Although The Devil’sWorkshop is described as a memoir of the Nazi counterfeiting operation based in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp between 1942 – 1945, Adolf Burger’s book is much more than that. Burger was arrested by the Nazis in Slovakia and subsequently sent to Auschwitz. He describes what life was like for Jews under the government of Monsignor Joseph Tiso, a Catholic priest, and his ersatz SS group, the Hlinka guards. He gives a vivid description of life in Auschwitz, where his 22 year old wife was sent to the gas chamber. He tells how Jewish “kommandos” were assigned to rob the dead of their dignity in Birkenau — shearing their hair, extracting gold fillings from their teeth, and so on. Berger also provides a harrowing picture of the Nazi treatment of the Gypsy camp at Birkenau — all in all a searingly graphic description of Auschwitz.
The second part of the memoir deals with the Nazis’ attempt to forge millions of British pounds sterling in order to weaken the British currency. Toward that end, the Reich Security Service organized a forgery workshop in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. The Nazi creation of this economic weapon entailed the recruitment of Jewish prisoners from selected camps such as Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Ravenbruck, Mauthausen, and Theresienstadt, who were transferred to Sachsenhausen. The criteria for those selected was that they had some experience with the printing trade, and this was how Adolf Burger was saved from eventual death in Auschwitz (the memoir never explains why Jewish prisoners alone were chosen). All told, the project included 142 Jewish inmates who were forced to forge not only British paper money but also American bank note, worth billions, as well as bonds, stamps, and other documents. Accompanying his experiences in “Project Bernhard,” named after the SS supervisor of this criminal enterprise, Burger and the publisher have provided a large assortment of primary documents, rare photos of the main participants in the operation, and of prisoners incarcerated in the various concentration camps.
If “Project Bernhard” sounds familiar, it is because the book served as the basis for the award-winning film 2007 film “The Counterfeiters.” This riveting book is essential for our understanding of a relatively unknown chapter of the Holocaust.