Understanding the Holocaust: Forgery, Survival, and the Fight to Remember
Kevin Ostoyich, Ph.D., professor of history and recipient of the Dixon W. and Herta E. Benz Fund for Faculty Support, has become well-known in Holocaust remembrance circles for his experience and proficiency with interviewing survivors and their descendants. When the Florence and Laurence Spungen Family Foundation set out to write the book “Forging Secrets: Faces and Facts Inside the Nazi Operation Bernhard Scheme,” they turned to Professor Ostoyich to conduct a very special interview for the project. Despite years of experience in the field, he admits it was a proposition that came with uncertainties.
The problem was not finding the right questions. It wasn’t even a scheduling issue, despite the fact that he was in Valparaiso and his two interview subjects were in Florida and Germany. What made Professor Ostoyich uncertain was that one interviewee was the granddaughter of Hans Walter — a Holocaust survivor forced to produce counterfeit British currency for the Nazis during Operation Bernhard — and the other was the granddaughter of Bernhard Krüger himself — the SS Major in the Nazi regime overseeing the project that bore his name.
“You just never know what’s going to happen when you have two people from different sides of the story,” Professor Ostoyich says.
Operation Bernhard was a unique ploy by the Nazis to undermine the British war effort by dropping immense amounts of forged currency in the hopes of devaluing the pound to the point of economic collapse. To create the banknotes, Major Krüger recruited prisoners from Nazi concentration camps with backgrounds in craftsmanship, banking, printing and engraving. Those selected had a simple choice: recreate British currency, or die. Hans Walter, a prisoner of the infamous Auschwitz camp, had a history of forgery and paper manufacturing before the rise of the Nazi party, and was quickly drafted to the project.
“It’s what saved his life,” Professor Ostoyich says. “The fear that all Operation Bernhard slave laborers had was the reality that once they were no longer useful, they were expendable. They needed to keep this operation going because it was the only thing keeping them alive.”
Professor Ostoyich’s research career has revolved around making sure the stories of the Holocaust are told. While his specialty has been the Jewish refugees who made their way to Shanghai, China during WWII, he has since expanded the scope of his work to include all remaining Holocaust survivors.
“As survivors are passing away, it seemed wrong for me to just be interviewing Shanghai survivors,” Professor Ostoyich says. “Now, if any survivor is willing to share their story, I will go to them, record it, and disseminate the information as best I can.”
Professor Ostoyich also instills his knowledge and appreciation for the gravity of the tragedy in his students, which is how he met Danny Spungen over Zoom in February of 2014. Danny was a guest speaker at a Valparaiso University Symposium, and although they did not meet in-person for over a year afterwards, he and Professor Ostoyich bonded immediately over their shared passion.
“There are relationships where you think you’ve known them for a lot longer than you have,” Professor Ostoyich says. “It was like two long-lost brothers meeting for the first time.”
Danny heads the Holocaust wing of the Florence and Laurence Spungen Family Foundation, which primarily deals in outreach and support for cancer, long-term illness, and genetic issues with a focus on the Jewish population. He argues that the Holocaust itself is a cancer on humanity and its history, bringing it under the organization’s purview. The Spungen Family Foundation now holds one of the largest collections of Holocaust artifacts in the world, including a fake 20-pound note created during Operation Bernhard, which the Foundation lent to Professor Ostoyich along with binders of documents to assist his class studying the Holocaust at Valparaiso University.
“Professor Ostoyich and his wife, Rebecca, are amazing,” Danny says. “Valpo has hundreds of artifacts on loan from the Spungen foundation, and they use it for their classes.”
In addition to sharing the Foundation’s vast resources, Spungen and Professor Ostoyich appear as guest speakers for events at the University, or for the Foundation respectively, and student researchers work to understand and present items in the Foundation’s collections during internship periods.
“He loves Valpo, loves the students, and is just a bundle of energy,” Professor Ostoyich says.
“I can’t ever see the relationship between Kevin [Ostoyich] and myself ending,” Danny says. “However, what we have isn’t possible without Valparaiso University being supportive of Kevin. He can always do work for our foundation, but what makes this relationship valuable is that all three parties believe in what we’re doing.”
When asked why he chose to pursue a book on counterfeit currency, Danny emphasized his belief that history and the human connection are everywhere.
“When you have a letter or a postcard, you see a prisoner number, a name, a barrack number, you see emotional words, you can feel the person who wrote it. How can you connect with a piece of money with no name on it?” Danny asks himself. “Well, I think there are faces on these notes. There are hundreds of human fingerprints and human stories involved in making these.”
For Professor Ostoyich, the initial chapter he was tasked with writing — “Forging a Balance between Fact and Fantasy: Charlotte Krueger, Debbie Walter, and the Legacy of Operation Bernhard” — led to one of the more notable experiences of his interviewing career. Despite initial uncertainty surrounding the meeting of disparate sides of history, the result was nothing short of incredible.
“It started out as two separate interviews, but eventually it turned into a conversation,” Professor Ostoyich says. “It was powerful. They started asking each other questions. There were tears shed, there was laughter, it was quite an emotional roller coaster.”
“I was surprised by the similarities between the two stories coming from polar opposite ends of the spectrum. You find out that people are people. Human emotions are human emotions. Family is family. We all struggle with our relationships, and relationships with life in general. There were times of genuine connection that were happening in that interview.”
In addition to the initial chapter he was asked to write, Professor Ostoyich was also asked to provide the book’s preface, as well as a second chapter on another Operation Bernhard survivor: “The Power of an Unadorned Voice: Jack Plapler’s Question.” Rebecca Ostoyich, the coordinator of archives and special collections at Valparaiso University, also played a critical role in securing a number of photos and other information for the book.
The final book is now being sold at an intentional financial loss for the Spungen Family Foundation, who are determined to provide a high-quality product at a price within the means of students who can benefit from the research, who will not pay the full price listed on Amazon.
“Forging Secrets: Faces and Facts Inside the Nazi Operation Bernhard Scheme” had a premiere event in Chicago in late August and is now available on Amazon. Learn more about the amazing work being done at the Florence and Laurence Spungen Family Foundation at spungenfoundation.org.