the SS officers in the camp knew nothing about it.
And there they learned the purpose of their relocation: Operation Counterfeit. The project was so well-guarded that even the SS officers in the camp knew nothing about it. Only those who kept watch over Barracks 18 and 19 had inside information. The Jews in these two barracks noticed that Bernhard Kruger, the SS officer supervising them, had chosen only Jews.
Kruger was experienced in forgery. He had already forged British postage stamps with anti-Jewish and anti-Soviet messages, implemented through prisoners from occupied European countries, including Jews. But this counterfeit money was to be produced exclusively by Jews.
"They treated us fairly decently, meanwhile. We slept on beds rather than on bunk boards and got relatively good food — though by the end of the war, I still weighed less than 95 lbs., so it was no hotel. If someone got sick, he was removed, supposedly to the infirmary or hospital but we knew that he was permanently eliminated. The Nazis couldn't afford to risk any information leaking out."
According to Sonnenfeld, Kruger would even refer to them in the formal deferential German third person, expecting them to fully cooperate and progress efficiently. The moment they failed to keep to schedule, he threatened to take out some men and put them to death. "We knew that death was only a question of time."
The project was complex, requiring the right paper, making a watermark, preparing printing plates and breaking the special code which the British used for serializing the numbers on their bills. But by the end of the war, the Germans had succeeded in forging some nine million bills, with a face value amounting to 135 million pounds Sterling. The forgery was so close to perfect that the bills were hardly distinguishable from the real thing.
Burger's book describes how Kruger paid a visit to the barracks one morning in 1943, drew a bill from his pocket and waving it aloft, announced, "This forged bill was accepted by the Bank of England itself." The men in the bloc knew they had just gotten a new lease on life.
The Nazi's original intention was simply to release huge numbers of bills over British skies, knowing that people wouldn't be able to resist using them as good cash. This scheme never materialized because, in 1943, the tide of the war turned against the Nazis and they needed the money for more pressing purposes such as importing strategic raw materials and paying their spies. Some of this money may also have gone to finance the rescue of deposed Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, in September 1943, from his imprisonment on a mountain peak in the Apennines.
Survival or Sabotage
""When we came to work on the project, they were almost finished with the British pound notes and were beginning to produce dollars," says Sonnenfeld. "They had a serious technical problem with the dollar, however. Today the problem could be solved with sophisiticated computer technology, but then it was insurmountable.
"In an attempt to make a breakthrough, the Nazis brought a forger and swindler to our camp — a Russian Jew named Salomon Smolianoff, but he was equally at a loss to solve their problem.
"We were all there with one purpose in mind: to survive."
"Our work was not particularly professional," he says, somewhat apologetically. "I believe there was some sabotage, too, on the part of the printers. Being the youngest, I was left out of most of the intrigue. But I do believe that one of our group supervised our work and made sure that we weren't too efficient so that they would no longer need us — or too inefficient, in which case they would also get rid of us. Today, the world talks about us in idealistic terms, depicting us as determined to sabotage the Nazi war effort. I, personally, did not encounter that. We were all there with one purpose in mind: to survive."
"The film director wanted to make the conflict of conscience one of the central themes," says Rena Rieger, Krakowski's daughter. "This was good for the film, but I know it wasn't an issue with my father. The issue was not conscience. The issue was survival. In all the camps, anyone who wasn't being killed was put into forced labor for the war effort. Although my father was involved in such a major sinister activity, that, I think, was incidental. My father's mantra was, 'We will outlive them and leave a legacy.' "
Sonnenfeld says it is naïve to think that if the group had succeeded in printing dollars, the Nazis would have won the war. "At this stage, even we knew that they were losing, that it was only a matter of time before the Allies took over. We were worried whether they would decide to liquidate us before that happened. It was known that the greater their losses at the front, the more Jews the Nazis destroyed, with a demonic vengeance."
When the Allied forces approached Sachsenhausen, the team of forgers were transferred to the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria. "They loaded us on open train cars, together with all the machinery, without telling us where we were headed. So long as we remained together with the crates and machines, we felt safe and optimistic. When we got close to the camp, this optimism disappeared, since we knew that this was no labor camp; it contained the gas chambers meant for annihilation."
At the very last moment, just before the SS was about to round up the group and liquidate them — they were miraculously saved. The officers in charge decided to transfer them to Ebensee, an Austrian sub-camp of Mauthausen, constructed with underground tunnels and chambers for special clandestine projects, such as the development of missiles and the production of counterfeit money. The SS officers had only one truck for the transportation of workers to Ebensee, and had to do the transporting in three shifts. On the third round, the driver, who knew the Allies were on their tail and didn't want to be caught making another transport, poured motor oil into the gas tank so that the engine jammed. The guards, however, made the prisoners march there on foot. One part of this group did not keep apace with the rest. By the time they caught up, the guards had fled, leaving them to their own resources.
"We looked too good to them, too well fed, too clean. They refused to believe we were Jews."
"We finally arrived at Ebensee, but the Jews, who had already seized control there, wouldn't let us in. We looked too good to them, too well fed, too clean. They refused to believe we were Jews. After two days, the Allies came to liberate us and the rest of the 16,000 Jewish prisoners in the camp." Avraham Sonnenfeld, his father and his uncle (all the women in the family had been murdered) returned to their city in Hungary. They got back their print shop, but they did not resume operating it. In 1948, after his father died, Sonnenfeld made Aliyah, got married and built a family.
Kruger remains a figure shrouded in controversy. After the war, he was caught and interrogated by the French and the British. He was sent back to Germany and stood trial in 1950, but was exonerated since a number of Jewish survivors testified that he saved their lives. He lived in Frankfurt as a respected citizen, working in the very paper company that had supplied the paper for the forgeries, and died in 1989. Burger says that he was a murderer, personally responsible for shooting five of his friends.
What the Lake Hid
With defeat staring them in the face, the Nazis packed up all their paraphernalia, including printers' plates and counterfeit bills, into crates which they dumped into Lake Toplitz, the deepest, most isolated lake in Austria.
Toward the end of the war, they also cast chests of Nazi gold into its depths, gold which they had looted from conquered European countries. Ever since the end of the war, this has been a lodestone for treasure hunters. In 1959, a search party funded by the German weekly Stern succeeded in dredging up chests of counterfeit money with a face value of 72 million British pounds, from the depths of the lakebed. The Austrian government hired an American company of treasure divers to search for the gold purported to be sunken there; it has been working on the project since 2005.
"Burger also organized a search party of divers which found, among other things, a chest containing a list with the names of the 143 Jews who worked on the counterfeiting project. The name 'Sonnenfeld' appears three times — mine, my father's and my uncle's."
The Bank of England was onto the forgery, during the war, when one of the clerks discovered that a note submitted for exchange had, according to bank records, already been paid. (These bills were also used as promissory notes to be cashed for gold, which the bank made good on request from the holder.) By the end of the war, the government had learned the full story behind the Nazi scheme.
These bills were never dropped from the sky en masse, as had been planned, so that no widespread damage took place. However, since the false bills from Operation Bernhard continued to circulate in the following years, the Bank of England decided to take notes out of circulation altogether and print up new ones that looked different.
Avraham Sonnenfeld does not need the recent publicity in order to remember that chapter of his life. But he does believe in the importance of the story being told. "I was the youngest there. Now I'm 82. Soon, no one will be left to tell the tale."