29. A Gift Fit for the Fuhrer
Curt Herzstark (1902 – 1988) was born in Austria, the son of a Jewish father and a Christian mother. He tinkered for years with designs for mechanical calculators, until Germany annexed Austria in 1938. Life under the Nazis was precarious for a half-Jew, and in 1943, Herzstark was arrested for “indecent contacts with Aryan women” and “helping Jews and subversive elements“. He ended up in Buchenwald concentration camp where he endured harsh conditions until the authorities learned of his mechanical talents. They offered him preferential treatment, in exchange for making something good enough for a gift to Hitler.
As Herzstark put it: “While I was imprisoned inside Buchenwald I had, after a few days, told the [people] in the work production scheduling department of my ideas. The head of the department, Mr. Munich said, ‘See, Herzstark, I understand you’ve been working on a new thing, a small calculating machine. Do you know, I can give you a tip. We will allow you to make and draw everything. If it is really worth something, then we will give it to the Führer as a present after we win the war. Then, surely, you will be made an Aryan.’ For me, that was the first time I thought to myself, my God, if you do this, you can extend your life. And then and there I started to draw the CURTA, the way I had imagined it“.