Even in Auschwitz, hu­man­ity did pre­vail

The Jewish Chronicle - - News -

IT WAS, with­out doubt, one of the proud­est mo­ments of my life. To stand at the me­mo­rial to those who suf­fered and died at Auschwitz-monowitz, and pay trib­ute to the Bri­tish pris­on­ers of war who worked along­side Jewish slave work­ers in the IG Far­ben chem­i­cal works, was a deeply hum­bling ex­pe­ri­ence.

I was there thanks to March of the Liv­ing UK, which took nearly 200 young Bri­tish Jews to this year’s Yom Hashoah event and came up with the bril­liant idea of hold­ing a cer­e­mony to mark the fact that more than 1,000 Bri­tish and Com­mon­wealth sol­diers were un­will­ing wit­nesses to the Holo­caust.

The story of E715 — the name given to the Auschwitz POW camp by the Nazi bu­reau­crats — has still not been fully told. The pris­on­ers held within scream­ing dis­tance of the Jewish camp were or­di­nary men (none above the rank of sergeant­ma­jor) who hap­pened to find them­selves at the heart of the Nazi killing ma­chine. There have been a hand­ful of in­di­vid­ual mem­oirs such as Denis Avey’s best­seller

but much re­mains un­ex­plained.

What hap­pened here? We know tan­ta­lis­ingly lit­tle. What did these men do to help their fel­low hu­man be­ings? A lit­tle food here, a cig­a­rette there? Dur­ing my visit I had the priv­i­lege to meet Fred­die Knoller, a Holo­caust sur­vivor who had worked at IG Far­ben. He re­mem­bered the kind­ness of a Bri­tish POW who once gave him a sin­gle cig­a­rette, valu­able cur­rency in the camps. Un­for­tu­nately, this ex­change was also wit­nessed by a guard and, as all com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween Pows and Jews was strictly for­bid­den, Fred­die re­ceived a se­vere beat­ing. He never spoke to a Bri­tish POW again.

March of the Liv­ing was es­tab­lished 25 years ago to help stem the tide of Holo­caust de­nial. I recog­nise the im­por­tance of em­pha­sis­ing that the Final So­lu­tion tar­geted the Jews of Europe and that, although many oth­ers died at the hands of the Nazis, the Holo­caust must not be “de-ju­daised”. It is right to hon­our the men of E715, but they were not vic­tims of the Holo­caust. Their suf­fer­ing was real, but they re­ceived Red Cross food pack­ages, were pro­tected by the Geneva Con­ven­tions and were not threat­ened with ex­ter­mi­na­tion. Their sit­u­a­tion is not com­pa­ra­ble to the Jews in the camp next door. How­ever, they were uniquely placed to wit­ness what went on. They knew about the sum­mary ex­e­cu­tions, they could hear the sounds of mis­treat­ment and see the physi- cal con­di­tion of the “stripeys”, as the Jewish in­mates were known to them. They could also smell the burn­ing flesh from the cre­ma­to­ria at Auschwitz-birke­nau and those who did man­age to speak to Jewish pris­on­ers heard about the “show­ers”.

One pro­found ques­tion re­mains: did the Bri­tish Pows try to get the story out about what was re­ally go­ing on at Auschwitz? Thanks to the work of the Amer­i­can Holo­caust ex­pert, Joseph Robert White, we know the word spread to other POW camps, in­clud­ing Teschen, 50 miles away, where many thou­sands of Al­lied pris­on­ers were held. The Red Cross vis­ited Auschwitz in the sum­mer of 1944 and in Septem­ber re­ported the con­cerns of Sergeant-ma­jor Lowe, the Bri­tish camp leader— or “Man of Con­fi­dence” — at Teschen. “Spon­ta­neously, the prin­ci­pal Man of Con­fi­dence at Teschen asked us if we were well-in­formed about the ‘shower room’. In­deed the ru­mour runs that in [Auschwitz] a very mod­ern shower room ex­ists where the de­tainees will be gassed in se­ries... This was im­pos­si­ble to prove. The de­tainees them­selves did not talk about it.”

The Man of Con­fi­dence at E715, Charles Coward, al­ways claimed he had tried to get news of the “show- ers” to the War Of­fice in London via let­ters home. Trag­i­cally, these let­ters have never been dis­cov­ered. But how much was the Bri­tish gov­ern­ment told by the Men of Con­fi­dence or other Pows? The

has led the cam­paign for full dis­clo­sure of the files held in Bri­tish archives con­cern­ing POW camp E715. It is es­sen­tial for a full un­der­stand­ing of the Bri­tish gov­ern­ment’s re­ac­tion to the Holo­caust that we find out ex­actly what the War Of­fice knew and when.

There is ev­i­dence that Bri­tish pris­on­ers did what they could to help in near-im­pos­si­ble cir­cum­stances. Nor­bert Wollheim, the Ger­man-jewish in­mate of Monowitz who led the le­gal claim for com­pen­sa­tion against IG Far­ben af­ter the war, later de­scribed the small acts of gen­eros­ity he re­ceived from the Pows as “manna” adding: “Eng­land can be very, very proud of these men… who proved that, even in Auschwitz… hu­man­ity can pre


Fred­die Knoller

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