Paper Money

'Operation Bernhard' Nazi counterfeit printer dies

This counterfeit £20 note is from Germany’s Operation Bernhard. One of the last two concentration camp prisoners forced to work on the project, Adolf Burger, aged 99, has died.

Original images courtesy of Bill Rosenblum.

Adolf Burger, one of the two remaining survivors of Operation Bernhard, the counterfeiting workshop at the Nazi concentration camp in Sachsenhausen, died December 6 in Prague. He was 99.

According to his obituary in the newspaper, Burger was born Aug. 12, 1917, in Velka Lomnica, Slovakia. In 1942, he was arrested and transported to the town of Zilina and then to Auschwitz. Since he was a printer by profession, he was transferred to Sachsenhausen for Operation Bernhard, a secret German plan to destroy Britain’s economy by counterfeiting £5, £10, £20, and £50 notes. The 142 prisoners in the scheme forged, not only bank notes, but also postage stamps, foreign passports and ID cards. The operation was named for its director, SS Major Bernhard Krüger. Burger and his team forged close to 9 million notes with a value of more than a hundred million pounds.

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The Operation Bernhard notes are still considered among the most perfect counterfeits ever made, with properly engraved plates, rag paper, correct watermarks, and even valid serial numbers. Today, says Colorado specialist William M. Rosenblum, the fakes can be identified with 99 percent certainty based first on serial number ranges, and then by carefully looking for a minuscule anomaly: “ ‘Bank of England’ is found in the watermark at the bottom of the note. There is a triangle at the base of the first ‘N’ in England. On the counterfeits there is a line that originates from the center of the base of the triangle while on the originals the line is off-center.”

Shortly after the war, Burger wrote a book, Number 64401 Speaks. It was made into a movie, The Counterfeiters, that won the Oscar in 2008 for best foreign language film.

He said in an interview for the newspaper Mlada Fronta Dnes 10 years ago, “Although I had everything in the counterfeiting workshop — my own bed, white [clean] pillows, bread, how much I wanted and the radio played — I was falling asleep with the thought, ‘You’re on a vacation, but dead.’ We were not supposed to get out. The fact that the Americans came faster and SS ran away, that’s more than luck. I never believed that I would survive the secret printing shop.”

The last survivor of Operation Bernhard is 95-year-old Hans Walter, who lives in Ohio.

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