No escaping it — PoWs were witnesses to the Holocaust
British prisoners of war knew more about the Shoah than was thought, according to new research
THINK OF Second World War PoWs and it is hard not to think of The Great Escape.
The famous 1963 film did much to cement the idealised view of PoWs as heroes, but its accuracy is questionable, according to Dr Russell Wallis, historian and author of British POWs and the Holocaust: Witnessing the Nazi Atrocities.
In his book, Dr Wallis aims to determine how much British prisoners of war knew about the Holocaust.
“The Great Escape is a film I love and people like to believe it,” says Dr Wallis, who studied at Royal Holloway under the late David Cesarani, an authority on the Holocaust. “Very quickly there developed a narrative after the war about PoWs, that they were always trying to escape and were always a thorn in the Nazis’ side.
“Some of it is true, but some
Denis Avey: “His story doesn’t stand up” of it has been blown out of proportion.”
Dr Wallis’s book started as a research project commissioned by the Holocaust Educational Trust (HET). “I wanted to show just how much British PoWs saw, heard about, understood and guessed about what went on in the vicinity where they were held,” he says.
The accepted belief is that British PoWs knew little about Hitler’s antiJewish policies because they had little contact with the victims of the Holocaust. Dr Wallis, who was an honorary research fellow at Royal Holloway, begs to differ.
“They got to see and understand a lot. They saw atrocities and knew Jews had a particular place in the Nazi imagination. They understood exactly what was going on but could do very little about it.”
He cites Cyril Rofe, an RAF flight sergeant who was captured after being shot down in 1941. He was sent to Tarnowitz, about an hour from Auschwitz. In his book Against the Wind, published in 1956, he described how he witnessed “a party of civilian Jews” wearing yellow stars.
He and his fellow prisoners were set to work by their Nazis guards and “came into contact with European Jews, gangs of whom… were working everywhere”.
Dr Wallis also refers to Hans Paul Weiner, a Jewish PoW who worked in the mine near Auschwitz. In his papers, kept at the Imperial War Museum, he described seeing a dozen concentration camp inmates “in their striped pyjamas… walking skeletons… obviously near to death”.
In another example, a Jewish PoW escaped and found himself in the small Polish village of Grodzisko Dolne.
Dr Wallis explains: “He spent a month mixing with the tiny remnant of Jews who had miraculously managed to escape death. I include this because it is further evidence that British POWs were party to intimate details about the hideous reality for Jews in the so-called Bloodlands of eastern Poland.”
Dr Wallis’s book also show how Jewish PoWs were treated differently from their non-Jewish comrades.
“In places like Lamsdorf, the largest PoW camp in Poland, there was an area where there was almost segregation of the Jews. When PoWs were first taken prisoner, some camp commandants made strenuous efforts to separate the British Jews from their colleagues.”
At times there was outright antisemitism, particularly against Germanspeaking Jewish PoWs who had been selected as go-betweens. Dr Wallis says: “Those individuals could often be the target of considerable jealousy.”
He gives the example of a cockney PoW who had fallen out with the Jewish designated representative.
Dr Wallis says: “The Jewish rep was talking to a German guard. The cockney points to the PoW and shouts out ‘Jew’. The Jewish PoW was arrested and never seen again.”
The research behind the book stems largely from national archives and documents at the Imperial War Museum.
“I made a conscious choice not to
The Great Escape. The reality was somewhat different interview people now about what happened then. Things do get messed up with memory,” says Dr Wallis.
Dr Wallis examined the details of POW heroes such as Charles Coward and Denis Avey. Coward was recognised as a “Righteous Among Nations” at Yad Vashem, having claimed that he facilitated the escape of nearly 400 Jews from Auschwitz.
Avey later rubbished Coward’s story, claiming that he himself had managed to get into Auschwitz. He was later made a British Hero of the Holocaust by the British government.
Dr Wallis says: “By placing evidence related to these two individuals in context and by forensically examining their claims against the historical evidence, it is clear their stories do not stand up to scrutiny.”
‘British PoWs and the Holocaust: Witnessing the Nazi Atrocities’ is published by I B Tauris
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