lawrence malkin author of Krueger's Men and The National Debt
The Story
excerpts - Krueger's Men

Lawrence Malkin

The Secret Documents

Chapter 6: Ingathering of the Exiles

" Aufstehen! " In the darkest hour before the dawn, that daily wake-up call ended the restless sleep of every prisoner in every freezing, louse-infested hut across the constellation of Nazi concentration camps during the dozen years of Hitler's Reich. Whether weary, ill, or actually dying, each miserable inmate had to tumble instantly from a wooden bunk and run, not walk, to the camp's central square, there to stand silent, motionless and utterly vulnerable for the ceremony of roll call in the Appellplatz . The humiliating ritual was designed to demonstrate the absolute power of the SS over their prisoners' very existence. Some prisoners keeled over and literally breathed their last, robbing the SS of their prey as they paced wordlessly up, down, and across the mute rows, sometimes doubling back to review those who thought they had been passed over this time, weeding away the weakest with a death sentence in a nod, the flick of a finger, or one horrifying word, Raus! Out!

Avraham Krakowski, a pious young Polish accountant, survived a typical roll call shortly after he was immured in Auschwitz . The prisoner serving as block warden barked at his charges to remove their caps. Immediately, they did, and the warden reported: "Six hundred and fifty-five prisoners. Ten dead!" The SS man reviewed the rows, counting the living and also counting the dead. Krakowski recalled: "We were the lucky ones. The count checked out. The Appell was finally over. If it had not checked out, we would have been made to stand, as later we often were, an entire day without food in the rain or the freezing weather."

Auschwitz was an extermination camp-- Vernichtungslager in German. Sachsenhausen, originally a punishment camp for Communist and Social Democratic prisoners who built it with their own hands on the suburban train line north of Berlin, developed into a slave labor camp where prisoners mainly were worked to death, although thousands also died from the harsh discipline and, in the case of Russian prisoners of war, mass executions. Prisoners were assigned to such exacting tasks as repairing shoes and watches, and recycling captured equipment into raw materials. As in all SS operations, corruption was endemic; in 1941 the commandant of landlocked Sachsenhausen had the prisoners build him a yacht, an offense for which he was transferred to Norway . His successor, a more practical man, used the prisoners to conduct grueling tests on experimental shoe soles. Around a track covered in separate lanes of gravel, cinders, sand, concrete, and the like, about 150 prisoners circled daily for a run for about 40 kilometers to determine the durability of different materials, their backs sometimes weighed down by 15-kilogram packs of sand or their feet pinched by shoes that were two sizes too small. Such consumer research was relatively harmless compared to the experiments in noise measurements conducted with pistol silencers by Arthur Nebe's criminal police, which reputedly included experimental shots into the skulls of prisoners.

The camp was laid out in a semicircular grid of 56 barracks inside a triangle enclosing 18 acres of the camp's total of 44. This triangle was delineated by a wall rising almost nine feet and studded by nine watch towers armed with machine guns. The barracks measured 200 by 40 feet. With slightly peaked roofs, these blocks--or so they were called, like prison blocks--hugged the ground and were separated by wide spaces to enhance visibility from the principal control tower at the base of the triangle. Just beneath it, in the form of an inner semicircle with a radius of about 350 feet, was the Appellplatz , ringed by the notorious running track. To the right stood a tight rectangle of a half-dozen rows of wooden barracks or blocks, known as the Small Camp. These were built in 1938 to house Jews rounded up after the Kristallnacht pogrom.

In mid-1942, the barred windows of Block No. 19 were painted over, and the building itself, the last one in the first row closest to headquarters, was enmeshed in a barbed-wire netting to await its troop of specialists and their machines. Before Bernhard Krueger could recruit his Jewish work force, suitable guards for Block 19 had to be assigned by the SS. Krueger had to settle at least temporarily for two quartermaster sergeants named Herbert Marock and Heinz Weber. Both had blemished records as cut-ups, and the SS general in charge of personnel obviously felt the way to keep them on their toes was to shout at them to instill fear as they apprehensively stood at attention. This was virtually the only tool in the SS disciplinary arsenal, but it was not Krueger's chosen incentive.

Next Krueger summoned the master printer August Petrich, who had worked in Operation Andreas, the Nazis' first, failed attempt at counterfeiting. At first Petrich thought that reviving the mad counterfeiting scheme was a joke. Krueger admitted he almost thought so, too: "Imagine, graphic artists, engravers, repro-photographers, and so on from Jewish inmates. I find it a unique story. Almost like an April Fool's joke. Are there really artisans among Jews? I thought they were traders, brokers, capable stock market and business men, experienced doctors and lawyers, and here and there also a police chief." Krueger informed the equally skeptical printer that it would be his job to train the Jews to use the machinery. In short, at Himmler's orders he was to teach printing and engraving within six months instead of the usual German craftsman's three-year apprenticeship. Petrich replied: "Let's not kid ourselves. It is a very difficult task we have to undertake, and it will cost us a good many gray hairs. It may yet turn out all right, it may not. The prisoners are the principal players."

And so they journeyed to Sachsenhausen. Krueger paused to consider the inherent contradiction of the Nazis' universal camp motto wrought into iron letters over the stone gate: Arbeit Macht Frei -- Work Brings Freedom. He knew this was a lie, indeed that life would turn out precisely the opposite for those he would choose from the eighty candidates that the camp commandant put on display for him at a roll call in Block 19.

As Krueger approached, he heard the command "Hats off!" and saw eighty pairs of hands being held stiffly against the trouser seams of the blue-and-white striped uniforms. He had never before come so close to the wretched truth of Nazi rule. The tension and fear were evident in the prisoners' faces as he inspected the men slowly, Petrich at his side.

"How old are you?"

"Sixty years."

"Your profession?"

"Paper expert."

"Where do you come from?"

"Eichenberg in Bohemia ."

"Why are you here?"

"I am a Jew."

"Step forward."

And so Krueger began the methodical work of selecting the men on whom the future of Operation Bernhard depended. They had no idea for what they were being selected at this decisive roll call but they immediately noticed something different: Krueger addressed them by the formal and polite German Sie , instead of the familiar and demeaning du reserved for children, servants, and Jews under the Nazis.

Down the line he walked, selecting a professional engraver in precious metals, a banker, a paper salesman, even a Polish doctor to help preserve his work force. Contrary to his expectations, he found four men from the building trades--two carpenters, an electrician, and a mason--several specialists in the graphic arts, and four printers.

"Where did you work?" Krueger asked one printer.

"At various Berlin firms."

"Do you want to join the others?

"Yes, sir, Herr Sturmbannfuehrer."

"Join the others"

He finally picked thirty-nine inmates instead of his planned thirty, mainly middle-aged men, of whom about half from various graphic trades, including a well known Berlin fashion photographer, Norbert Levi. There was even a tall, slightly grotesque drifter, a half-Jewish mischling who looked like a clown and agreed to Krueger's suggestion that he was a joker by nature; such a person would help keep up morale. When Krueger reported the results, the commandant said: "Four printers! Excellent! I hope they can print what you want." Still, no one in the camp, not even the commandant, had the least idea what was happening, and neither Krueger nor Petrich told them. Petrich doubted he could succeed with printers who had no experience working with high-quality inks and who probably ground out "cheap lottery tickets. store advertisements, calendars, business stationery, calling cards for teenagers." Krueger reproached him: "Think, be patient, do your duty and have a strong will." The optimistic SS engineer said he knew German Jews from civilian life who had fought bravely for Germany in World War I, so why couldn't these become good printers? Moreover, he continued, "The prisoners are most likely not dissatisfied with the opportunity of landing in a secret printing plant and will work doubly hard to remain in it. Operation Andreas was easier. They just drafted the required experts out of their positions without asking the owners of their companies whether they liked it or not." He did not need to remind Petrich of the fiasco that followed.

The SS guard Marock insisted from the start that Krueger was too soft on his charges, especially since they were Jews. "Prisoners should be handled firmly. They are used to it," the SS quartermaster sergeant told Krueger. What none of the others seemed to realize was that the usual Nazi ways would not work here. Krueger was not just looking for specialists, but individuals of intelligence and dexterity he could train and organize for the various interlocking tasks of engraving, printing, sorting and counting that were essential to the success of the operation bearing his name. Hairdressers, for example, were not chosen for their skills or ancestry, but for their nimble fingers.

The prisoners' recollections of Krueger's selections to fill out his team at Auschwitz match the tenor and some of the details of his own account. At Auschwitz-Birkenau, Moritz Nachtstern, an anarchist stereotyper who had worked in the print shop of Dagbladet , Oslo's largest newspaper, was told one evening late in 1942 that he and six other print workers had been picked out by the occupations listed on their prisoners' cards. Presumably the cards were part of the Hollerith classification system the Germans had adapted from a joint venture with the International Business Machines Corporation of the United States . Nachtstern had been listed as a printer rather than a stereotyper because the clerk found the name of his occupation too difficult to spell. "Printer" is a generic term often used loosely. Used precisely it refers to a worker who actually runs a printing press. A stereotyper is a specialist who makes an impression from the original type and casts the metal plates that are actually used on the press. The distinction matters mainly inside the print shop or in union negotiations, but in this case Nachtstern correctly sensed it might be a matter of life and death. When Nachtstern and his comrades arrived a couple of weeks later at Block 19, they found that "not even a cat could have gotten through that barbed wire netting unscathed." Krueger, wearing civilian clothes, met them in the small exercise yard outside the barrack.

"Good day, gentlemen. I think you'll like it here. What's your trade?

That first question was addressed to Fritz Schnapper, a German who had arrived with Nachtstern.

"Printer," he replied, confounded by Krueger's polite demeanor and formal usage.

"Excellent, sir," Krueger replied, turning to Nachtstern, who announced his trade truthfully but not without apprehension.

"Ah, stereotyper. Splendid, sir," mused the Nazi official. "I shall have good use for you."

Krueger patted a relieved Nachtstern on the shoulder and walked off with a friendly nod.

Around the same time, Avraham Krakowski found himself before Krueger in a line of 100 Auschwitz prisoners placed in rows of five abreast. He watched Krueger pick Mordka Tuchmajer, a printer from Poland, who in turn asked for his brother to go along so they could stay together, even though his brother was a furniture varnisher. The brother was named David Marjanka, also a Pole, and may or may not have been related to Tuchmajer, who was seven years younger. Nevertheless Krueger amiably replied, "All right, put his number down, too." As the line shortened, and men from printing and allied trades were selected, Krakowski reckoned he had been called by mistake. After 25 men were picked, Krueger ordered:"Enough!" But then he impulsively decided he needed a few more, and for some unknown reason, which Krakowski attributed to no less than divine intervention, Krueger spotted him.

"You over there, come on up here. I'd like to talk to you."

Krakowski stood before him.

"How old are you?"


"What kind of work do you do?"

"I'm an accountant."

"Let me see your hands."

Although roughened by forced labor, they remained soft enough to convince Krueger.

"Take down his number, too."

Krakowski became the thirty-first and last choice; of those thirty-one, nineteen had been selected earlier that morning for the gas chamber.

Max Groen and his boyhood friend Dries Bosboom had been picked up in their native Amsterdam for breaking curfew and shipped to Auschwitz, where they were among only 38 of their transport of 1,150 souls to survive. One day Dries was asked a curious question by an SS corporal. Had he worked in the graphics industry? Yes, he was a lithographer by trade. At that precise moment the gong sounded for a selection, but before it could begin the corporal stuck in his head in the barracks and asked if anyone else had worked in graphics. " Jawohl, ich! " shouted Max. He was a newsreel cameraman, but what difference did that make? Dries whispered to Max that he must say he was a litho-photographer because he could handle a camera, and not a photo-lithographer because that skill took years to learn.

In the office the two Dutch Jews were called before an authoritative SS major whom they found suspiciously well mannered. The major did not give his name and asked a number of questions as if he were interviewing them for a job. When he reached Groen, he asked about his skills in photo retouching. Groen had absolutely no idea what to say. At that moment, he recalled a trashy romance novel on his mother's kitchen table with two words referring to some obscure reproduction process about which he knew nothing.

"American retouching," Groen blurted out.

The officer nodded knowledgeably: "Ah, you mean positive retouching."

In the blink of an eye, Groen's life had been spared by Krueger, for of course it was he. Max and Dries were put on a train to Berlin with 60 others in a third-class carriage with wooden seats and windows. The mere fact that it was not a boxcar made the ride a luxury.

Not until they reached Sachsenhausen did any of the prisoners know why they were there. Groen, quick and wily, needed little time to discover the purpose of the secret print shop through the classic prison "jungle tom-tom" whose beats he could read so well. He also learned of the fatal sword of Damocles that hung over all their heads. Nachtstern discovered the purpose of the place from Marock shortly after his interview with Krueger. The boastful sergeant picked up a counterfeit five-pound note in Block 19 and preened before the new prisoners: "We have beaten England in the military field. Now, with the notes, we shall also ruin their economy. They have dropped counterfeit bread-ration coupons over Germany from the air. We shall reply with these notes, until inflation is over them like a storm."

The idea that a team of printers, graphic artists, and accountants, all bearing the Nazi equivalent of the mark of Cain, would be employed in what might otherwise be a vast criminal enterprise and then disposed of as casually as a herd of cattle, at first seemed no crime at all in the murderous context of a concentration camp. To the prisoners themselves it seemed a blessing or at least an opportunity to mitigate the harshness of their treatment.

The original draft of thirty-nine prisoners, swept into an incomprehensible situation, at first felt humiliated and whispered among themselves: "What will others say when they think of us as counterfeiters?" These were, after all, Jews who had earned respectability in the alien society of pre-war Europe. At first some saw an opportunity for revenge, most forcefully Max Bober, a tough Berlin printer.

With the lights out and the guards withdrawn, Bober argued for the "silent satisfaction" of sabotage by sloppy work in this "swinish operation." He urged his comrades: "You must not be resigned to allowing a pitiful crown to be pressed on our heads. We now have a weapon in our hands we must use...We know nothing about whether our wives and children are alive or dead."

This emotional appeal was countered by the cooler logic of Jaroslav Kaufmann, a Czech dentist, who warned that they would be betting their "whole bankroll"--their very lives. He argued: "The Nazis will need more and more of this bogus money, so they will need us increasingly. If you sabotage, they won't need us any more and will kill us with this secret."

Kaufmann won them over. Bober, with his expansive personality, became the barracks major-domo and helped initiate newcomers into the agreed method of survival. Sabotage was never again contemplated until the final days of the war made stalling worthwhile, although even that had its limits.

Krueger had his own nuanced view. He clearly thought of the operation as a soldier's duty but also an onerous challenge that might endanger himself if he failed. But he was cool enough never to offer a hint of that as he faced his workers for the first time at Sachsenhausen. Mostly, he hoped that the shock and relief of their sudden reversal of fortune would win them over and turn them into motivated, industrious workers. He addressed them to introduce Petrich and the two guardroom sergeants, and to alert them that he and they alike were working under Himmler's special orders. He continued:

Those of you who have long and involuntarily been out of professional life because of your incarceration have an advantage, because you will be working with modern, complicated machinery and will first have to learn the techniques under the supervision and guidance of Master Printer Petrich. You will begin with simple printing tasks.

Always remain aware of the proper performance of your tasks. I put the greatest value on smooth cooperation. Practice this within and outside your community. The perspectives of your camp service are different from before. SS Unterscharfuehrers Marock and Weber are responsible for supervising your work. You are always to turn [first] to them. Both are obligated to treat you correctly and are answerable for order in Block 19.

Work begins daily at 7 o'clock and ends at 4 o'clock . Lunchtime is from 12 to 1 p.m. There is no work on Sunday. If you have complaints, whatever their nature, tell me. I am also available for personal questions.

As of today, you are freed from participation in camp roll call. Did you understand me?

The prisoners replied to this blessed release with a rousing yes.


Chapter 1: Attack the Pound, The World Around