29 August 2012

Book Review: “Counterfeiter: How a Norwegian Jew survived the Holocaust”

When this book was first published in English in 2008, I purchased a copy for my personal library. I’ve never been one to read in the genre of "military books." I’m not much for graphic and detailed chronicles of battles, for statistics of heroic maneuvers and strategic moves, or for anecdotal narratives of military wins and losses. It’s just not for me. I’m more of a lover than a hater.

That said, I do enjoy a good book by a skilled narrator. I’ve recently become interested in how Norwegians were affected by this massive and drawn-out gruesome war:  a catastrophe that ravaged hundreds of thousands – an entire generation.
All three of my mother’s brothers, my father, and three of his five brothers served our country in World War II. Their personal stories of "time spent in service" remain unwritten and are passed along only via oral narration. Only one of my uncles, who recently turned 95, is still alive to share a first-person account of what life was like, fighting a battle across an ocean.

But – what about the civilians, the men, women and children who were innocent victims of the whims of a brutal dictator?  How does one survive a genocide? Who are the heroes, the people who came to the aid of the targets of a cruel and inhumane militia that was driven to unthinkable measures of cruelty and punishment? What are their stories?

Moritz Nachtstern (1902-1969) was a Norwegian-Jewish typographer who was deported from Oslo in 1942. He was a survivor, one Norwegian who was not killed by the National Socialist German Workers’ party – the Nazis. He was, however, tortured physically, emotionally and mentally. After his release in 1945, he married and ultimately narrated his experiences to his new wife, who wrote them down. This personal memoir was then edited by journalist Ragnar Arntzen, and published in Norwegian in 1949 with the title Falskmynter I blokk 19.

The book chronicles three horrific years. It begins with vivid stories of what it was like to be a civilian in a country that had been invaded and occupied by the Nazi regime. As the story unfolds, Moritz shares with the reader a first-person account of arrest and transportation to the concentration camp at Auschwitz. It was here that he was "plucked out of the gas chamber line" and driven to Sachsehausen, where he became a member of a secret Nazi project: Operation Bernhard.

This scheme’s goal was to destabilize the British government by creating millions of counterfeit banknotes and putting them into circulation. Moritz was one of over 170 prisoners who were pressed into creating exquisite forgeries of the British pound note. These forced laborers worked as slowly as possible, both to frustrate the Nazi plan and to ensure that they never became expendable. Moritz Nachtstern was the only Norwegian among the operation’s many Czech, Polish, German, Slovakian, and Austrian workers.

Mr. Nachtstern does an amazing job, allowing the reader into an insider’s view of his personal journey. It’s well told and easy to follow. As a follow-up, one might also read Krueger’s Men: The Secret Nazi Counterfeit Plot and the Prisoners of Block 19, written by Lawrence Malkin and published in 2006. The latter is also quite scholarly and presents details of the entire operation, with supporting documentation.


Luci Baker Johnson

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