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.
STERNBERG: Uh huh.
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.
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.
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.
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.
STERNBERG: (HEARTY LAUGHTER)
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 –