Alfred Burger

Nationality: Austrian
Location: Australia • Austria • England • Germany • London • United States of America • Vienna
Experience During Holocaust: Attended Nazi Rally • Escaped the Holocaust • Was a Soldier

Mapping Alfred's Life

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“We were in a state of excitation during the whole trip [to England], and it took about 24 hours to get to the German border. And I remember after that there was a sigh of relief, of course. But on the other hand, it was so overwhelming that you just couldn’t fathom what was going on. We had left everything behind and we don’t know what was confronting us.” - Alfred Burger

Read Alfred's Oral History Transcripts

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Tape 1 - Side 1

STERNBERG: Today is May 28, 1991, and this is Rabbi Robert Sternberg interviewing Alfred Burger. Alfred, why don’t you tell me a little bit about your life in Vienna prior to the Anschluss. Let’s begin that way.
BURGER: Actually, immediately before the Anschluss – I mean, how far back shall I go?
STERNBERG: Let’s go all the way back, all the way back to as much as you remember – your childhood.
BURGER: Well, my childhood I spent near Vienna, not far from where my cousin, Harry, who is a resident of St. Louis, lived. And as far as I remember, you know, when I was 15 years old, my mother died and I had a pretty hard time because my father remarried and I didn’t have too happy a childhood from then on. My father was a director of a large fashion house and most of the time he was out of the country. I, myself, and I had two brothers, one of whom is still alive and lives in Washington D.C., and my sister – we really struggled along during that time. We had a lot of fights at home, so all in all it was not the happiest childhood for my family at that time.
STERNBERG: What about your schooling? What kind of school did you go to?
BURGER: I went to what they called a realschule, a college. A college it wasn’t. At that time we had five years at elementary school and eight years of college. And I graduated baccalaureate.
STERNBERG: These were all public schools?
BURGER: Right, they were Austrian schools. It’s very difficult to compare the education with education here in the United States. And after that I went to a commercial school for one year to get a degree, and then I, because of the circumstances at home, my father sent me to Romania where I spent about half a year. I stayed there and I didn’t have the happiest time there either. I was supposed to work in a saw mill to learn the trade, but it didn’t come off that way. Most of the time there I was just vegetating, but after six months I came back and in 1937 I joined the army, the Austrian army as an officer cadet, and I was supposed to stay with the army for about one year. But it was just about the time before, you know, when the Anschluss took place. I was stationed at the Czech border, and as times went on, you know, we realized that the Germans put tremendous pressure on Austria although I was not completely aware that the Germans had occupied Austria, but it did come about in the later ’30s, 1938, as you know. And it was a devastating time for me because here I was in the Austrian army and, as a matter of fact I, you know, our commander was assigning positions then, so called defensive positions, which was absolutely ridiculous. I was supposed to be the machine gun commander, you know, of the frontier, but it was ridiculous. Nothing came of it. So, on March 13, when the Germans marched into Austria, they came in just about where we were. Some of the troops came in and there was a complete – everything was in consternation. Although I found out that all of them are Nazis. Overnight, everybody, you know, said, “Wow.” They were the illegals. And in my company there was only myself and one other Jew, and it was a bit of a predicament. Now we were incorporated into the German army.
STERNBERG: Uh-huh. Before we get to that, let’s take a couple steps back for a second –
STERNBERG: – because I’d like to find out a little bit more about the climate in which all of this arose, from your perspective. Coming back to your school days for a moment and also your situation at home – you went to an Austrian public school. What, roughly, was the Jewish population at that school that you went to, or the schools that you went to?
BURGER: The school that I went to was in the center of the city and there were relatively few Jews in my class, with the overall Jewish population in Vienna, which was about 200,000. The percentage of Jews in my class in the realschule was very small. The composition of the classroom was that we had many monarchists in our class, you know. For instance (INAUDIBLE) – I was really surprised to think back how many of those kind were in my class. But, all in all, you know, things were even when I was – just about 1936, you know, you could see simmering, you know, the Nazi orientation. You’d see so many leaders were already there in my class and the antisemitism was pretty prevalent.
STERNBERG: That was what I wanted to get to.
BURGER: Right. Even in my class, you know, some of them were pretty violent in their expression of antisemitism. As a matter of fact, we had one guy in my class who already was pretending he was going to become the Gauleiter of another province in Austria, at that young age. And there was one who was a real antisemitic rabble rouser, quite openly. And there was very little opposition to that kind of activity. So, all in all, I think, as we know, the Austrian makeup was very antisemitic and it was pretty well fostered by the Catholic Church. Even the highest official in the church, Cardinal Innitzer, he was a Nazi, absolute Nazi. He was openly, in letters, expressed sympathy with the Nazis even before Hitler.
STERNBERG: Did the Jewish students tend to band together and come together because of the circumstances of the antisemitism?
BURGER: I am, quite frankly, not aware of that. There were other voices in the university – uh, the students (INAUDIBLE) – they were united, more or less.
STERNBERG: They had organizations?
BURGER: They had student organizations, fraternity type. There were some fights. They had a Jewish fraternity, but they were always in fights with the rest of the fraternities. It was very, very severe antisemitism and they also restricted the number of Jews that were allowed to go to the university.
STERNBERG: They had quotas. Do you remember what the quotas were?
BURGER: No, I don’t, but I do know – I have some inkling it was about five percent.
STERNBERG: How did they screen people for acceptance? By examination?
BURGER: Well – I do not know this.
STERNBERG: What about friendships in those school years? Were most of your friends Jewish or – ?
BURGER: No, not all of them, you know – very few were non-Jewish. I had Jewish friends, but some were non-Jewish.
STERNBERG: How did these friends respond to the changes going on?
BURGER: At that time, since I was away from Vienna for many, many months, and the real drastic changeover took place during the period when I was in the army, I really didn’t have any contact.
STERNBERG: Okay, let me ask you a couple of other things then, just concerning that period. In the household – did your family live in an apartment?
BURGER: Yes, we lived in an apartment.
STERNBERG: Was it owned or rented?
BURGER: It was rented. Most of the apartments were rented in Vienna.
STERNBERG: From Jews or non-Jews?
BURGER: Oh, in the apartment where I lived, I don’t know who the owner was.
STERNBERG: Was your family allowed to stay there after the Nazi takeover?
BURGER: No, after the Nazi takeover, you know, everything was just dissolved. And since my father was most of the time out of the country – as a matter of fact, the Nazis allowed him to travel because he was doing business in Scandinavia, but he had to sell everything. It was complete dissolution and my brothers, my two brothers, they went out of the country and I stayed. My father arranged for my sister and myself to stay with another family of people who lived just across the street from us. And we stayed there for maybe four months. I still remember the last day we spent in our apartment. It was just the bedding there, that’s all. Everything else was taken away. And then my sister, when she tried to get a position in England as an aide there, that was really something.
STERNBERG: That was an exit from the country?
BURGER: Exit from the country. And I had a friend who had some connections with a Zionist organization, and he got me to join the Zionist organization in Vienna. And what we had was a kibbutz right in the city, where boys and girls live together, just the same relationship as a kibbutz, and that’s where we stayed for quite a few months. And from there – that was, of course, after I was out of the army. (OVERTALK)
STERNBERG: We’ll talk a little more about that, and we’ll come back to the army in just a moment. I want to ask you one more question about school days. What about teachers? Were your teachers Nazi sympathizers? The kinds of incidents that took place in the classes, did the teachers’ administration support it?
BURGER: I’m not aware of any manifestation of open sympathy, you know, from the teachers. No, we had two or three Jewish professors. Of course, we had religious instruction and I had the same professor, he was killed by the Nazis. (INAUDIBLE) So, in my school at least, I was not aware of that, you know, at the time I was there.
STERNBERG: So what you observed was really spontaneous hooliganism among classmates.
BURGER: That’s right.
STERNBERG: And other classmates sanctioning it?
BURGER: You know, it is the nature of the Austrians. They were most – all of them were opportunistic. You know, they go along with anybody they can get something out of. Of course the economic conditions in Austria were very miserable at that time, very. Unemployment was rampant, difficult to get jobs. You know, it was that kind of atmosphere in which Hitler operated – the Nazis operated to their advantage.
STERNBERG: Now you, yourself, are an Austrian born Jew. Is that right?
BURGER: Yes, I was Austrian born.
STERNBERG: Were your parents as well?
BURGER: No, my parents were born in Poland.
STERNBERG: So what was your family classified as? You used the term “illegal” several times when you were speaking before. What does the term “illegal” mean, and what were you thinking of in terms of the people that were there?
BURGER: Are you talking illegal?
STERNBERG: You talked about illegals.
BURGER: Illegal – the Nazis – I don’t understand. The Nazis have an illegal passageway.
STERNBERG: Oh, when you say “illegals,” you’re referring to the Nazi party.
BURGER: Yes. I mean the party was not a legal party, before the Nazi party became official party.
STERNBERG: So that’s what you meant by “illegals.”
BURGER: Right. They had a party, an illegal party.
STERNBERG: I wasn’t sure what you meant by that term, “illegals.” Okay. Were most of the Jewish people that you knew of recent immigrant stock? In other words, first generation Austrians or immigrants to Austria?
BURGER: Well, my father’s generation was in a large wave of immigration from Poland, came into Vienna before World War I. And they settled in Vienna. Many of them became very prosperous.
STERNBERG: Did you know any Jewish people who were Austrian born for many generations?
BURGER: I knew a few, right.
STERNBERG: Were they treated the same way?
BURGER: They were treated exactly the same way. It didn’t mean anything. That was the fallacy. The Jews who had really deep roots in Austria, from generations, and who were fighting for Austria, they thought that they would be treated differently, but this didn’t happen. They were all Jews and they were all equal and they treated them all rotten.
STERNBERG: Okay. Let’s come back to the army now for a minute, and I’d interrupted your flow before when you were talking about things that you had experienced during the army. You say that in your company there were two Jewish men, yourself and one other. Describe the conditions under which you were there a little bit more than you already have.
BURGER: Well, interestingly enough, it may be because there were only two of us that we were not discriminated. You know, my so-called comrades were treating me fairly. I never got the feeling that I was ostracized because I was Jewish. The same also for the officers and the camp company commander. They treated me very well. So I didn’t get that feeling that I was treated differently. There was in the officer corps, you could discern that certain officers were already looking forward to becoming officers in the German army, but –
STERNBERG: It was not openly discussed.
BURGER: It was not open and it would never be admitted or a group come out enough, you know, to set themselves aside. And some of the – there were many in the Austrian officer corps who were monarchists. They were still loyal to the old Austrian ideal. As a matter of fact, when the Germans marched in, I remember I had the unfortunate assignment to help the regimental commander to hoist the Nazi flag which was very painful to me. But, he didn’t like it either so we had that in common. But it was something I couldn’t do anything about. But something I could do about was the – two days later, after the Nazis marched into Austria and after the order of the day was promulgated to us by a Marshall of the German army, we were sworn in, into the German army. So I talked to my company commander. I said, “Of course I can’t…” – it was on the parade ground. On the parade ground I said, “I’m not going to raise my hand and give the ‘Heil Hitler’ salute.” So, I was standing there with the others who said, “Heil Hitler,” and I didn’t do anything.
STERNBERG: You were the only one that didn’t do anything?
BURGER: Right, right. So, the company commander was torn in that respect and even then, he treated me nicely. I remember when the time came and – let’s put it this way – after I was in the German army, I had to wear the Nazi insignia on my uniform, and there was nothing I could do about it. I couldn’t say, “I am not going to take it,” because that would have meant probably the end of me, so I had to wear it. In a sense, that provided protection to me for quite some time. But in probably one month, I was dismissed from in the German army. The time came, you know, to leave the German army and we were lined up and the command was like a military ceremony. I was honorably discharged from the army.
STERNBERG: When was that?
BURGER: That was about in April.
STERNBERG: April of what year?
BURGER: 1938.
STERNBERG: So, you served in the army from when to when?
BURGER: I served in the army six months, counting back from March to September, to the end of April.
STERNBERG: Through the end of April of ’38?
STERNBERG: And that was the total of your enlistment time?
BURGER: The total time – the total time I was in. Of course, I would have had to serve one year, but it was cut short.
STERNBERG: Did all male citizens serve for one year?
BURGER: No, no. That was voluntary.
STERNBERG: You volunteered. Okay Alfred, we were talking about the time you spent in the Austrian army and you were saying this was from September of 1937 until May of 1938.
BURGER: Approximately. I don’t recall the exact date.
STERNBERG: And you were saying that in general there wasn’t too much discrimination although there were promises made for duties that never were fulfilled and things of this sort.
BURGER: Correct.
STERNBERG: When you were discharged from the army, what happened next?
BURGER: What happened next was –
STERNBERG: Oh, and one more thing I need to clarify. Were you discharged prior to the Anschluss or very shortly after it?
BURGER: Oh, after the Anschluss. I mean, the Germans already took over Austria. It was already out of the German Reich and the Austrian army didn’t exist any longer and we were incorporated into the German army.
STERNBERG: That was just for the sake of people who might not have their dates straight. Okay. And in point of fact, the whole time that you were serving, it was under the – no, not totally – it happened during the time, during that time. Okay, then tell us what happened after you left the army.
BURGER: After I left the army, of course, it was quite a shock to me to come back to the unprotected world, and I saw, of course, when I was out in the country, I didn’t realize the terrible things that were going on. I came back to a tumultuous time. The Jews were persecuted and the Nazis were really going wild in Vienna. Everyone was trying to get out of Vienna somehow, you know, to escape. At that time, my brothers already had left and one eventually ended up in Belgium. And my older brother ended up in France. I tried to get out also but there were very few avenues open to getting out. The pressure was great. There was no help from anybody outside to make our escape possible. So, one day I heard that it was possible to get a Swiss visa – we had to escape into Switzerland. Back in Vienna, at the Swiss consulate, they were overrun. They issued a few visas but then the Swiss stopped it. But I heard that you could go to Munich and there was a possibility of getting a Swiss visa. So I went by train to Munich with a friend of mine and I tried to get in the Swiss consulate, but it was already closed. You couldn’t get in. So I went back to Vienna and that was before I joined the kibbutz. I want to make that clear.
Then I tried with two friends to get through the West German border into Holland. So we went by train to Cologne and we stayed with a Jewish family for a few weeks and we were planning an escape from there. And what we did was eventually decided we would go to the Rhine and try to get on a Dutch barge and just escape. And it so happened we tried to execute that plan. We went down to the Rhine and it was in the area of Duisburg, and it was all fenced off with barbed wire and we found a way through it, but unfortunately were caught. We were caught by the Gestapo and we were arrested. And a staff car with three SS officers and the top officer of that area came to pick us up. They took us to the Duisburg prison where I was imprisoned. This was just a political prison. It had nothing to do with the unfortunate arrest of other Jews who were sent to concentration camps. I was put in solitary confinement in one cell. I didn’t know what my fate was going to be. I didn’t have too much hope that it would turn out to end in freedom. So, they didn’t give us anything to eat. I had a slice of bread and water, that’s all. On the second day, I became very frightful, just to try and face up to it. I asked the warden when we were going to get the hearing. He said, “Tomorrow.” So tomorrow came and –

Tape 1 - Side 2

STERNBERG: Okay, you were taken to –
BURGER: I was taken to the SS office. There were four SS officers, one in each corner, and at the desk was one very high SS officer, and he started the hearing. All kinds of trifle questions like, “Are you a communist? Have you been a communist?” Of course, I said, “No.” And they asked me all kinds of things like what I had been doing, why am I trying to escape. So I told them, “Apparently I’m not welcome here.” So the hearing went all night to recall all the details, but they were not violent towards me. It was not at that time. This is one thing I just cannot square off at all. You know, the way they treat – in the end he said, “Well, he has nothing against you. We are going to check in Vienna. We let you go.”
Of course, I told them I was in the army, but that didn’t hold too much water. I mean, that was not a plus because the others were not in the army and they had the same fate as I did. So, he did make a phone call and he said, “Well, tomorrow, we’ll let you go.” And they did let us all go. And to this day I just cannot explain how once you got into their net that they treated me fairly well. Of course, it was a prison experience, but they didn’t beat me. They were not rough with me, and I just – I don’t understand what or why it happened to me like that. It may be, of course, in West Germany the Germans generally were not as bad as the Austrians. You know, the Nazis were already there since a long time. They were established and in any case, I think there must have been something, some factor that I couldn’t figure out until today.
BURGER: So I was very fortunate to escape that episode.
STERNBERG: Where did you go?
BURGER: I must say, I was very disappointed, heartbroken and broken in spirit also. I went back to Vienna.
STERNBERG: You were not allowed to go to Holland then?
BURGER: Of course not. No, no. I mean, that was an illegal act. And in any case, I was never in that zone again. So I went back to Vienna and that is where the story picked up again, joining the Zionist organization, as you know, and entering the kibbutz.
STERNBERG: How old were you at the time this happened?
BURGER: Uh, I was about 22.
BURGER: In the kibbutz, of course we didn’t know how things are going to turn out because in a kibbutz, where do you go from there?
STERNBERG: What do you mean by being in a kibbutz? Was it a common living area?
BURGER: A common living area, right.
STERNBERG: And what did you do there?
BURGER: Well, we, we – what we did – let’s see if I recall. We were doing various jobs, you know. For instance, delivering coal, that was in winter, or shoveling snow. You know, the most common jobs that you can imagine.
STERNBERG: So it was really more like a Jewish commune.
BURGER: It was a Jewish commune, right.
STERNBERG: In which you worked and sustained yourselves.
BURGER: Correct.
STERNBERG: Were you being trained for eventual immigration to Palestine?
BURGER: That was the aim, but of course we couldn’t go to Palestine from Vienna because there was no way because the British sealed off the entry to Palestine. The only way we could go was via another country.
STERNBERG: Was there any talk of doing that?
BURGER: There was talk. This is the story.
BURGER: We did not know what was going to happen. However, it appears that there were some negotiations of which we didn’t know about between the Jewish organization and the Nazis to make it possible for some of the young Jews to get out of the country. Now, what was at stake, I don’t know. What the payoff was, I don’t know. But, in any case, Adolf Eichmann was involved in it. And he was instrumental in these negotiations. So the payoff was for us that visas were made available to England, a few visas, and a few visas to Sweden. So I was very fortunate to get the visa.
STERNBERG: How many of you got the visas? How many people were in the group?
BURGER: About, I would say, 70.
STERNBERG: And how many of you got visas?
BURGER: Well, quite a few. I don’t know exactly the number, but the majority did get visas.
STERNBERG: Uh huh. Either to go to England or –
BURGER: Or to Sweden. It so happened that I got a visa to go to England. Well, that was unheard of, to get a legal visa to go to a country outside, to go to England. So I did. As a matter of fact, before I did, you know, we went as a group. The visa was for the purpose of going to England as an agricultural student. That’s how they got us out. And before we went, we got money assigned to us and we were told it was also coming from Adolf Eichmann’s office.
STERNBERG: When did the visa come through? Do you remember?
BURGER: Uh, it was, I believe, in spring of 1939.
STERNBERG: Spring of 1939.
BURGER: I don’t recall exactly the date, but early in 1939.
STERNBERG: Early in 1939, and you did go to England from there.
BURGER: I did go.
STERNBERG: Okay. Before we go to England, let’s again take a few steps back because I’d like to discuss the months between leaving the army and the Kristallnacht. You were leaving the army on the Kristallnacht, and then from the Kristallnacht until the time you got out of Austria and went to England. I have several different questions related to that. Okay, you, very shortly after – now when was the escape, the aborted escape to Holland, around what time was that?
BURGER: That was in the fall of ’38.
STERNBERG: In the fall of ’38. So between May or late spring of ’38 and the fall of ’38, eventually you found your way into joining this kibbutz group.
BURGER: Right.
STERNBERG: Do you remember what the name of it was?
BURGER: No, there was no name. It was just –
STERNBERG: – a group of Jewish people, and it wasn’t affiliated with –
BURGER: It was affiliated in the Zionist organization.
STERNBERG: Okay. Do you know which Zionist organization or – just the general Zionist organization, because there were many of them. Were you aware of other such groups in Vienna?
BURGER: No, I was not aware of any.
STERNBERG: Okay, so this was the one group.
BURGER: It was the one group, right.
STERNBERG: Okay. Then you were there, obviously during the – no, no, then you returned back to Vienna and back to the kibbutz in the early fall. And Kristallnacht was November 10 of that year. What do you remember of Kristallnacht, if anything?
BURGER: I remember a lot of things going on, you know. I lived in the second district of Vienna which was the area where –
STERNBERG: The Zweitenbezirg?
BURGER: The Zweitenbezirg. Heavily populated by Jewish people. And when my apartment window came down, mobs of Austrian population congregated, watching how Jewish people were being made to strut in the street and being kicked in the street.
STERNBERG: You saw this yourself?
BURGER: Oh, I saw it myself.
STERNBERG: Through your apartment window.
BURGER: Right across – the apartment window faced the Kavelstrasse, you know, the main thoroughfare. And sporadic mob scenes and things going on. And at the time they already had the Jewish shops, “Juden Verboten,” “No Jews,” “Jewish Shops,” graffiti.
STERNBERG: Graffiti on Jewish shops. When did you first start to see that graffiti? When did it start to appear?
BURGER: It was much earlier than Kristallnacht. Sporadically – when I came back to Vienna all the Jewish companies were taken over by Nazi administrators.
STERNBERG: Right after you came back from the army.
BURGER: Right. You know, the Jewish owners, they didn’t have – they had very little say. What they did was, they were picking the brains of Jewish owners and were slowly taking over.
STERNBERG: How did they make those transfers? Do you recall?
BURGER: Oh, they are just taking it.
STERNBERG: Did they make paperwork? Do you recall?
BURGER: Not that I recall.
STERNBERG: They just said, “Today you’ve got to get out.”
BURGER: They said, “Out, or you go to the concentration camp.” They never even signed it over. I still remember, for instance, in the apartment where I lived, a very big apartment complex – we had in these apartment complexes like caretakers.
STERNBERG: Concierge.
BURGER: Concierge, right. Our concierge, he was a Czech, and the Czechs really did utilize that time to make rich themselves. And they were playing a game. To us, they were very nice. They tried to be very sympathetic, but on the other hand they were playing with the Nazis. And that concierge of our apartment building, he was just taking over all the Jewish shops, and I remember when I was in Vienna next – I did go back to Vienna once. All of a sudden he was a very prosperous businessman because he just looted the shop and took it over, and there he was, well established.
STERNBERG: Uh huh, uh huh.
BURGER: That’s what they did, many of them. They just displaced Jewish people from their apartments, took everything. And that was it, of course, in our apartment. We had a very big, beautiful apartment. It was forced sale, you know, sell it for practically nothing.
STERNBERG: What happened to the people who lost their apartments in that way? Where did they go?
BURGER: Well, either they went to a concentration camp – I’m not aware of many people who were able to get out. You know, those people who did get out, few, very few got out legally.
STERNBERG: Do you know people then who had their apartments confiscated and right at that same time, they were taken away?
BURGER: Yah, I do.
STERNBERG: And this happened to many –
BURGER: It happened, yeah, it was wholesale confiscation. You know, the people were just forced out. They were forced out even by them being taken away, you know, sent to concentration camp. And, of course, it was taken over. Or by forced – forced sales. There were people who just fled and left everything there. And they tried to go into neighboring countries.
STERNBERG: And this was going on –
BURGER: This was going on all during this period, yeah. There were a few Jewish people who thought that would pass, but they were just kidding themselves. They really were dreaming. You know, they didn’t realize the magnitude of the tragedy.
STERNBERG: From your observation of the Kristallnacht, did it appear something different and extraordinary from all the stuff that came previously? Did it appear even more out of the ordinary?
BURGER: Well, to me, that was made a pretext by the Germans to start a new policy, a policy of extermination. It was quite apparent that this was engineered by the Germans.
STERNBERG: Did it appear to be a sudden upheaval?
BURGER: Right, absolutely.
STERNBERG: Okay. Describe more in detail the kinds of things you saw at that time, prior to it, during it and in the immediate aftermath, because you were right there in your apartment at the time this was going on, right?
BURGER: That is correct. Of course, they, you know, once they let loose –
STERNBERG: Let me put it to you like this, Alfred – if you were asked by a teacher in class to write an assignment, describe what happened during the Kristallnacht, could you try and do that? Try to tape a description for me and for those who are going to be listening to this tape and trying to envision those things with their eyes. And do it to the best of your ability.
BURGER: Well, the difficulty is that starting to think back half a century, all I remember is the panic that I felt, the fear that I felt, all the goings on that I saw, and you feel that you want to get away from it.
STERNBERG: Of course.
BURGER: So, that was it. I saw it was something. The persecuted somehow tried some way to escape, you know. You can’t. The sense of self preservation forced you into trying to get away, but it was such an overwhelming, terrible experience to see…how bestial instincts can be released – the human beast. It was unimaginable, unimaginable.
STERNBERG: What did you do when you saw those things going on?
BURGER: Everyone was afraid of it. Everyone of them, you could hardly dare to go out. I remember I went to find Harry’s family.
STERNBERG: That night?
BURGER: Well, I think I was at Harry’s that night.
BURGER: It was – everybody was afraid.
STERNBERG: Now here, let me shut the tape for a second. Okay, you say you went over to Harry’s house the evening of the Kristallnacht, before the riot started, obviously.
BURGER: Right, I did. As I recall, Harry was home and his mother was home, but his father wasn’t home and in the circumstances then we all worried. If somebody was out of the house, where were they? What happened to them? Would they come back? When would they come back? Is there any way you could get in touch with them? Of course, that was not possible because once you leave the apartment you are a free target. You don’t know whether you will come back. And if you’ve got a large family, you worry about every one of them – what his fate might be. Of course, you needn’t think about it. You were just frightened. You know, you hurt. You have a group of people who are taken into custody and were taken away. Other people got taken away. There was a knock on the door upstairs. A neighbor taken away. That’s the kind of thing that happened then.
STERNBERG: And you sat there frozen and frightened.
BURGER: Oh, absolutely, right. In some of the apartments, you know, quite a congregation of neighbors and friends were congregated. They were just trying to wait out until the “all clear,” which never came.
STERNBERG: The “all clear” never came.
BURGER: Never came. There was always something going on, something terrible going on. They were systematically trying to round up the Jews, and at the time when it started, we didn’t know they were sending them to concentration camps. We didn’t know that.
STERNBERG: Did you know any men that were rounded up that night of the Kristallnacht from where you were?
BURGER: I personally was not aware.
STERNBERG: They did a mass roundup on Jewish men.
BURGER: That’s right. I wasn’t aware of anyone being taken in my circle of relatives and friends. We were very fortunate. But we knew men who were.
STERNBERG: You slept at Harry’s that night?
BURGER: No, I don’t think I did. I went home.
STERNBERG: You went back to your apartment.
BURGER: How, I don’t recall.
STERNBERG: But you did manage to get back home.
STERNBERG: Did you find anything different in the morning from what it was the day before? People talk about the shattered windows and all these things, the burned out buildings.
BURGER: People, they did not talk. They were panic stricken.
STERNBERG: Of course.
BURGER: Just panic stricken. It’s a painful thing to think about.
STERNBERG: Of course it is. Why don’t we go ahead then and talk about your escape from Nazi occupied Austria. You got your visa to go to England in 1939.
BURGER: That is correct. And we, uh –
STERNBERG: Was it only you that got the visa?
BURGER: No, from the kibbutz, you know, a group of chaverim got the visa and we were put on a train. And we had a hard time even on the train. We got to the border at Aachen. The Germans were terrible.
STERNBERG: What do you recall of that?
BURGER: They were threatening us, you know, all the way.
STERNBERG: Did they search the compartments frequently?
BURGER: They did, they did. Of course, we didn’t have anything. There was not much to search.
STERNBERG: Right, right.
BURGER: But they were very offensive to us. You know, you got the feeling that until you are out, beyond the German border, you don’t know any moment what could happen to you. So we were in a state of excitation during the whole trip, and it took about 24 hours to get to the German border. And I remember after that there was a sigh of relief, of course. But on the other hand, it was so overwhelming that you just couldn’t fathom what was going on. We had left everything behind and we don’t know what was confronting us.
STERNBERG: Did anything happen at Aachen that you recall, during the border crossing?
BURGER: No, it was a fairly smooth crossing. They didn’t have too much to search because we didn’t have anything; we didn’t have anything. They didn’t take anything out. So we went to – I think we stopped in Brussels, I remember. And at Brussels I saw my brother for a few minutes, my younger brother. He is now in Washington. He was at the station. He knew I was coming through Brussels, so all I could do was to say a few words from the compartment I was in. I couldn’t even shake his hand. I hadn’t seen him for years. And we only stopped for about five or ten minutes, that was it. And after that, I didn’t see him until 19 – it was from ’39 to ’52, I would say.
STERNBERG: This was in the spring of 1939.
BURGER: Yeah, right – I think early, I don’t know exactly the month except that was in ’39.
STERNBERG: Okay, and you went to England. How long did you spend in England?
BURGER: I spent in England until 1940. Well, the first stage of stay was until 1940 because I was sent from England to Australia.
BURGER: I went to Australia and then I came back to England.
STERNBERG: Oh, so you were in England for the outbreak of the war.
BURGER: Yeah, I was in England, right.
STERNBERG: What did you do in England? You were an agricultural student?
BURGER: I was a farm worker. You see, we were assigned to six weeks to begin with. We were sent to obviously where there was more agricultural work, so we were assigned to a farm, to do farm work, and we had never seen a farm before. So, it didn’t take long and I became a farm worker.
BURGER: I never saw a cow in my life. I never knew how to plow a field, but you learn. And I did learn to plow the fields, to work with horses and to milk cows. There were very funny incidents. The cow wouldn’t give me milk. What do you do? You know, milk a cow. So, one day he was trying to milk a bull, you know, that kind of thing.
BURGER: So it was a surprise.
STERNBERG: I can imagine what he must have been holding on to, milking the bull. (LAUGHTER)
BURGER: Getting the hold on to the bull nearly killed him.
STERNBERG: (LAUGHTER) The bull didn’t panic?
BURGER: Yeah, it was quite a time. They had those heavy, like the Clydesdale horses. To take them out and to work with them. And one of these days, these horses died on me and I said to the farmer, “What do I do now?” He said, “You go and bury him.”
STERNBERG: Were you in touch with people back in Austria during that time?
BURGER: No, no. I was only in touch with my sister who was living at that time in Coventry.
STERNBERG: Oh, so the two of you were in England.
BURGER: Yes, we were in England, but she lived somewhere else. I didn’t see her for a long time, but we were communicating until she was bombed out of Coventry.
STERNBERG: How did you end up going to Australia? You went from England to Australia.
BURGER: Well, how did I go to Australia? Well, after the fall of France, the British, they didn’t know what was going on. It was quite an influx of, of people – Germans, Austrians, from the continent and other nationalities. And the British were completely unprepared for war. They had nothing. Pitchforks, that’s all they had. And generally, they were anti-alien anyhow, and at that time you had to go through tribunals, and they classified you. And I was classified as an alien from Nazi oppression but that didn’t help much. They decided in parliament to ground all the aliens above 16 years of age and to intern them. So, they had – most of the people were sent to the Isle of Man to internment camps and a number of people were sent to Canada and some were sent to Australia. At the time I was taken by the British constabulary. They took me in and they didn’t tell me what was going to happen. They sent me by train to Liverpool and in Liverpool there was a big camp, an open camp, and we were staying in that camp. There were just pitched tents, masses of people. And there they were saying, “Well, you’re going to a boat. We’re going to send you on this boat and they go on that boat,” but they didn’t tell us where we were going to go. We didn’t have the foggiest idea.
STERNBERG: Was your sister there too?
BURGER: No, no. My sister, you know, she stayed in England. Eventually she joined the military. She became an army girl.
STERNBERG: Were there women in that group?
BURGER: No, no women, all men, only men, right.
STERNBERG: See, this corroborates something that someone else told me about that.
BURGER: Well, you know –
STERNBERG: This was all –
BURGER: We were taken all night. We were just taken, and we were taken to the quay side in Liverpool and we were put on a boat.
STERNBERG: And you had no idea where you were going.
BURGER: Absolutely no idea, no idea. They are going to send you, and your wives and sweethearts are going to join you. That’s what we were told. But we were not told where we are going to go.
STERNBERG: Was there any fear that you were being sent back to Germany, back to the Nazis?
BURGER: We didn’t think –

Tape 2 - Side 1

STERNBERG: Okay, so you were saying that you were put on this boat and you had no idea where you were going.
BURGER: Nobody had any idea. All we saw was it was a pretty old boat, very large. There were about 2000 people. About 500 troops were on board, heavily armed. They were colonial troops. We were put down in the hold. No sleeping – I was sleeping on a table. There were no sleeping arrangements. Some – well, as a matter of fact, I knew after, there were Germans on it, about 200 German sailors who were taken off the Arandora Star, a boat that was sunk, and there were also Italian soldiers, prisoners of war. They were kept in separate quarters and they had better sleeping arrangements. I think they were sleeping on pallets. We were taken like animals, as a matter of fact. I was classified as a prisoner of war; we were all prisoners of war. That was our title.
About on the second day, I remember, we were torpedoed. We were on board. We were very fortunate that the torpedoes hit us broadside. We were shaking. We thought that was it. Since we were held in the hold, below deck, there was no escape. They torpedoed the head of the boat.
The food was horrible, hardly anything to eat. The heat was unbearable. I had no clothes, couldn’t wash. There was no soap. We didn’t shave. It was going on for nearly two months.
STERNBERG: You were on that boat for two months?
BURGER: About two months. The captain of the ship, he was a beast. He was a commander in the war of the troops. He charged us with espionage. Some people got beaten up. For a long time, we were held down without seeing daylight. But, let me say this, we were going, but we don’t know where we are going. Nobody had any idea where we were going – you know, here, there, America.
STERNBERG: Did the boat ever stop?
BURGER: No, it never stopped, but the route that we were taking – I think we were going past St. Helena, towards South America. We stopped in West Africa, Dacca, the gold coast. And we went to Capetown, then Durban. We stopped in Durban and then crossed the Indian Ocean.
STERNBERG: So you went around Africa.
BURGER: That’s right. And, of course, the German raiders were out at that time. We could have been sighted by the German raiders.
STERNBERG: What kind of boat was it?
BURGER: It was an old troop ship, and it was very overloaded. I don’t recall how much it was capable of carrying, but I guess we were about 2500 people on board, including the troops.
STERNBERG: You say the food was inedible and no place to wash. Excuse me for asking this, but did you have bathroom facilities?
BURGER: We had bathroom facilities but we had to line up. The bathroom, you know – even the sanitary conditions were unbelievable. The toilets didn’t work and people were sick all the time.
STERNBERG: Did you get seasick?
BURGER: No, the captain did; everybody did. I didn’t get seasick. I don’t know why. (LAUGHTER) All the crew, they were prostrated. You know, we had storms that were unbelievable. In the Indian Ocean, it was only about like a nutshell, you know. I have never in my life seen anything like it. Big waves. The boat was flooded, but for some reason, I didn’t get seasick. Of course, I didn’t eat anything. And people were – they were prostrate.
Now, as we were going, people were trying to guess where we were going. It just so happened that one built, somehow, a sextant to find out our position through the porthole. And he was guessing that we were going towards Australia. After a month, through the cook, we found out finally. We thought – we still thought, we didn’t know, that we were going to Australia. Now, when the boat got to Capetown it was night. We didn’t see very much. And we saw Capetown through the porthole, and people were lining up to go to the bathroom. They had that excuse, but in fact we had dysentery in our system. And when they did let us up on top, the soldiers were lined up around the plank with guns, and somebody broke a bottle, one of the soldiers, and we had to go barefoot – and over the shards of glass.
STERNBERG: Just like that? They did it on purpose?
BURGER: On purpose. And a lot of it was going on during that passage to Australia. And the little stuff that we did carry, just a little suitcase – I had really nothing. They rifled everything, threw it overboard, they stole everything and complaints to the captain were no help. He was an opportunist, and some were taken down to the hold, beaten up by the soldiers. So it really was like the Nazis, and the Germans took advantage of all this, the Nazi propaganda, you know. They put up their force.
STERNBERG: Do you remember the name of the ship?
BURGER: Dunera.
STERNBERG: That was the Dunera.
BURGER: So, we landed in Sidney. First we stopped in Brisbane and that is where the Australians came on board, the officals. And the work was done and we entered Australia. And then we went south past Tasmania. Finally we ended up in Sidney after a long trip, nearly two months; you couldn’t walk on the beach. It was really a very strange experience and we filed down and were put on a train. And we went through strange villages – Wongawong, Koolegonga, you know, the Australian outback. And the kangaroos were following the train, a strange experience. So, finally we ended up in New South Wales and were taken by trucks to the camp. The camp wasn’t even ready. And they herded us up to the four camps in New South Wales and we were just dropped out in the sun. It was absolutely like a death. That was my thought. There was barbed wire, a watchtower, like a prisoner of war camp. But it didn’t take us long. We did organize ourselves. People, you know, take a group of Jews and soon you have an organized life. The food was very good. They treated us – the Australians couldn’t understand. They thought, “Here come the parachuters.” They couldn’t believe that we were – for a long time they couldn’t believe that we were refugees.
STERNBERG: You mean they didn’t know what you were?
BURGER: They didn’t know what we were, that we were prisoners of war of the Germans.
STERNBERG: And they were among you?
BURGER: They were among us, oh yeah. They were separated, put in a different compound.
STERNBERG: So there were only Jews where you were.
BURGER: No, not only Jews. There were many non-Jews also, mostly political prisoners.
STERNBERG: People who had come out with the Jews.
BURGER: Uh huh. But the majority were Jews, Jewish refugees. It took time, but as I say, the Australian people were square but they couldn’t do anything. We were behind barbed wire all around. They treated us well and we were fed well and we organized our lives. Soon we had organized groups – all kinds of courses. We opened up a coffeehouse and a theater group. We had musicians and performed.
STERNBERG: How did they get instruments? They provided them?
BURGER: They provided them, right. So, from that point of view, in a way, it made it more tolerable, although being out in the desert with the heat 115, 120 degrees.
STERNBERG: How long did it take for the Australians to learn your true status, what you really were?
BURGER: It took talking to us. They found out that – I don’t know at what time they were really convinced of it, but they did find out and they did recognize it.
STERNBERG: What happened when they did, when they understood what they had?
BURGER: Not much happened.
STERNBERG: You stayed there anyway.
BURGER: We stayed there anyhow.
STERNBERG: Until the end of the war?
BURGER: No, not until the end of the war. There was nothing that they could do. We were transferred to another camp. There was not enough room. We transferred to Victoria.
STERNBERG: Victoria?
BURGER: Victoria. That was a different state from New South Wales and we were put on a train. From one state, in those days, the track didn’t match. If you come from one state in Australia to another, it was completely different. You had to change trains. And I was in a hospital. I got pleurisy and I was sent to the hospital, not hospital but infirmary. In those days, the way they check your pleurisy – you got a hypodermic and they were taking out the fluid, but no one took it out and I nearly died. But it just so happens that although that was way out in the outback, the doctor who treated me was a Viennese and that was a comfort to me. He was a –
STERNBERG: So how long were you under this jurisdiction?
BURGER: For a very long time. There were very big discussions in the House of Commons and after a long time, more than a year after we arrived in Australia for internment, they finally, the House of Commons finally approved that they made a mistake, but it was difficult to get us back. You know, shipping was very tight.
STERNBERG: The war was over.
BURGER: And the war was over.
STERNBERG: When was this, in 1948?
BURGER: That was in 1941.
STERNBERG: Do you recall approximately when, what season at least?
BURGER: Wait, what do you mean?
STERNBERG: When they finally recognized your status.
BURGER: It was a very clearcut decision. There were different groups in opposition. One group was just about saying, “There should be steps taken to bring the refugees back.” But that wasn’t easy.
STERNBERG: So they started talking about that.
BURGER: They started talking about that and it took a long time. They assigned an officer who was sent from Britain. His name was Major Leighton. He was sent from Britain to Australia to negotiate with the Australians. He also was coming to our camp, but he couldn’t do anything anyhow until the means were provided and the transportation was provided. I think at that time there was also difficulty with the Japanese. The Japanese came into the war. They were in New Guinea, north of Australia. They were bombing Rabaul in New Guinea and part of New Guinea was under siege by the Japanese, and the Japanese were out all these miniature submarines. So it was very difficult to get transportation from Britain to Australia and from Australia back to Britain. So how do they get us back? And they decided on a partial release on transports back to England. At that time also some of them were released in Australia, very few. Some of the people were joining the family corps and also the forces in Australia. But I couldn’t even go back because I was sick. Convalescence took many, many months for me. But one transport was put together and they were sent back, and that boat was torpedoed and it sunk.
STERNBERG: You were on it?
BURGER: I wasn’t on it, no. There were many of my friends who lost their lives. Eventually – it was in 1942, one transport was put together and I was on it. Well, that was an experience going across the water. All of us were assigned for watch. It was ammunitions, on a boat that carried ammunitions, and I remember we were watching for the Japanese submarines. It was pretty tough until we got to Capetown. In Capetown, the Germans were put on British battleships and that’s how we went back to Liverpool.
STERNBERG: So you spent a total of about two years under –
BURGER: About two years under – it’s just unbelievable.
STERNBERG: It is, it’s amazing.
BURGER: Unbelievable. I remember the commander of the British troops and some of them were really mean, cruel to us, but they all got off.
STERNBERG: Was antisemitism ever an issue once you got out of – I mean among the British and the Australians?
BURGER: It’s very difficult to separate antisemitism or any anti-alien, and these colonial troops, what their attitude was. You know, when they were sent out in the colonies, they were just fighting and killing. That was their basic – their basic training, and the whole attitude was one of suppression. So, the compensation was about 10 British pounds for the loss of employment at the time of my internment.
STERNBERG: So you went back to Liverpool. What was the first thing you did after that?
BURGER: I went back where I lived before.
STERNBERG: At the farm.
BURGER: In the country. No, this time I went back and I worked in a tank. I worked on transportation for the British Air Force.
STERNBERG: Was your sister still there?
BURGER: My sister was still there. Yes, she was there in England.
STERNBERG: Did you reconnect with her?
BURGER: Oh yes, oh yes. And eventually she got married.
STERNBERG: She stayed in England?
BURGER: She stayed in England. She went to Birmingham. Also my cousin, she also went to Birmingham. She was also in the British forces and they were discharged and both of them married and they married friends. Unfortunately, they all died.
STERNBERG: So you remained in England until after the war.
BURGER: I remained in England until after the war.
STERNBERG: What did you learn about what happened to the rest of your family after the war?
BURGER: Well, I knew my father and his wife, my stepmother, my brothers, they lived in the country, Maurelac, in France. My brother had worked on a farm.
STERNBERG: So they survived the war?
BURGER: No, they didn’t survive. When Laval took over the French government, the Jews were over on the dock, and they were all rounded up and they were all sent to Auschwitz, where they died. (UNCLEAR)
STERNBERG: How did your brother survive that?
BURGER: My brother got out with the last boat from Belgium.
STERNBERG: Oh, okay.
BURGER: We had an uncle in Detroit and he sent him an affidavit, and fortunately he got out. He settled in Washington D.C. and that’s where he is now.
STERNBERG: Of the entire family that you knew, your family in Vienna, how many survived and how many perished?
BURGER: Not many survived – Harry’s family, except for, unfortunately, his father in Auschwitz. And my family, my brother, my father, my mother perished and the rest of my family got out. We have other family, of course, my grandmother and some uncles; they also perished. Well, of course, I had numerous family in Poland.
STERNBERG: They were all wiped out?
BURGER: They were all wiped out, dozens of family in Poland, all over.
STERNBERG: All over Poland?
BURGER: In different places in Poland.
STERNBERG: How did you get to America?
BURGER: Well, in 1951, my brother who lived in Washington D.C. came over to visit me.
STERNBERG: You were still working as an auto mechanic there?
BURGER: So, the conditions under which I lived, he said, was not the way to live. “Come over to the United States. You will have more.” At that time, I was already stepping up. I was already an engineer because I went to London Polytechnic and I got a degree in engineering, and I worked as an engineer in London, but the living conditions were still very poor. And to get ahead in Britain for a foreigner was very difficult. So he said, “I want you to come over. Let me arrange for it.” Unfortunately, you know, you had to be on a quota in order to be eligible to get an immigration visa. Five years before (INAUDIBLE) with an aunt of mine. “You know,” she said, (INAUDIBLE). That was really my hope. But five years later I became eligible. Imagine, I had to wait five years. So I came to America.
STERNBERG: You were married by that time.
BURGER: I was married and I had a daughter, and we settled in Washington D.C.
STERNBERG: As a survivor of the Holocaust – and Fred, this is the last thing I am going to ask you. As a survivor of the Holocaust, and knowing that this material is material that will live for a long time and, hopefully, by giving us this testimony, you’ll be helping educate generations about these things and what happened and why it’s important that we remember. What would you like to say to those future generations of people?
BURGER: Well, I would like to say, “Keep the memory alive.” It’s very important to know what has happened to the past generations in order to prepare yourself for the future. Keep it alive. Always remember what happened to the other end what is to help the Jewish people who arrive in this place now. It is our responsibility to do it because at a time when we were in this place, if the Jewish people outside of Austria would have had the attitude that people now have, many more would have survived and would have been alive today.
STERNBERG: Thank you very much.
BURGER: Thank you.

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