ISBN: 978 1 84603 289 9
Contributor: C. Peter Chen
Review Date: 1 Nov 2008
Full Title: Counterfeiter: How a Norwegian Jew Survived the Holocaust
On the surface, we study history because it interests us. The powerful warships, the larger-than-life figures, and the world-changing events are some of the first things that I think about right off the top of my head when someone asks me why I study the history of World War II. But once I really start thinking about it, history is more than that. History is how all those things shape our lives, and I try to remind myself of that every so often. That is why I make sure that a book such as Counterfeiter: How a Norwegian Jew Survived the Holocaust gets in my to-read pile every so many books.
Counterfeiter is written by Moritz Nachtstern, a Norwegian typographer who, because he was Jewish, was rounded up and sent to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Germany. His profession brought him into Operation Bernhard, a Nazi German plan to destabilize the British economy by introducing large quantities of counterfeit bills. Skills with various steps of printing gave Nachtstern and his fellow Operation Bernhard colleagues slightly better chance of survival as they were the skilled labor force needed for the counterfeiting operation, but to say that belittles what they experienced. Although they were essentially German operatives from a certain sense, they were not much better off from other concentration camp inmates. They worked long days in front of their stations, were sadistically punished whenever they make the slightest mistakes, and were fed with nothing more than watery soups, sometimes full of sand or even bugs.
The story was about Nachtstern's struggle for survival, but his sense of humor made his book about such a difficult subject a tad bit less difficult to read. Accounts of a prisoner smearing coal dust on others' faces as a prank and the prisoners singing songs from their native lands provided the readers escape from the horror that was the Holocaust. Amongst stories of human suffering such as starvation, disease, and the gas chambers, these lighter moments reminded me the strength of the human spirit even under the most terrible conditions.
"It cannot be erased", titled the forward to the book written by Nachtstern's daughter Sidsel. When she was younger, her father read her fairy tales and taught her nursery rhymes just like every father, but he had to constantly suppress the haunting memories of Holocaust. He ate his food as if his plate would be taken from him, whenever he sat he could never fully relax so that he could escape at a moment's notice, and his survivor's guilt materialized in nightmares that woke him in cold sweat. These are the things that cannot be erased, and that is what history really is. History is not just world changing events. History is not just stories of valor or sadness. History is what makes up a person. To historian Eric Hobsbawn, WW2 was the memory of seeing newspaper headlines of Adolf Hitler's rise to power. To this gentleman I met while on vacation in 2006, WW2 was him, as a young boy, playing in the rice paddies in China while Japanese fighters flew above him. To my grandmother, WW2 was not quite the world-changing conflict, but rather a series of tragedies that uprooted her family and separated her from her children. To Moritz Nachtstern, the reluctant counterfeiter, WW2 was his fight for survival, and Counterfeiter told his story in a simple manner that nevertheless triggered deepest emotions.
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Joachim von Ribbentrop, German Foreign Minister, Aug 1939