Harry Burger

Nationality: Austrian
Location: Austria • France • Italy • Missouri • New York • St. Louis • United States of America • Vienna
Experience During Holocaust: Escaped the Holocaust • Family Died During the Holocaust • Family Died in Concentration Camp

Mapping Harry's Life

Click on the location markers to learn more about Harry. Use the timeline below the map or the left and right keys on your keyboard to explore chronologically. In some cases the dates below were estimated based on the oral histories.

“There was 12,300 feet of elevation when we [a group of 700 Jewish refugees] crossed the border in the Alps. We had cripples, we had infants, we had pregnant women, and everybody made it!” - Harry Burger

Read Harry's Oral History Transcripts

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Tape 1 - Side 1

YOUNG: Basically, what I would like you to tell is your own story, and we usually start with where you grew up and about your own family.
BURGER: You want family background to begin with.
YOUNG: Yes.
BURGER: We have two situations here. My grandparents on my father’s side came from Poland. They immigrated before the turn of the century. It was a World War I immigration. They came to Vienna and had all their children there, nine of them. They were poor and they had a hard time making it. They were Orthodox and when the last kid was born – the last two were twins, as a matter of fact, a girl and a boy – my grandfather decided there was no future there and he applied to come to America. There were cousins all over the place here, in the Detroit area. And in those days, of course, there were no affidavits. He came in, landed in New York, got pneumonia and died. He is buried in New York. He never achieved what he wanted to, to bring the family over. So, my grandmother was stuck with the nine kids, raised them until they finally either left home or married or whatever. Some of them turned out very well, very successful, and a few of them didn’t make it too well. And, of course, by the end of the war we found out that there were not many left – a couple.
Now, on my mother’s side, they were Hungarians which was the old Austro-Hungarian Empire. They too came to Vienna. My grandfather was married for the first time and had two sons. His wife died and he remarried, and then came two daughters, one of whom was my mother. They all spoke Hungarian and Austrian and some German. They too were Orthodox and lived two doors away from my father’s parents. My mother then met and finally married my father. He was very lucky. He wasn’t taken into the Army during the First World War because he had flat feet. He was in the textile business. He was a porter of some kind because the textiles had to be transported and he did that. He then worked himself up to a partnership and ownership. He did extremely well and was an extremely successful businessman all his natural life. That’s the background of the families.
None of the grandparents made big riches but they all were honest and they survived quite well under the circumstances. This is the prehistory of this thing.
I grew up in an affluent area of the suburbs. My father at that time already owned a house. This was before the mortgage days when you have to have the money to buy, and he obviously did. He bought a beautiful house in the suburbs in the district where I grew up until the age of 10. At that time, my father sold the house, moved into the inner city close to where his business was and we moved into a tremendous apartment which at one time was a summer residence home of the Kaiser. The house had three stories, it was something. The first story was the Kaiser’s, the second story was for servants and the third story was for subservants. It was sensational and I remember that quite well. That was when I finally went into a middle school and you attend from age 10 to age 14. From six to ten we went to a primary school, after kindergarten. Then at ten you went into the first four years of high school. From 14 to 18 you went into the high school and at 18 you graduated and you were ready to go to medical school.
YOUNG: That’s if you wanted to be a doctor.
BURGER: Or law school or whatever. You could go to any professional school from there on in, and in four years you were done. This was like almost college, the last four years of med school. Of course, I didn’t finish it. When the Germans took over Austria, I was 13 and I was promptly thrown out of school, all Jews were.
YOUNG: Were you the only child in the family?
BURGER: I have a sister six years older who now lives in New Jersey, but she was not involved in the Holocaust. She got out before that.
YOUNG: When did she leave?
BURGER: She left Austria in 1938. I don’t know if you’re going to – this is going to be a mish-mash, but my father had a big wedding for my sister who married a Polish boy, an opera singer. My father was crazy about opera. So when the Germans came in, he bought him a falsified Greek passport that got him out of the country. So, he went to Italy where he studied voice and then decided to go to France. There he got a job with the opera of Monte Carlo, but they were Greeks now, so they were out of it, and they were able to leave France before anything happened and get to Cuba. That’s how they got away with it – he didn’t, but they got away with it. This was just a slight interjection.
I was out of school by the age of 13, never finished what we call high school here.
YOUNG: When did the Nazis take over Austria?
BURGER: On the 13th of March, 1938. Everything became German instantly. This was the amazing part of Austria that they were totally prepared for the takeover for years and years before. On the night of the 12th, all the officials, the police officers and everybody had the white and red armbands on their arms. On the morning of the 13th, when I woke up, they all had the swastika on their arms, ready to go. The flags in the windows were all changed from one to the other overnight.
YOUNG: Did you feel, before the Nazi takeover, any incidents of antisemitism?
BURGER: Oh yes. What happened at that time, you see, the Nazis tried to sway the elections to come. We were supposed to have elections in March. They decided that it was no good because it wasn’t sure. The Austrians were still pretty strong. Schuschnigg was the president at the time and had a pretty strong party, and Hitler didn’t want to take any chances, so he took over with the threat that we were going to have a blood bath and we said, “No, we don’t need this.” Austria had an Army of three or something, you know. There was no way. At that point they had street fights and it wasn’t safe to go out at night because they were out with the brown uniforms already and were beating up on people and there were especially Jewish slogans. So, it started, it wasn’t there yet, but it started. They took the liberty.
YOUNG: When you were in school, were you the only Jewish boy or were there others?
BURGER: I was already flunked out of certain situations by Nazi teachers before hand, and definitely flunked out because I was Jewish, and all the other Jewish kids had a problem. So it was very visible to me that there was antisemitism, a tremendous degradation.
YOUNG: Did it affect your father’s business?
BURGER: Unfortunately, my father’s business was affected in the wrong way. As soon as the Nazis walked in, with him being in textiles and the free flow of merchandise coming in through Czechoslovakia and France, my father did business like never before. All the Germans came in and bought quantities and he started making money hand over fist and said, “This is funny stuff, I’m never going to leave here.” False pretense. And all the so-called friends of his said, “Don’t worry about it, Burger, we don’t want you, we want the Orthodox, we want the Hasidic, we want the ones with the peyos’. You are safe, you are one of us.” And he believed it, he was a very optimistic man. What happened was that they let him make all the money he wanted and then about six months later, he got himself arrested, put in jail, stood for six weeks and then they presented him with the facts. Either he had to sign over the business and everything he owned, or they would put him into Dachau, which wasn’t yet a gas chamber camp. It was a concentration camp, but you knew that most people there didn’t come out. So my father realized that his life was more important, so he signed everything away. So, after all that work and all the money accumulated, they took it. But I don’t think they took it all. My father had a Swiss bank account with a number which nobody ever knew except him, and he died with it in Auschwitz. But he had about a million Swiss francs in there which the Nazis didn’t get, at least. But we didn’t get it either. That’s how it went. After he learned that severe lesson and he lost it all, he concentrated on emigration, on getting out.
YOUNG: But before that, knowing what was happening to German Jews from 1933 on…
BURGER: We really didn’t know what happened to German Jews. I had an uncle in Germany in 1933 and I remember, in 1934 he came to Vienna, he ran. And he came to our house in the middle of the night. I was a little kid. He said to my father, “I’ve got to stay here, I can’t go back to Germany. It’s terrible, it’s horrible.” My father said, “Oh, you always exaggerate.” He didn’t believe him. That uncle now lives in New York City. He’s an old man. He was a conductor at the Metropolitan Opera House and nobody wanted to believe how bad it was already in 1934 in Germany, what they were doing to the Jews. Everybody thought they were kidding around. Nobody believed it. So, when it happened to us and everybody said, “Don’t worry about it, we don’t want you. This is a great country now. You’re all going to be fine, maybe a little second class citizenship but that’s about it.” But the basics they weren’t going to do anything about until – when was it – I think it was the 10th of November when that kid – Dreyfus, or whatever his name was, murdered the German diplomat in Paris. I don’t know if you remember that one. Then they declared the 10th of November “Open Chase Jew Day” – “Whatever you want to do to them – kill, beat them up, rape them, destroy them, steal from them, whatever.”
YOUNG: Was your family personally affected by this?
BURGER: That particular day?
YOUNG: Yes.
BURGER: We all got away with it, and how? My father was in the area of his office when it started in the morning, and somehow was able to hide for the day. It only lasted one day. I was home with my mother, and my cousin, Fred, visited. Now, cousin Fred is a special case because he’s a blond, blue eyed Jewish kid who at the time of the takeover was in the Austrian Army. When the Germans took over and saw this blond kid, they put a swastika on his chest and told him that he was now in the German Army, never thinking that this kid could be Jewish. That day, he was at our house, shivering just like everybody else, but when they knocked at the door, he opened it and they gave him a fast “Heil Hitler, and thank you very much” and left.
YOUNG: How did they identify Jews on the street? Were they looking at the most Orthodox?
BURGER: They used to go to the caretaker of each home, each house and ask, “How many families have you here? How many Jewish families?” And they gave it up easily.
YOUNG: So the Austrians…
BURGER: Gave them all up.
YOUNG: Were you registered in some place as a Jew?
BURGER: I don’t believe it happened right away. It happened later on that they registered everybody.
YOUNG: And you didn’t have to wear armbands?
BURGER: No, not until quite a bit later when I was gone already. I never had to do this. Everybody in Austria wore a little swastika, a gold swastika, on their lapel. If you didn’t wear it, which you were not allowed as a Jew, and they saw you without one, you would get shot in the head. That was the extent of it at that point.
YOUNG: The Nazis identified themselves.
BURGER: Yes, and if you were an Aryan and you didn’t want to be a Nazi, you got a shot in the head too. It was as simple as that. Either you were for it or against it.
YOUNG: You said your father tried to emigrate after he was released from Dachau?
BURGER: What happened was my sister and brother-in-law were in Nice, in France, so the logical path at this point was reuniting the family. To get into Italy was simple because you needed no visa. All you needed was a passport. So he went to get a German passport. I recollect that it was a Gestapo facility where you got the passports, where they checked out your properties and whatever you had owed or whatever, and after a long time of insult and what-have-you, they issued a German passport with a red “J” on it. When we finally got that, it was a simple matter to get on a train and go into Italy. In Italy they really had a business. You could go into the north of San Remos somewhere and there were these guys who could get you over the border illegally because the French wouldn’t give them a visa.
YOUNG: What year are we talking about?
BURGER: April, 1939.
YOUNG: That was before the war started.
BURGER: That’s right.
YOUNG: So these visas to go to Italy were issued…
BURGER: There was no need for a visa to Italy because they were allied with Germany.
YOUNG: So, there was no border crossing?
BURGER: There was a border crossing but only for property. They would check your valise and your passport, but you didn’t need a visa.
YOUNG: So, with an identity pass or a passport…
BURGER: A German passport and you went.
YOUNG: …even with a “J” on it…
BURGER: It didn’t matter to the Italians, they didn’t even know what a Jew was.
YOUNG: Did a lot of Austrian Jews get out this way?
BURGER: A very small amount went that route. Most of them tried for further countries. But, you see, this was a first step.
So we got into Italy at San Remos and we got to the border. The first time they were promising us crossing the mountains and the Italian troops, the patrol, was going to look the other way, and it never happened. The real way was through a garden, a large garden which was on the border, half in Italy and half in France. It was owned by a doctor Wernoff, a Russian doctor who was a scientist. He was probing into the youth serum with monkeys. There were a whole bunch of monkeys in that garden. We got in there on one side, and on the other side there was supposed to be a taxi waiting to take us back. That you can forget. They took the money, they got us in, and it was up to us to get out, (LAUGHTER) which was a lamppost. Now we were sitting in France, not knowing the language, we didn’t know where we were, we didn’t know if we were going to be arrested or not. We didn’t know what it was now, to live in a peaceful country, a democracy. They couldn’t care less about anybody. We walked ourselves to the first town, got a bus and got to Nice, scared to death.
YOUNG: How many of you were there?
BURGER: There was my father, my mother and myself, and another fellow that my father had been in jail with, a lawyer from Vienna. He spoke two words of French, incredible at the time but was in fear. We got into Nice in the middle of the night and we had to go to a hotel, but we had no papers to show them – French papers – and we were scared. The man couldn’t care less. The passport was fine and he didn’t even ask for that. So, in the morning we met up with my brother-in-law who took us to the local police station. We had already made arrangements and they gave us a temporary permit. It was simple then because there was no war and as long as you could support yourself, France didn’t throw you out. They kept giving you a new permit every month until maybe after six months, you got a permanent white card.
YOUNG: So it was like a temporary permit?
BURGER: It was a temporary heaven. You see, no one believed in war in France because the French were very idiotic and cocky. They said, “They wouldn’t dare! You see what we did to them in the First World War!” And then when it became war, they said, “Don’t worry. In three weeks we’ll be in Berlin.” And we believed it.
YOUNG: But, backtracking just a little bit, before your father decided to leave, what was it like living in Nazi occupied Austria?
BURGER: It became extremely difficult. I did not go into the streets anymore.
YOUNG: You didn’t go to school, you were expelled from school?
BURGER: Once I was out of school, I was kind of a prisoner in the apartment. They made us sell all our property in the apartment and give up that good apartment. It was a Nazi auction. What it amounted to is that two officials came in after they placed an ad in the paper, and they auctioned off your property. It generally took about two hours. It brought about three American dollars – that’s how they did it, and they didn’t give you the money, only a receipt for it. So you got nothing. You got rid of your stuff, people came with their own trucks and took it away. Two hours later, it was empty and we moved in with some other relatives, some cousins, in a lesser facility, and from that time I stayed in until we emigrated.
YOUNG: What was the Jewish community like as far as trying to help other Jews?
BURGER: We had grapevines. The community tried – it was kind of subdued, of course, because the synagogues were closed down.
YOUNG: They closed all the synagogues?
BURGER: They were burned and what have you. They went further than that, they didn’t just bother the Jews, they went into the Catholic monasteries and threw the priests out the windows. They couldn’t care less about anything. It was total takeover and chaos. You wouldn’t believe it – and they were proud of it!
YOUNG: Were they arresting the rabbis at that time or were they letting the religious leaders…?
BURGER: Everybody got in the background. Whoever didn’t get killed on the 10th of November, they went in. I mean, there was no more public appearances or getting together or anything. It was total destruction of the Jewish community at that point.
YOUNG: Were there secret meetings of Jewish people?
BURGER: I couldn’t tell you that, but what I know is that they were encouraged to leave the country. If you wanted to make it alive, get out! They were encouraged to do this – “Get yourself a visa and we won’t stop you. Just go!”
YOUNG: So, they took away people’s property and sold it for nothing, and told them to leave as best they could.
BURGER: Absolutely. And, “You’d better, you’d better. There is no future here for you.” And they didn’t tell you exactly where you were going to wind up, but they sure made it pretty clear. “Remember the 10th of November.”
YOUNG: Was there panic among your friends or relatives about people who didn’t have access to money or…?
BURGER: Well, again, my father helped quite a few people by giving them money to get out. None of them ever had any plans to come back to us and the money wasn’t intended to. As long as my father had it, he gave money. The funny thing about this is that most Jews who immigrated at the time found a way to get some of their possessions out through a non-Jew who wanted to cooperate. In our case, my Uncle Bernhard was married to a Catholic woman and she did the trips. She went into Italy with the gold cigarette cases and this and that, and the cameras, and brought them out. But everybody had a source. Nobody got that broke because I remember that first year in France, we lived with our income. Nobody worked. I had a job for 10 francs a week but that’s moving money. And everybody lived well and could afford things.
YOUNG: Did people feel that leaving Austria at that time was temporary, that as soon as Hitler was overthrown, they would return?
BURGER: At that point, nobody thought war. We left the country permanently. We had to regroup and our big goal was America. We had already applied for a visa. We had an affidavit and we applied in Austria, but the quota was so heavy, and my father having been born in Poland was in the Polish quota which was an impossibility.
YOUNG: Very few Polish – the quota was very small for Polish people.
BURGER: Yes, and it would have been like a 20 year waiting period, so it was useless at the time. So, he looked for other sources and the next source eventually became Cuba – to get closer, to get away from them. It never happened but that’s what he was after.
YOUNG: But at that time your sister was in Nice with you and your brother-in-law. They got to Cuba.
BURGER: They left for Cuba. They still got the boat. They had everything going for them. My father put up the landing money which was $1000.00 per person. He must have had the money somewhere – right?
YOUNG: Yes.
BURGER: And they went. Now, they were supposed to make all the arrangements for us and my father sent the landing money, but he never got the visa. Later on, I can come back on this, because my father got deported because of Cuba – it connects.
YOUNG: What exactly happened?
BURGER: What happened was that he went out and bought a falsified Cuban visa for the family and came home with it. It looked horrible and I even said he wouldn’t get out of the country with it. So he went back to complain to the people who had sold it to him for heavy money, and the police were there already to arrest these crooks. They asked my old man what he wanted and he said, “I want my money back, I got cheated.” They asked if he wanted to testify to that and said, “Come with us.” He went with these people to the police station and they put him in jail for six months with seven others, and never let him out until he went to trial. He got acquitted and then instead of letting him go out, they put him in a concentration camp on the Spanish border which was nothing more than a holding camp for the Germans.
YOUNG: Which camp was this?
BURGER: Gurs. And that was the end of it. He went to Auschwitz from there.
YOUNG: Where were your mother and you?
BURGER: At that time, in Nice.
YOUNG: So you were able to stay on in Nice?
BURGER: Nice was the unoccupied French.
YOUNG: Now are we talking about after the war started?
BURGER: We got lost there. This is what happened. We couldn’t get to America even though a telegram came that we had the visa. The quota number came two days too late from Washington. The last boat had gone. Without a boat, no way. So we were stuck. But again, the way it looked in the non-occupied French zone, you could possibly survive with a little bit of luck, but you had to project ahead what was going to happen. Were the Germans going to be beaten? Or were they going to win that war? It looked for a long time like they were going to win the war. Don’t forget, we had no communications like we have today. Nobody really knew what was going on in the front lines except what they told us. We were in a German area and we saw the German movies, and they were terrific. They won everything, so it was very discouraging.
YOUNG: But you and your mother were free to go out and live on the savings from your father?
BURGER: What happened there after France was occupied – France was heavily occupied – and this became the free zone. The authorities were pro-German, of course. They were collaborating, and whenever you went for your permit renewal to the police station, they wanted proof of financial security, which meant you had to bring a bundle of money. There was one bundle of money that circulated among all the immigrants. The same money went down there all the time and they’d say, “O.K., you have money.” Once in a while they tried to get some people into Germany as slave labor – or in the case of the Jews, of course, to concentration camps. It wasn’t all the time, but once in a while there was this kind of situation where if you went, you didn’t come back. Now we had grapevines and people we knew in the police station told us, “Don’t come this time,” when they sent us the notification to come for our permit, “because this is the drive.” And this is how we got away with it because we just didn’t show up till it was clear again. But the French were bastardly, like the Austrians. They were totally for the Germans. They hoped the Germans would win the war. It was the alternative (they thought) to being governed by Jews and Communists. That was their prime objective. They were terribly antisemitic. But somehow you could cruise it. It wasn’t as though any minute you were going to get it. It was a matter of luck.
YOUNG: How many Jews would you say were in a position similar to yours?
BURGER: At that time, in that area, I would say we had about 2,000 maybe, in a town of 250,000. And it all worked to perfection, maybe even better, when finally in 1942 (I think) the Italians occupied the non-occupied zone because the French scuttled the navy too long and the Germans said, “O.K., that’s enough nonsense.” There were 35 or 40 boats down the drain that could have been in the German navy, so to the Italians who had been allies, they said, “Go ahead, take them.” So they took the southeast of France and we were there. Now we were in the Italian occupation and they were pussycats. They were dolls and lovers. They didn’t want to make war. If you told them you were Jewish, they said, “What’s a Jew?”
YOUNG: Had they never seen Jews or met Jews?
BURGER: They didn’t know about Jews. They didn’t know what it was. They thought they were devils with horns and a tail. They were ignorant about the entire thing. So, how bad could it be? They allowed the synagogues to exist in full force and that was a communication point between all the Jewish refugees and the Italian occupations forces.

Tape 1 - Side 2

Now, instead of going down to the police station or not going down to the police station, we went into the synagogue and they had arranged with the Italian occupational forces to get the 40 most vulnerable Jews to be sent away, and I was one of them.
YOUNG: Do you mean in terms of age, they identified young men?
BURGER: Yes. And get them into an Italian prisoner of war camp in France. Now, that was a big joke because it was an Italian prisoner of war camp for British and American citizens – civilians that happened to live there. They were rich people, so they treated them like they were made out of gold because of the reciprocity on Italians in America and in Britain. So it was kept very high. So, we got in there, 40 of us and they said they would keep us a few days and then send us to a forced residence next to Rome. I’ll remind you, the Allies were already in Italy. Rome was an open city. What the Italians meant by a “forced residence” was that they put you in a small town, provided housing and twice a day you came to the commander and presented yourself. That was it.
YOUNG: The Italians really didn’t cooperate in sending Jews to Germany at all?
BURGER: Not at all, not at all. I mean, if it happened, it happened, but in certain areas probably, but not knowingly. So we got into that camp and waited to get sent to Italy. This was just the men. My mother stayed in Nice. They wouldn’t bother with the women too much at that point. Nothing happened for four months. They forgot us. The Italians were very good at that. We had it good and why this was, we didn’t know. After four months, they realized, “Hey, there are 40 guys here who didn’t do anything. They’re not supposed to be here. Let’s send them to a forced residence, but in France.” The town was Sospel, at the foot of the Alps and we had the same setup we were supposed to have had in Italy. Twice a day we went to the Commander, said, “Hello,” and that was it. They provided housing and food for those who had none. It was incredible! This was good until about September, 1943 when the Italians broke away from the Germans. But Badoelo signed a peace treaty. Mussolini was under arrest, and the Italians said, “Goodbye, we’re going, we’re leaving. Peace is here and we’re going home.” Germans came up the valley, they left, but they couldn’t leave where the Germans were coming because now they were on the run. They broke away from them. They were traitors. So they left through the mountains. 700 Jewish refugees in that forced residence followed them without knowing what they were really going to meet. There was 12,300 feet of elevation when we crossed the border in the Alps. We had cripples, we had infants, we had pregnant women, and everybody made it!
YOUNG: How long did it take?
BURGER: It took two days and one night.
YOUNG: That must have been very hard.
BURGER: It wasn’t a question of being hard, nobody knew what we were doing because we lost the Italians and we just followed the path then. We got into Italy. We got into an Italian fortification in the mountains which at the time was in the peace situation. Nobody was paying any attention because it was over for them. When we got in there in the evening – I spoke Italian, so I was spearheading this thing – and I got in to see the commander and he asked, “What have you got? What can we do here?” I told him that I had 700 Jewish refugees who had run from the Germans and came here. I said they were hungry and needed sleep. There was no problem. They fed them and they put them down for the night, and then I went with him to his office and he called up his command post in Cuneo which is the first big town in the area in Pieaumont, and he got somebody on the phone and he said, “We’ve got 700 Jewish people up here. What are we supposed to do with them?” He was talking to a Fascist commander, and I knew this. I thought, “This is the end of that. It’s not going to last here.” That same night, an SS patrol came up. It didn’t take them long, but they didn’t come in. They just checked it out and left again. You see, I couldn’t tell these people what was happening because there would have been total panic in the high mountains. So, next morning, we decided we were going to take them down into the valley – not to the main road, but on a path. And that’s what we did. We reached a small town – the name was Banieri. There was nobody there, no troops. There were a couple of grocery stores. The Jewish people planked themselves down in the middle of the square with the fountain and they bought groceries and everybody was happy. There were 12 of us who decided we were not going to wait around there but were going to get back into the mountains and see what would develop.
That day, in the afternoon, the Germans came in with the troops, the tanks, the guns, the loudspeakers, “Everybody surrender or be shot on the spot.” Normal routine. Well, they all surrendered because what are you going to do, where are you going to go from here? We’d hoped to see the Americans, but we saw Germans. But again, the Germans said they weren’t going to do anything other than put us in a camp in Italy. They all went for it but we 12 didn’t.
YOUNG: And you were all up in the mountains?
BURGER: Just a little bit up.
YOUNG: So you saw what was happening.
BURGER: I saw what was happening and heard everything. When they left with all these people in the trucks, it was over. We decided then to cross that one mountain chain and get into the next valley which was a bigger valley.
YOUNG: Just the 12 of you? Were you all young men?
BURGER: No. There were women.
YOUNG: All single people?
BURGER: No, my mother was with me and there were a bunch of couples. There were 12 original immigrants who finally made it to the other valley. A farmer gave them an old barn to live in – no money required.
YOUNG: What made you 12 decide not to stay down in the valley?
BURGER: Total mistrust of the German armed forces.
YOUNG: Were you the only people from Vienna – Austria or Germany?
BURGER: They were all Austrians, every one of them. We didn’t go with it. We just felt that as long as you’re free, move it. So when we got into the next valley, we found lodging and the farmers didn’t want any money. They put you in with the pigs or the cows, but so what.
YOUNG: They knew you were Jews but that didn’t mean anything to them?
BURGER: They didn’t know anything about Jews. As far as they were concerned, we were French because we’d come from France.
YOUNG: Was there no distrust of strangers arriving in their area?
BURGER: They helped. These were poor people, they did not belong to the Fascist party. They were in the mountains. You’re talking mountains now, with one road and a river, and nothing but mountains on either side. That’s where the little farmhouses were. It was probably the safest place in the world because before you could get to them, you had to climb a mountain. German troops didn’t want to do that too much. They finally did, but…
YOUNG: Did anyone tell you about the ones who gave themselves up?
BURGER: As a matter of fact, they did put them up in a camp near Cuneo which they then gave to the Italians to take care of. These people had it good for a while. They came out on passes. They went to the movies and came up visiting. They said to us, “You idiots, you should come down, it’s so great. It’s like peace.” Overnight, the Italians were gone and the SS was there. The boxcars were pulled up and we found out later that they all wound up in Auschwitz. We didn’t know about Auschwitz yet. None of them survived, not one! Of our 12, 10 survived. They caught two of us. One was caught by the Germans by accident and they shot him. The other one was caught by the Italians and he was shot the last day of the war. But, that’s it, and that’s a good percentage.
YOUNG: So, your distrust of the Germans and the whole situation saved you.
BURGER: (LAUGHTER) I was much more fortunate in the future because I joined up with an Italian service that did not want to rejoin the Fascist Army with the Germans. They came into the mountains and again, there was a dozen. We took up guns.
YOUNG: The deserters from the Italian Army had guns and they took you in?
BURGER: Yes.
YOUNG: There was no distrust of you because you were a foreigner or Jewish?
BURGER: They didn’t even know. I spoke perfect Italian. It never came up. So, we picked up the weapons and we went. At first it was supposed to be just to get food for us to survive until it was over because at that point we were already hoping that we would win the war. The Germans were getting beaten up already by then.
YOUNG: Was this going into 1944?
BURGER: Yes, sure. And I was one of the original 12 military police that won the war in a division of 60,000 people. So, I was very fortunate – doubly fortunate because I never got wounded or shot because that would have been death too since we had no medical corps.
YOUNG: Would you call yourselves a partisan kind of group?
BURGER: I was officially in the Italian partisan group. I was with the First Alpine Division.
YOUNG: So it was organized.
BURGER: This is the difference between Italian resistance and probably all the others except maybe Yugoslavs. We had actual armies. We were surface fighters, we were not underground. We were not hiding out.
YOUNG: Did you have uniforms?
BURGER: At first we were without uniforms. Then the Germans put out leaflets saying that if we wore uniforms we would be treated like normal prisoners of war if we were taken. So we went into uniforms and when anybody got caught, they would torture and murder him, so this was ridiculous – no way. So everybody went back into civilian clothes until about four weeks before the war was over. We got airdrops. I was with the 101 Airborne at the time. I had an American uniform and we had about 200 of them with us that were parachuted over where we were.
YOUNG: So then you had radio communication?
BURGER: We had everything at that time.
YOUNG: So the Allies were really able to communicate with you.
BURGER: Yes. And the airdrops contained all kinds of goodies. Then when the time came to leave the mountains, it came very rapidly – all of a sudden. “Let’s go down and get them!” And they were already running.
YOUNG: When you were fighting, did you meet up with German troops or what kinds of things did you do?
BURGER: There were all kinds of troops. What we did primarily – and this is a very interesting situation. Our main orders were to destroy everything on wheels, from a train down to a bicycle, even a baby carriage – anything that could roll. I could understand the trains and buses, but I couldn’t understand the goodlooking automobiles and the motorcycles and all that stuff. But when it came down to brass tacks, the war was going down the drain for the Germans. They were walking. That’s what it was all about. They were walking into a camp next to Milan. They would not surrender to us because we were the animals. We were cutting off ears and stuff. That’s what they propagated. But the main thing here is that they walked into a camp and did not ride on wheels. And to show you just how wonderful the Germans were, it was a “death march.” Every farm on the way was burned, everybody was shot except the youngest child – and they had already lost the war! – in case you want to know how wonderful they were to the last minute. It’s why I can’t stomach it today. I wouldn’t even fly over Germany if the time comes. I just couldn’t. A lot of Americans feel that way about Japan, for Pearl Harbor, and that’s the way I feel about Germany. It doesn’t matter if it’s two generations later, it’s still there, and I know it’s there! My mother knows it’s there. My mother went back to Vienna after the war to visit with her sister who was still alive, and old friends, and to see the graves of her parents. She got off the plane, got into a cab and got into a discussion with the cab driver in Viennese. He didn’t know who she was, and he said, “You know it’s a shame that they didn’t give Hitler enough time to finish it. There are still some Jews around.” That was her first “hello.” Now, she really thought she was going to stay there and die there, but she came back here and died here.
YOUNG: As the war was finishing up, your group went down into the valley after the Germans?
BURGER: We went into occupied territory. The Germans were not that interesting anymore because they were Allied property. What we were interested in were the Fascists, the spies, the people who had collaborated. We wanted to clean it out. We had about 10 days to do this. The Allied advance became very slow all of a sudden toward the end of the war. It was as though they wanted to give us the time to do it, and we set up tribunals.
YOUNG: Was your group politically connected up, like with the Communists or the Socialists, or was it…?
BURGER: It was a Socialist group. They had a lot of them in there. They had Communist groups, Royalists.
YOUNG: Was your group of one political persuasion?
BURGER: It was probably the strongest political denomination at the time. They took over the government.
YOUNG: The Socialists?
BURGER: Yes. As far as I was concerned, I couldn’t be bothered. I wasn’t Italian but I did what I had to do.
When the war was over, I stayed in the Army for another month and the job was to go up into the mountains and pick out the SS that had escaped. Of course, nobody wanted to do this. We knew we couldn’t win going up because they couldn’t win going up either, so we let them die. Either you came down because you were hungry and nobody helps you, and then you are shot on the spot, or you stay up there and die. These were the orders that were given by the Allies – Carte Blanche on the SS. “Check for the tattoo, have him dig a grave if he’s alone. If he has friends, everybody digs. Lay them all in except one. Don’t move a finger, just shoot them. Let them fill the graves and keep one. Go on like this until they are gone.” And as far as we were concerned, there were no survivors.
YOUNG: Were you able to capture a lot of the SS?
BURGER: A lot of them in that area, yes, because they tried to get away from the onslaught and the only place to go was to the mountains. It didn’t work because these were not friendly mountains, at least not to them. So, as far as we were concerned, we did whatever we could to terminate this terrible situation. We had a lot of people shot that were really collaborating. They were causing deaths. It was like picking up the commander of a camp because he was guilty of killing 12,000 people, while here you can pick up somebody who was guilty of killing four or five – it’s the same thing, it makes no difference. So we had a little trial and most of them were guilty. I don’t recall anyone being pronounced not guilty, even if he was. At that point, you couldn’t bother with it. The job had to be done, and we cleaned it up pretty good. I came out feeling good because I was able to shoot back and I was always ready to have that last bullet in my name, but I wasn’t going to be a prisoner.
YOUNG: Did you come close to being captured?
BURGER: Once or twice, isolated. Once I talked myself out of it because I was in civilian clothes and didn’t have any weapons on me. And once I got shot at from a distance and ran. They didn’t know where I was going. But in combat, we were usually on top of it. I can’t remember once that there was any kind of an affair going on, like blowing up a bridge or whatever, that they even came close to knowing what was going on. They were always running.
YOUNG: So did you hide in the mountains between attacks? Is that the way you operated?
BURGER: What it amounted to was that one guy in the mountains could take care of 100 guys coming up, and still live. It was an incredible percentage rate and since we did a lot of mountain climbing, our legs were strong and our hearts were terrific because we had to go up and down all the time. You operated in the middle of the night downstairs too, to blow up electric lines for the train. They were electrified then, and when you had done your job, you came back into the bunkers and slept to get ready for the next one, not necessarily the next day but when the next thing happened.
YOUNG: Was it difficult for you to readjust to peace after all this war and shooting?
BURGER: When I got out of it, I went back to France because I thought my father was going to come back to France.
YOUNG: You had no communication with him?
BURGER: There was no way of knowing that there were death camps. Nobody knew. Otherwise, I don’t think I would have gone back to France. I had a terrific job in Italy. (LAUGHTER) I was the Chief of Police in a small town. What the heck, why not – 20 years old? But I came back to France and I was right back to where we’d started from. It was the same thing with the French issuing a temporary card and no work permit. Everything was on the black market. How can you afford this? Now, we didn’t have the means. So I tried to get into the American armed forces as an interpreter.
YOUNG: You knew English too?
BURGER: I knew English, I knew French, I knew Italian and German – the four occupying forces there. So I made my application and was immediately rejected because I came out of the underground, and I was going to go there to kill, and they were right. I just felt that the Germans should get more.
YOUNG: So you were very angry with the Germans?
BURGER: Terribly angry with what they did, especially when we started to see the people coming back from the camps.
YOUNG: How long did it take before you found out what happened to your father?
BURGER: Not too long. I saw a man come back. He was Elizabeth Bergman’s brother – the actress. And he was always in trouble in Vienna, and my father liked him. He always helped him out. He gave him pieces of material to sell without needing money and so he loved my father. This guy became a Kapo in Auschwitz. He was a tough character, he was a criminal. And when my father came in, he took care of him as much as he could. And when he came back I asked what had happened. He wouldn’t tell me. He said, “You can kill me, I won’t tell.” Well, I didn’t have to kill him, I just noodged the hell out of him and eventually, in tears, he told me what had happened. At that point, the Germans had run out of the gas used in the gas chambers and they just burned the people alive. My father was one of them. He was thrown into the ovens, probably unconscious, but alive. And that was his panic, he didn’t want to tell me. He died very shortly after from the beatings he took, but that’s how I know what happened to my father. There are no records. They didn’t keep records anymore at that point. So it had to be – I think they stopped gassing in 1943 at Auschwitz, so it had to be by that time or early in 1944. That’s all I can say. No, it had to be 1944 to 1945 because they were liberated in 1945 from Auschwitz. So it was just before that. I don’t know how he kept him alive, but he did. So that’s how we vaguely know what happened. We don’t have dates. In Israel itself, there are no records of that time, so we can only guess.
YOUNG: Some survivors’ families have found records of transports to Auschwitz.
BURGER: We never did, and there are other families of the same name who died there. From the nine of my father’s side, we have only one alive today. One brother is alive in New York. Two more died at liberty, but all the others went to Auschwitz. So, that’s the area. On my mother’s side, two brothers – one died of natural causes before the war, the other one was deported with all his family. The sister went to Treblinka. She was liberated under a pile of corpses seven days after the liberation, after they got all the corpses out of the way. She had remained alive underneath, not daring to move. She came out of that but in what condition, I can’t tell you. She went back to Vienna and I never saw her again. She finally died in Vienna. My grandmother on my father’s side died on the road to the camps. They dragged them out at that age. And my grandfather on my mother’s side – he was 84. That’s the end of the family and that was the end of Austria for us. There is nobody there. If there ever was a desire to go back, it would have had to be for family. There isn’t any. As a matter of fact, there are very few families in Austria. Austria has never permitted the rebuilding of the Jewish community as per se. They still live like they are in danger for their lives, the few who are there. And it’s usually not the people who have returned, it’s people who have reintegrated from other areas.

Tape 2 - Side 1

One mistake that I noticed when I listened to the tape was I told you that the name of the forced residence in France was Sospel. Actually, that was the camp, the Italian civilian prisoner of war camp was Sospel. The forced residence was San Martin Vesubie.
YOUNG: O.K. Was there anything else you felt you might have omitted from last week’s tape?
BURGER: Well, there was a lot of vagueness, of course, in certain areas which are possibly not needed, but in the area of a mistake, there is no way that Sospel would be the right departure point for 700 refugees to get into Italy. That’s why I corrected that.
YOUNG: I would like to know a little more about what it was like to live in Vienna from 1933 to 1938 when the Nazis came in.
BURGER: Well, we had no interference in 1933. Vienna was taken over in ‘38.
YOUNG: I know that, but the fact that the Nazis were in power in Germany – did that have any influence on the Jews in Vienna?
BURGER: The Jews all felt, “It can’t happen to us.” Believe me, I was a kid, but I listened and my father was totally against the German Jews, saying bad things about the whole thing. He couldn’t be bothered with it. He thought they were exaggerating and he said, “How can anything like this happen? And it’s certainly not going to happen to us because we are happy in Austria. This is our country. We are assimilated.”
YOUNG: So there was no fear that the Nazis, before they took over in 1938 – was there any fear in the population?
BURGER: At that point, to my recollection, before the takeover, there was no physical punishment of Jews by clandestine Nazis, or anything like that. They stayed in their place. They were underground. They called them “Illegal Nazis.” They had probably been members of the party for many, many years, since 1933. They had their papers and everything, but they didn’t come up – among themselves, yes. Like in this country when they had the Bundt and all the meetings and all that. Well, they probably had them, but not officially until 1938 and the elections were coming close and the Nazi party was then an official party to run for election. Then they started what we called “shit disturbing” in the streets, fighting, slogans, uniforms, all kinds of stuff – agitation.
YOUNG: When just growing up as a child, what was your Jewish life like? Did you go to a regular synagogue or were your parents more assimilated?
BURGER: As I said, both of my parents came from Orthodox families and my father fell away completely. My father was not religious. My mother observed the high holidays. I remember Passover was always at my grandparents’ house. That was a solemn situation. I don’t recall my father ever being there. He was out of it, possibly because as a kid, they didn’t really get into training him. He died in this country, as I told you. Mother had no time, with nine children, and no income except what some of the good sons would bring home. So, it was tough. But the other side of the family, my grandparents, were very Orthodox and it did bleed off. My mother believed and observed the high holidays, and she went to synagogue. Once in a while, I was schlepped along as a kid. I hated it. I had Bar Mitzvah in Vienna, Orthodox Bar Mitzvah because we had to do it for grandpa.
YOUNG: This was what year?
BURGER: In 1938 I was 13.
YOUNG: This was before the Nazis?
BURGER: Yes.
YOUNG: So it was a normal…
BURGER: A normal Bar Mitzvah with Rabbi Frankfurter, a relation of the Chief Justice, who was a miserable son-of-a-bitch, hated by the world. As a matter of fact, when the Germans got hold of him, they hung him in effigy or something, and everybody applauded, even the Jews. Well, I had to study with him or his helpers who were assigned to me, rabbis. I remember the garlic smell of the beards. But I did it. I came out with big honors. My grandfather was very proud of me and I was too because I wasn’t in the environment.
YOUNG: But you followed the tradition at least of…
BURGER: I was a Jew and I never denied it, but I wasn’t a synagogue-going Jew.
YOUNG: Well, was it in Vienna like it was in most of Europe, that there was really just the Orthodox and if you were not practicing Orthodox…?
BURGER: You were nothing.
YOUNG: There was no reform yet?
BURGER: Not yet. I don’t know if they had it later but I don’t think so. When I came here, I was amazed that Jews used to drive to Shul on Saturday. This was different. (LAUGHTER)
YOUNG: So your tradition was totally Orthodox.
BURGER: Either Orthodox or “zero.”
YOUNG: Right.
BURGER: This is the way it had to be.
YOUNG: Did you belong to any Jewish youth groups as a young child?
BURGER: No, I don’t even know if they had them. I know I tried to belong to the Boy Scouts and I had a problem because they stole my overcoat at the first meeting and my mother said I couldn’t go anymore. That was it!
You know what was so amazing about Austria – the kids in school were very sports oriented and at the ages of 12 and 13, you were oriented to soccer – pro soccer. The pro teams were scouting already for the kids and then they would take them under their wings and that was the whole thing. You had to belong. So you belonged to clubs but they were certain clubs or sports organizations, track and field or whatever.
YOUNG: So your Jewish life was basically…
BURGER: Grandparents.
YOUNG: Grandparents and Passover and high holidays, but nothing on a daily basis, like keeping kosher or…?
BURGER: No, no. And that was true of most of what we call “assimilated Jews.” The only ones who kept their tradition were the Hasidic Jews in a second district. They kind of had their own little life, their own little stores, their own little synagogues. They were all very much like where they came from. And once you got out of that – it’s like the black people here or in Harlem – once they get out of Harlem and they buy their own home, it’s a different life.
YOUNG: I want to jump to your war experiences. If you could describe in more detail the 12 people in your group who decided not to go…
BURGER: There were two pairs of 12’s and I have to clarify this. The first 12 were Jewish immigrants who came with me from Italy and a few married couples and singles. I was the youngest. And we decided we were going to watch this out and this saved our lives. The second bunch of 12’s were Italian Army deserters that did not want to fall in with the Germans. After they thought the war was over, all of a sudden they were here and they were still in uniform. They still had their guns.
YOUNG: The first group of 12 – you went up the mountain and the rest of the people stayed in the valley.
BURGER: They stayed down but we just went up a few feet but it was very dense and we didn’t need to go higher.
YOUNG: What kind of discussion did you have with the other people?
BURGER: I told them I didn’t trust it because I had spoken with the officer in charge and he indicated through the main commander that “there were all these Jews around.” Therefore, after the SS came in and checked it out, without doing anything, it had to stop. I knew it and I didn’t trust this whole set-up. It had nowhere to go. The other people were happy the way it was, “Well, look at all the food and look there is nobody to bother us, and we’re going to find lodging and we’re going to be fine.” Sure, let’s check it out and see. That was my opinion and my mother was with me at the time but there were already two for it. My mother did everything I told her to do. And then the other ten were really impressed by what I had to say and they decided it was wise not to jump into this. That’s as far as we got in convincing people.
YOUNG: The other 10 – you said they were couples and…
BURGER: There were two or three married couples and single fellows.
YOUNG: No children?
BURGER: No, no kids.
YOUNG: So you decided to find a local farmer who would let you stay?
BURGER: After we saw what happened, with the Germans coming in and collecting all these Jewish people, we got out of that valley because we knew they were aware of that valley. If you look at the map, one valley is next to another and you just go up a mountain peak which is not very high and then you come down. Here again is a road and a river and then it goes up on the other side to the next peak and valley. So we just jumped one over and it was a short trip.
YOUNG: Did you have an expedition, like one person checking out the territory?
BURGER: Well, you see, I was the one who spoke Italian.
YOUNG: So you were the one they all depended on.
BURGER: So I talked to the farmers, I talked to the people in town and they told me what was ahead. I didn’t know, I didn’t know the geography at all. We had no maps or anything. But when we got on the other side, it was a bigger valley. There were more farmhouses and greater capability of getting away with something because it wasn’t that concentrated. We liked it.
YOUNG: So did all 12 of you stay together as a group?
BURGER: Together, yes, with one farmer giving up a barn which was not occupied by animals but it had hay and stuff and a place one could sleep. He didn’t want any money for that, but he provided us with food – bread and what-have-you, and that we paid for and he was very happy.
YOUNG: What time of year was this? Was it like spring, summer, or – I mean, was it warm?
BURGER: It was about September and the weather was still good.
YOUNG: How long did all 12 of you stay in this barn?
BURGER: Over the first winter.
YOUNG: That must have been very cold for all of you.
BURGER: Yes, but we had the barn and then we went in with the animals and we stayed with the animals. You might get lice, but you were warm and you felt good. The winter was pretty safe.
YOUNG: What did you do during the day?
BURGER: I’m not too much aware because I left. I went into the underground.
YOUNG: Immediately or…?
BURGER: Just about. But I came back occasionally. These people didn’t know much. They were worried about what they would have to eat and cleaning up the barn. What the hell is that to do? They couldn’t move much because they had no papers.
YOUNG: So they were depending on the farmer to bring food and they were depending on his keeping quiet the fact that they were there.
BURGER: Absolutely.
YOUNG: Did you say you stayed for one or two weeks with that group?
BURGER: Possible so.
YOUNG: How did you join up with the deserters from the Army?
BURGER: By running into them. They were like little bands in the mountains. They came across and I asked them where the hell they were going. And they said, “Well, we’re going to form a little group here because we have the guns and we’re going to feed ourselves until this is over.” That was how it started. “We are just going to go into a grocery store and take what we want and when it’s all over, we’ll give them an I.O.U. or something.”
YOUNG: So, they were all young men?
BURGER: Yes, soldiers and a couple of officers. As it turned out, we wound up in the high mountains and there we had the largest amount of hunters and skiers. There were no areas where you could stay. It was already eternal ice up there and we stayed there for possibly a month and a half in the winter, until we started coming lower.
YOUNG: So this group already had contact with the Allies?
BURGER: No, not yet. No, this was all a local operation, just trying to survive until the Allies came in.
YOUNG: How did they hook up with the Allies?
BURGER: That came a little later. First of all, they took in a lot of deserters and people who wanted to join up. They couldn’t stand it with the Germans. You have to understand, the Germans treated the Italians like traitors, even worse than the Jews, maybe. They didn’t trust anybody because they got into an independent armistice with the Allies. So the Italians came and joined in flocks. When it became a pretty nice rounded number of a couple of thousand in the group, then contact was made, especially in 1944 after the 6th of June when the Allies came into Normandy and had another department in the south of France. Then the contact was physical because the border was very easily reached. And then we started getting the airdrops and materials and equipment and uniforms.
YOUNG: But your group was that 12…
BURGER: From 1943 to 1944, it was a strictly Italian organization without Allied support or even possibly knowledge. But in 1944 it officially became a division under the Allied – well, it was recognized by the Allies. Then there was radio communication. We picked up the flyers who were shot down and brought them back. It was not a job we had to do because at that time they were talking about mass bombardments into the northern part of Italy and they came in with four or 500 flying fortresses at one time. It got dark in the skies, let me tell you, and they dropped it all over Torino and Milano which were industrial and had to be destroyed. Then on the way back, the Germans tried to attack them, the fighter planes. And once in a while, they shot one down. They parachuted and we picked them up and took them back into France to rejoin and fly again.
YOUNG: Did you have any kinds of problems with your partisan or your Army group in terms of getting along with the other men?
BURGER: No. As a matter of fact, I think what helped me a lot is that I had some education while most of these people didn’t. They were farmers, they were poor people joining up, maybe because the Germans took their chickens away from them. All they could think then was, “They can’t do that, I’m going to fight them!” You see, the intelligence level was pretty low. We needed the manpower but we needed people to direct them. I left the armed forces as a First Lieutenant for that reason. A very young First Lieutenant because they listened. There was no question about it.
YOUNG: How did you pick up the English?
BURGER: Mainly from the troops that were parachuted. We had about 200 airborne from the 101 Airborne. You heard about people who were let out of prison? For suicide missions?
YOUNG: Yes.
BURGER: Well, this was one of them.
YOUNG: Oh!
BURGER: There were very few survivors out of these people, they were drunks. They didn’t believe in shotguns, they had knives and bayonets and things like that. As a matter of fact, when I came to this country, my English was very dirty.
YOUNG: You picked up all the wrong language?
BURGER: Right, I had very dirty English, but it was English. I was very good with languages, so I was again in the translator situation between the Italians and the American troops and some British.
YOUNG: So you were really used as the interpreter like the platoon leader?
BURGER: I was used for anything they could use me for. It was no big deal. This was not an Army where you saluted a superior. This was an Army where you went to do your job and tried to save somebody’s life, if possible. You would go crazy there. This was total survival and winning a war. We didn’t know for a long time if we were winning it either because we didn’t have the communications that we have today. You didn’t just turn on the radio. We used to get our personal messages from the BBC and when three of them jibed, we knew where the airdrop was coming or whatever. But that was most of the communication. Don’t forget, for the longest time, the BBC said, “This is the 472nd day of the war against aggression, and we are losing on all fronts.” So that was every day, until it turned around. Then we were winning a little here and we threw them out of there and it started looking better. But for a long time, we were very much on the losing side. But, again, it didn’t matter because we were not in prison. That was a very important thing.
YOUNG: You said you were able to visit your original group of 12 occasionally. How did you manage?
BURGER: Because of my mother. The underground knew I had a mother there and they sometimes used to make up packages of food and stuff for me to take to her. Also, they directed traffic for these people because it was not always safe in the same place. We knew in the underground where they were going to strike, more or less. If the refugees were somewhere in the vicinity, we moved them.
YOUNG: So your mother and her group moved around.
BURGER: They did – up to a different slope, a different mountain. And that’s how they got away with it. As I said before, only two were caught by accident, just roaming around and probably wandering.
YOUNG: Did the other young men from the original group of 12 also join the underground?
BURGER: No, they stuck together and, as I said, two of them were executed, one by the Germans and one by the Italians. The one executed by the Italians was a sad situation – it was the last day of the war. And he had parents in Italy who survived.
YOUNG: How did he get caught?
BURGER: He was wandering around and he was a real sloppy guy, like one of these hippies, you know. He must have run into a patrol, which they had. They were very rare, but they had them. And he got himself clobbered.
YOUNG: So a lot of the reason your mother and that group survived was because you were also in the underground and you were able to keep them protected by moving them around.
BURGER: Yes.
YOUNG: With your mother being in that kind of situation, did they have problems with 10 or 11 people together for such an extended period of time.
BURGER: No, as a matter of fact, I recall that the Catholic Church helped too. See, there were other groups dispersed somewhere, probably. They were not from this original Jewish group, but some other Jewish groups were around and the Catholic Church got money donations from Genoa, I think, through couriers and it reached local priests who came and distributed money for Jewish people as a relief action. They were aware of it. I understand that the Catholic monasteries put up a lot of people and hid them or tried to get them out of the country. I learned that partially while I was there and then after.
YOUNG: So, it sounds from what you’re saying that the local population where you were in Italy and in the mountains was not aware of what Jews were and not anti-Semitic at all.
BURGER: They had never been confronted with the problem.
YOUNG: They had never seen Jews?
BURGER: In the cities I know there were deportations – Italians giving people up to the Germans. I know that happened in Rome, I know it happened in the bigger cities. There were Fascist troops, the Black Berets or Black Shirts, whatever you want to call them. There was Fascism but it was never as severe as anything that happened in Germany, even at its worst…short of deportation. In Italy you could even survive in jail. They were not killers. The Italians wanted to make love, they didn’t want to make war.
YOUNG: So what happened when that one guy was captured from the group of 12, was because he was out of his territory.
BURGER: He was roaming, visiting somebody. Who knows what they were doing? They had friendly people there. They went from one farm to the other and from one little village to the other. And all of a sudden, you find yourself in trouble. Some people thought they were wise that nothing had happened to them and that nothing was going to happen. I never predicted. There was also so much luck because you couldn’t be a maven, you couldn’t know everything. If it happened it was nobody’s fault.
YOUNG: You seem to be the only one in your original group who volunteered and fought with the Resistance. Was there a reason why the others decided just to stick together and…?
BURGER: Because they were not as crazy. I was crazy and I thought this was exciting and it was something to do that was terrific.
YOUNG: You didn’t want to just stay in a barn?
BURGER: I couldn’t. I was too young. I was the youngest. And how are you going to meet women at that age – right? – staying in a barn with those old people.
YOUNG: So you thought the other people were older and…
BURGER: And I felt I was Army age, definitely. And I had the chance to do it and didn’t reflect too much about it – I didn’t think too much about it. I just went.
YOUNG: What did your mother think or say to you?
BURGER: She said, “Don’t go, don’t go – but go.”
YOUNG: (LAUGHTER) “Don’t go, but go.”
BURGER: Yes. She didn’t know where I was going either.
YOUNG: She had reservations but…
BURGER: My mother wasn’t with it. This was all overwhelming to the rich Mrs. Burger who was all of a sudden wearing Army shoes, you know. She wasn’t too much with it and she just went with the tide and when it was all over, she was back in France and hollering, “They killed my husband.” She didn’t live with him for 20 years already, but this was the big thing. No, my mother wasn’t any martyr but she survived and she liked the idea. And she was now an immigrant which she didn’t like too much because she would have liked to be the rich Mrs. Burger again. It never happened.
And then we came to this country and she adjusted to keeping house for the children.
YOUNG: When the war ended, you said you wound up in Nice because you hoped to find out what had happened to your father.
BURGER: That was the idea. We did not know about camps of that magnitude. We thought a camp meant a labor camp. We were sure the Germans weren’t going to pay anybody because, you see, they also sent Frenchmen over and Frenchmen went over for a period of two or three months and they told us they were put in a factory because the Germans needed labor. They said they had made ammunitions or whatever, but they were Aryans and they were just contributing labor to the war effort. We believed that’s what happened to everybody except the Jews didn’t get sent home right away. They were second class citizens. We didn’t know about extermination camps. So I figured the only way I would be reunited with my father and my family was to go to where he left from, which was Nice. And that was true because after we came back and the people started coming back, they did return to where they had left from. The Russians used to repatriate them, not necessarily to their birthplace, but to where they had come from.
YOUNG: I see. Was it possible to go back to Vienna after the war?
BURGER: Sure…they had no restrictions on it, but it was an idiotic thing to do because there was nobody there.
YOUNG: Well, once your mother found out that your father had been killed…
BURGER: That was it! There was nobody left.
YOUNG: Nobody. Everybody either had…
BURGER: Either left the country or was deported and killed.
YOUNG: Was there any desire on your part to go to Vienna to get your property back or try to?
BURGER: Never. This was a bad experience and it was an experience that I tried to forget. And I did create a mental block about certain areas of times when I was a kid and I can’t remember them. My sister had to remind me of a lot of things. I just blanked it out. I never had any desire to go back. My sister returns once in a while because she has an old girlfriend there, a school friend. She was a Catholic girl and she went back to visit and kind of liked it but only as an American visitor with the dollar. But to live there and be a citizen again, no way.
YOUNG: What was the process for you, once you were in Nice, to decide where to go from there?
BURGER: We went back to the American Consulate. We tried to rejuvenate this application we had with a visa. And in Nice, they said we had to transfer our facilities to Marseilles and our files were lost, so we had to re-apply. So we re-applied and after they processed the application, I was told that my quota would be another 18 years. Now, I was very serious. This was in 1949. We had to make a decision to either stay in France – I’d finally gotten a work permit.
YOUNG: So you were in France from 1945 to 1949.
BURGER: And I finally had a work permit. I worked for a Communist newspaper, of all things, “The Patriot,” as a photographer of sports. Or the other alternative was to think about returning to Vienna. My mother and I spent hours debating this decision. She wouldn’t have minded too much going back to Vienna. She was there longer than I. And all of a sudden, we got a telegram from Marseilles, from the American Consulate, that they had found our files in the basement and to come and get the physical over with and get our visas. And this was done within two months. That’s how we got into this country, all of a sudden, (SNAPPING HIS FINGERS) just like that!
YOUNG: Your sister had been in Cuba. How did she get to the States?
BURGER: She made a normal application for a visa. It was easy from there.
YOUNG: So she was already in the States…
BURGER: Maybe three or four months before we got here.
YOUNG: But she had spent the war years in Cuba with her husband?
BURGER: No, actually without him. He left her.
YOUNG: He left her?
BURGER: Yes, he was a nice guy. But anyhow, this is how come we came here (France?) because we gave up on America.
YOUNG: How did you survive during those four years in France?
BURGER: I was working illegally and I was called in once about it.

Tape 2 - Side 2

And the bluff worked, they tore up the papers. So I was able to do these things. I was doing nightclub photography at Maxim’s.
YOUNG: How did you get into photography? Where did you get your training?
BURGER: While I was locked in, in Vienna, before we could get out, my father bought me some equipment, some trays and some developer and a enlarger. It was little, amateur stuff. And also a little camera. I was fooling around with it because it kept me busy.
Then when I emigrated to France the first time, I got a job in a photo store which was run by a German guy.
YOUNG: A non-Jew?
BURGER: Yes. He gave me a job to learn the trade. Then when the war started, he was arrested and shipped to an English camp and I met him again after the war. He was never involved in the war – a young guy and good looking. He had nice looking women, I remember that much. But that’s how I got into it and I stayed with it forever. It was interesting. Then I got to work for the newspaper. They took my pictures even though I didn’t have a work permit. They gave me less money.
YOUNG: So it was possible to survive without a work permit.
BURGER: Yes. And for the police to say, “Well this guy doesn’t have a work permit,” when I’ve got an official press card to photograph the soccer games, really confused them. My name was in the paper every Monday and under the picture it said, “Photographed by H. Burger.” But they couldn’t figure out that I didn’t have a permit. It was ridiculous – of course I did – right!?
YOUNG: When you were in France for three to four years, working and enjoying yourself, how did you decide to go to America? Did you consider that maybe you could stay in France?
BURGER: Yes, at that point. When I first wanted to go to America, it was refused and the reason was, “You shouldn’t go in this direction, you should become a French citizen.” I said, “Fine.” And they said, “Well, you have to go two years to Indochina as a volunteer.” We’re talking about Vietnam. As you know, the French got their pants beaten off in China, and I wasn’t about to go there just because I was an underground man and they could use me. It was ridiculous.
YOUNG: But you were of draft age at that time?
BURGER: Of volunteer age. They couldn’t do anything to me because I wasn’t a Frenchman, but they would have made me a Frenchman if I had served my military duty. So, we left that alone.
The only reason I finally got a work permit – a permit, mind you but not the permission to run my own business – was because the newspaper put their influence on the line and they vouched for me. So they finally gave me a permit. It didn’t last too long because as soon as I got it, about a few months later, I got the notification from the consulate and it was over. We left – gone.
YOUNG: Did you join your sister in America?
BURGER: In New York.
YOUNG: Was she established already?
BURGER: As a matter of fact, when we got in she was on unemployment and then she got a job as a waitress. My sister was a seamstress, a very good one. But, she was out of work at the time. Then I came in and we were all broke. I had to get a job, which I did on the second day in town. I earned $40.00 per week, minimum pay, you know, but it worked.
YOUNG: Were you helped by the Jewish organizations when you came?
BURGER: I had one piece of help from the HIAS.* They secured the ticket on the steamship and they paid for the transport from Nice to Paris and to the boat. So, they were very good about it. My father had helped them a lot in the past and they had records, so it was just like giving back what they thought was right. We had no money for trips.
YOUNG: I know that the German Jews were able to get reparations after the war. Could you tell me a little bit more about that in Austria?
BURGER: I found out that Austria considered itself occupied and not Nazi. Nobody was a Nazi there and nobody did anything. They said, “We were occupied,” and somehow the Allies bought that. We’re babies. So, whenever there was a German Jew who used to peddle buttons from door to door, he got reparation for loss of business. I applied for loss of education or what-have-you. They totally objected. They wouldn’t even respond to it.
YOUNG: Even though Germany and Austria were united as part of the German Reich? That wasn’t considered…?
BURGER: It was immediately – see, I don’t know how the Austrians managed to get rid of the occupation forces when the war was over. Vienna was like Berlin, the four powers. Then all of a sudden everybody was out of there. They were on their own. How did we do this? I don’t know.
YOUNG: So you were never able to get any type of reparations for your family losses.
BURGER: My sister, believe it or not, got a small reparation pension type thing for loss of schooling. She is six years older. I wasn’t about to be finished with it, so they wouldn’t give it to me. I didn’t care how much it was, just get something, you know. Never.
YOUNG: Was your mother able to get anything?
BURGER: My mother had a small pension because of my father’s business that was lost. You had to be a licensed businessman over there. It was like a taxi license. And once you had the license, it belonged to you. You could open a business anywhere you wanted and that was valuable because it was transferable. It could be sold like a medallion on a taxicab. And I think she got reparation for that on a monthly basis.
YOUNG: From the Austrian government?
BURGER: Yes. But they never gave reparation for what was done to Jews – to a citizen maybe, but not to Jews.
YOUNG: What was it like for you during your first years as an emigrant? You came as a single man. I know you married.
BURGER: I was very busy trying to make a life for myself. Nine months after we got here, we all decided to pitch in and get a little apartment. The rooming house stuff had to stop. And we went into a suburb, Elmhurst, in Queens and we got an apartment. We worked for that for quite a while. There were four in the apartment.
YOUNG: Did your mother work?
BURGER: My mother took care of the house and the kids. The other two of us went out and made a living. And I improved myself rather rapidly. I did very well.
YOUNG: When did you get married?
BURGER: Which time?
YOUNG: Oh, you’ve been married more than once? (LAUGHTER)
BURGER: I forget! I got married in 1959 and my daughter was born, nine months to the day, in 1960. “Lucky Pierre” they called me. Then that little lady decided to commit suicide, and four years later I remarried. I had worked for seven years and the “seven year itch” set in. You understand? I was single for quite a long time until I met my present wife.
YOUNG: And how long have you been in St. Louis?
BURGER: I came in April of last year (April, 1986).
YOUNG: Is there anything that I haven’t asked you that you might like to say now?
BURGER: Or hold my peace forever?
YOUNG: (LAUGHTER)
BURGER: I can’t really think of anything that wasn’t really touched. The only thing I can think of is that if you have any problems in the future about detail in one area or the other, don’t hesitate to contact me.
YOUNG: O.K.
BURGER: If you want one of these to back up, I’ll give you one.
YOUNG: You certainly have a lot of facts in the tapes you’re making for Rabbi Sternberg for the speech.

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