Harry Burger was born on May 10th, 1924 in Vienna, Austria. The son of a textile merchant, Harry enjoyed an affluent and comfortable upbringing. As a child growing up in a large house, he was left to his own devices a great deal; this helped form his defiant and independent character.
The family lived in Vienna until 1938, when Germany annexed Austria and the German Nuremberg laws were put into effect there. Harry remembers the day he was barred from entering the building of his Jewish school:
“I went to school the next possible day and at the door they were waiting for me and the other Jews and says, ‘You don’t belong to this school anymore. You get out and you go to the next block or two and there’s a public school, and that’s where you’re gonna go.’ So not thinking of nothing, we went up there and I went in. They took me to a classroom and about 30 kids jumped on me and beat the heck out of me.”
As the Nazis continued with their campaigns of persecution in Austria and other occupied territories, the Burger family made plans to escape to France. They escaped through Italy (travelers did not require permits to enter an ally of Germany), where the borders were more porous.
Their hopes for a safe, quiet life were dashed when France was conquered by Germany in 1940. While trying to get a visa to Cuba, Harry’s father was arrested and detained for many months, only to be sent to Auschwitz in the end. Meanwhile, Harry and his mother remained in Nice.
In the summer of 1940, rumors of an impending German invasion were in the air. But instead of the German army, Nice and the surrounding areas in the southeast of France were occupied by the Italians – a gift from Hitler to Mussolini. The Italians were not nearly as abusive to Jews, and life under the Italians was good.
As the war progressed, Italy experienced humiliation on the battlefield and growing discontent at home. The occupation of southeastern France did not last, and the Italians eventually returned across the Alps. Harry, his mother, and 700 other Jews took the opportunity to follow them into Italy, but the Nazis were never far behind. When they arrived at an Italian fort, Harry learned the Nazis were en route to collect the Jews. Harry and his mother escaped capture, while more than 350 of the others were taken by the Nazis.
Right around this time, Italy withdrew from the war, Mussolini was deposed as a leader and the Germans were “coming to the rescue of their allies” by occupying the northern half of the country. Harry and his mother were living in a barn on the Italian-French border when he spotted a group of Italian soldiers. They told them they were leaving for the mountains because the Germans have occupied the town, and Harry asked if he could join them.
“I said to him, ‘Is there a chance that I can join you?’ And he says, ‘Sure.’ And he motioned to one of his guys and he came with a rifle and he gave me the rifle and says, ‘You know what that is?’ I says, ‘Yeah, it’s a rifle.’ ‘You know how to shoot it?’ ‘No. No idea.’ He showed me. He handed it to me and says, ‘You are now a Partisan.’”
In this fashion, Harry Burger became a partisan in the First Alpine Division, where he used his fluency in German to interrogate captured soldiers. As was the case with many Italian partisans, Harry had a nickname – his was Biancastella, after the last name of the officer with whom Harry had to exchange his civilian clothes. The officer needed civilian clothes to go into town and find out the latest war news; unfortunately, the officer never returned, and Harry was left with his uniform – and his ID card.
Initially, the First Alpine Division was under-equipped; they eventually received Allied support in the form of airdropped munitions and clothing. One of the First Alpine’s most important tasks was the sabotage of German electric capabilities. In Northern Italy the train system was electrically powered, so the destruction of local electric plants seriously hindered German mobility.
After the war, Harry was reunited with his mother and returned to France. He stayed in France for five years, working as a photographer. In 1950, Harry immigrated to the United States, eventually finding photography work with two prominent television networks. Harry has one child and four grandchildren.
Visit www.jewishpartisans.org for more about Harry Burger, including seven videos of him reflecting on his time as a partisan. Harry's book about his time in the partisans - Biancastella - is available on Amazon.