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Forging his way to freedom

Holocaust survivor reflects on time working for Nazis on the largest counterfeiting scheme in history

Published: Monday, April 19, 2010

Updated: Monday, April 19, 2010 07:04

Hans Walter, an 88-year-old Holocaust survivor, rolls up his sleeve to reveal the concentration camp

Kevin Sohnly / IC

Hans Walter, an 88-year-old Holocaust survivor, rolls up his sleeve to reveal the concentration camp tattoo he received while working as a counterfeiter for the Nazis during World War II.


In the middle of a dimly-lit, empty banquet hall at the Laurel Hill Swim and Tennis Club, Hans Walter rolled up his left shirt sleeve to reveal the turquoise concentration camp number tattooed on his left bicep.

The 88-year-old Holocaust survivor living in Mansfield, Ohio, said he gets a funny feeling when he thinks back on the year and a half that he spent as a slave laborer for Operation Bernhard, a Nazi scheme to destabilize the United Kingdom during World War II by flooding its markets with forged British Pounds — 132 billion British Pounds to be exact. But the counterfeit bank notes never made it to Britain as planned because they were accurate enough for the Nazis to use to fund their military.

"You don't think anything of it [when you're living through it.] You don't realize how big the operation is," Walter said.

Walter told the Independent Collegian that he didn't think his story was big enough to be portrayed in a movie — especially not an Oscar-winning movie. "The Counterfeiters," the 2007 Oscar-winner for Best Foreign Film, tells the story of Operation Bernhard, based on survivor Adolf Burger's personal account given in his book titled "The Devil's Workshop."

Walter was one of 142 Jewish prisoners who worked for the Nazis on Operation Bernhard and is one of three living survivors of the counterfeiting plot — the only one living in the United States.

On Friday, Walter came to the UT Men's Tennis match in south Toledo in order to share his story with them and serve as their "honorary coach of the day."

Danny Spungen, a Holocaust memorabilia collector and resident of Lincolnshire, Illinois, brought Walter to the tennis match to teach the tennis squad about the Holocaust and have them meet a survivor. Spungen got the idea when his son, UT tennis player Knot Likitkumchorn, told him many of his teammates didn't know much about the Holocaust because the majority of them are foreign-born.

Spungen, who has known Walter since 2008, said that while most Holocaust survivors prefer not to share their stories, Walter is always willing to engage people in discussion, especially young people.

Even as Walter was having a group picture taken with the team, he was still recounting in detail the conditions and the high level of secrecy that characterized Blocks 18 and 19 of Sachsenhausen concentration camp, where the Jewish counterfeiters endured the Holocaust.

According to Walter, life for the Jewish prisoners who took part in Operation Bernhard was unlike what other Jews in Nazi concentration camps had faced.

For their compliancy to counterfeit, the 142 Jewish counterfeiters received special treatment from the Nazis. That special treatment included being given food that was enough to feed 180 people and health care that was first-rate compared to the other inmates'.

However, for Walter, the Nazis' special treatment was not enough to replace his liberty.

"I had my freedom taken away. When I think back of when I was on my paddleboat under a bridge, when I was working in the aircraft industry, I think, ‘you may make no money, but at least you're in your own boat and are free,'" Walter said.

Despite having his freedom stolen, Walter said he remains thankful he took part in the counterfeiting scheme because, if he didn't, there would be no telling if he would have survived the Holocaust.

Counterfeit passports

Walter was born on December 14, 1921 in Berlin, Germany to August Walter, a master baker who worked in Kaiser Wilhem's Bakery in Berlin, and Pauler Walter, a Jewish homemaker. Although Walter's father wasn't Jewish, Walter was raised Jewish because, in the Judaic tradition, religion is passed down through the mother.

Because of his father's past affiliation with Kaiser Wilhem, Walter's family didn't face much persecution in the early years of the Nazi regime.

According to Spungen, although Adolph Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany in 1933, marking the advent of Nazi power, many Jews were "OK" despite the hardships they faced.

It was only after the Nazi regime began forcing Jews to wear a yellow Star of David and indicate that they were Jewish on their passports that the situation became desperate for most Jews.

Before he was sent to a concentration camp in 1942, Walter worked as a mechanic at the Berlin Airport and was an avid cyclist. However, because he was Jewish, he wasn't paid enough at the airport.

In order to make money during the war, Walter began producing fake passports for Jews, changing their identity to make them Catholic or Nazi. He did this by taking the original passports of German Catholics or Nazis, cutting out their pictures, replacing them with pictures of Jews, and changing the name on the passport.

This was a win-win situation for Walter: Jews would be safe from Nazi persecution, and he could make enough money to survive.

We can use people like that'

Walter's Holocaust sufferings began after a night of drinking at a beer garden in Berlin. Walking home after a few drinks, Walter was stopped by a Nazi guard and asked for identification. Ironically enough, although he made fake passports, Walter couldn't afford one himself.

Without proper identification, the officer arrested Walter and sent him to prison in Berlin.

There Walter met Peter Edel, a Jewish artist whom Walter later saved from the gas chambers in Auschwitz, a concentration camp in southeast Poland.

Walter and Edel were transported via train to Auschwitz in January 1944 along with dozens of other Jewish prisoners.

After their train arrived, the prisoners were lined up and asked questions individually by Nazi officer Bernhard Krueger, the leader of Operation Bernhard.

Krueger asked each prisoner the same question: "What story do you have to tell me?"

When asked that question, Walter responded by saying, "I have nothing much to tell you. I am a Jewish boy who was caught by a Gestapo guy on the street. I have no passport, that's why I'm being arrested."

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