Part II: The Search For Answers

Concentration Camp Survivor Helps Solve Lake's Mystery

When 60 Minutes II went to Lake Toplitz in the Austrian Alps last summer, it was looking for secrets the Nazis had dumped there in the final days of World War II.

But if the wooden pieces the crew found were the remains of the Nazi project, the packing boxes had fallen apart and whatever was inside them was clearly in bad shape.

It seemed Hitler's secret could be lost to history. But if the high technology was being defeated by Toplitz, there was something else that could bring a conclusion to Hitler's Lake.
The memory of 83-year-old Adolf Burger is as sharp today as it was during the Holocuast. He will never forget the moment when, as a Jewish prisoner, he was ordered to pack up the secret Nazi project. "All the boxes were numbered at that time... They were all numbered according to a protocol," he recalled.

He never dreamed he would see them again.

Burger's eyes have seen a crime most of the world knows nothing about. It is a Holocaust story that he witnessed because he survived every step of the way.

"I survived five concentration camps over a period of three years. We looked at death on a daily basis. You were never sure of your life," said Burger.

Early in 1942, Burger's life was a joy. He was living in his native Czechoslovakia, a printer by trade. And he had just married Gisella, his bride, whom he describes as "in love with life and full of hope."

A few weeks after their marriage, the Gestapo came to the print shop. He was arrested the day before his 25th birthday. "I'll never forget that as long as I live. It was August 11, 1942."

The newlyweds were prodded onto a livestock train and shipped to Auschwitz. "No one can imagine such a night," said Burger. "Sixty people and 60 suitcases in a livestock car. Then the train finally stopped.... The doors were opened and they shouted 'Everyone out, everyone out.'"

On the platform at Auschwitz, the young couple was separated. "She told me, 'Think about me every night at eight o'clock, and I will think about you,'" remembered Burger. "'In this way, our thoughts will come together.'"

He never saw her again.

Gisella Burger was murdered in the gas chambers. But the Nazis had something else in mind for her husband. His journey through the death camps was just beginning, because the Nazis needed him. Fifty-five years later, 60 Minutes II brought him to the lake to help search for proof of his amazing story.

Looking at the video image relayed from the underwater vessel, Burger thought he recognized the markings on the remains of the boxes that were found

The evidence was in The Phantom's mechanical grasp. The crew brought up the one plank that could confirm the discovery of Nazi boxes.

It was at the surface, seeing daylight for the first time in five decades - and then it slipped back into the water. Pilot Jeff Kowalishen tried to catch the evidence othe fly, but it vanished, just as the Nazis had intended.

Why the S.S. dropped the boxes in the lake was still a mystery. But if it was to get rid of them forever - it was working. Solving the mystery meant Oceaneering would have to take a much bigger risk.

To get to the bottom of Toplitz and its secrets, a man would have to go down. Oceaneering called in the cavalry - a team of deep-ocean divers and their one-man submarine called a WASP.

The WASP can dive to 2,000 feet, and the air inside is recycled. At least in theory, a diver can breathe in there for three days.

Ken Tyler made the first trip down 200 feet into the debris field and discovered paper that had been soaking in water for 55 years. "It's very, very fragile. It's falling to bits," said Tyler while underwater in the one-man submarine.

Whatever it was, it was coming apart like confetti. It wasn't clear how much, if any, would make it to the surface. And if it did make it, would Burger recognize it?

As the first bundle of paper came up, it became clear what the diver had found. The notes were inscribed with the words "Bank of England." The boxes were full of cash, perhaps millions of dollars in counterfeit British pounds.

But the discovery was only one piece of an incredible story. Burger recognized the fake notes because he printed them at the point of a gun in a concentration camp. "These are the ones I was printing. That's unbelievable, 55 years later I see my own product," said Burger.

Shortly after his wife was murdered, Burger was ordered to the Auschwitz camp commandant, expecting to be sent to his death.

"He stands up and says 'Mr. Burger, you are leaving here tomorrow. We need skilled workers like you in Berlin,'" recalled Burger.

He wasn't the only one. Dozens of Jewish craftsmen were being picked out of death camps and sent to work on a secret project in Sauchsenhausen, a camp outside of Berlin. Burger's trade had saved his life.

When Burger arrived at the camp, he found himself with 140 other special prisoners, all of whom were artists in their fields. There were bookbinders, engravers and printers. They were escorted to two barracks that were sealed off from the rest of the camp behind barbed wire. The windows were painted over for absolute secrecy.

Inside the two buildings, the men found the very latest printing equipment, a photo lab, everything they would need for what would become the greatest counterfeiting operation in history.

The project was part of a Nazi scheme to print money on a vast scale (the equivalent of $4.5 billion), most of it in British pounds.

Rabbi Marvin Hier is among the world's leading Holocaust scholars and an authority on Hitler's S.S. "This was a very serious undertaking that could cripple the Allies," said Hier.

It was Hitler's secret weapon. The idea was to flood the world with bogus money to undermine the Allied currencies and, at the same time, help pay for the war. The closely guarded secret was supervised by Heinrich Himmler, head of Hitler's S.S.

"You would imagine in 1943: They're defeated in Stalingrad. They're beginning to lose battles, the invincible Third Reich," said Hier. He speculates that "Himmler would inform the Fuhrer...'Hey, not to worry, my Fuhrer. We've got a plan, and it'll be very soon now that we're gonna bankrupt...all these Western economies.'"

After perfecting the British pound, the prison print shop copied the American $100 bill. By war's end, they were prepared to print $1 million a day.

According to Burger, "The first 200 bills were finished on Feb. 22, 1945. We were supposed to start printing the first million dollars the next day. But on that day, Feb. 23, there was an order from the Reich Security's main office to stop work and dismantle the machinery. The Russians are 300 kilometers from Berlin."

Before the dollars could roll off the press, the print shop was on the run.

The end of the road for the Nazis and the counterfeit prisoners came at Ebensee, Austria, which was the very last concentration camp to be liberated. When Burger finally ran through the gate, a free man, he wanted only one thing - a camera. He took pictures because he was afraid no one would ever believe his story of death camps and economic sabotage.

The evidence of this incredible scheme was being brought back from 200 feet some 55 years later. The WASP team made 15 dives and logged 34 hours on the bottom of Lake Toplitz.

60 Minutes II put the deteriorating notes into the hands of two world experts on paper conservation, Bernard Lebeau and Florence Hereenschmidt of the French company LP3. They initially doubted the notes could be saved.

Four months later, outside Paris, their work was unveiled. The pounds dried so well they could be separated. Even the fake watermarks could be seen. Hitler's bills were perfect. It turns out the Nazis used some of them to pay off spies and finance commando operations. They were in circulation from Europe to South America. There were so many that, by the end of the war, the Bank of England was forced to recall all its currency and redesign the pound.

"If they had this counterfeiting operation fully organized in 1939 and early 1940, the results of World War II may have been quite different," said Hier.

Adolf Burger thinks the expedition to the bottom of Lake Toplitz was important to bring awareness to the atrocities committed by the Nazis: "Millions of people will see it again on TV, millions of people will see what the Nazis did.... I know I've done a very small bit of work in order for the young to learn the truth."

The money recovered from Hitler's counterfeiting print shop will soon be on display. The Simon Wiesenthal Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles is creating an exhibit around the artifacts from Hitler's lake.


Back To Part One: Hitler's Lake.

  • David Kohn

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