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

The Jewish Chronicle - - NEWS - BY LIANNE KOLIRIN

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

PHOTO: ALAMY

Steve McQueen in

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