The British Connection to Auschwitz: Work Camp E715 and the IG Farben Chemical Plant, 1943-1945February 13, 2011 0 Comments
By Joseph Robert White
IN NOVEMBER 1947, eight British veterans arrived at the Nuremberg Palace of Justice to testify before the IG Farben Trial, concerning their 16 month’s captivity at E715. A work detachment of Stalag VIII B, the largest prisoner-of-war camp in Germany, E715 was assigned to IG Farben’s chemical plant at Auschwitz (IG Auschwitz). For three weeks, the former kriegies (or PoWs, from Kriegsgefangenen) enjoyed impromptu reunions. Reginald A Hartland found an old friend, Auschwitz survivor Norbert Wollheim. When taking each other’s leave in January 1945, both recognized the precariousness of Wollheim’s situation: ‘Since, as an inmate, he had little hope of being alive after the war, he begged that when I return[ed] to England I should contact his relatives or friends living in the United States.’ At Nuremberg and during Wollheim’s lawsuit in the 1950s, PoW testimony helped secure criminal and civil sanctions against IG Farben and its directors.
Outside the courtroom, however, the public largely forgot about the British connection to Auschwitz. As His Majesty’s Government urged ‘demobbed’ soldiers to leave behind the past, those who bore witness before friends or family encountered apathy, discomfort, or incredulity. Most E715 veterans therefore suppressed their Auschwitz connection. An exceptional case proved the rule. Battery Sergeant Major Charles Joseph Coward was one of E715’s Men of Confidence (camp spokesmen or Red Cross Trustees), who testified before a succession of trials, starting at Nuremberg. He was the subject of a 1954 biography titled The Password is Courage, by ‘John Castle’ (pseudonym for Ronald Charles Payne and John William Garrote). In 1962, Metro-Goldwin-Mayer released a film under the same name, with Dirk Boarded as Coward. By concluding the story in 1943, director Andrew L Stone sidestepped the need for a cinematic representation of Auschwitz, and merely alluded to his confinement therein a voiceover narration at the end. In the words of veteran GJ Duffer, the final product was ‘like a comedy film’. Only in the 1990s, when few were still alive, did Britain’s forgotten witnesses to Nazi inhumanity attract scholarly attention.
IG Auschwitz broke ground in April 1941. The Reich had pressed IG Farben to build the plant as a hedge against the possible bombing of Buna (synthetic rubber) factories in western Germany. For the regime, the project conferred the additional advantage of involving what was then Europe’s largest private corporation in the ‘Germanisation’ of Polish Silesia. A separate plan for synthetic-oil production was grafted onto the original project. In March 1941, IG Farben representatives met SS personnel to negotiate the details of deploying Auschwitz labour.
For four years, Nazi SS guards and kapos (inmate trusties, from the Italian word for head, capo) introduced outsiders to the world of the concentration camps by beating and shooting inmates at the building site. Managers and workers quickly became inured to the violence and learned to view slave labourers, especially the Jews, in Nazi terms. Ironically, its few attempts to improve working conditions only drove management further into the morass, with each ‘reform’ leading to greater complicity. As exemplified by Buna engineer Dr. Pannwitz, who in 1944 administered Primo Levi’s examination for admission to the chemical kommando, managers hardly viewed the inmates with humanity. But Nazi ‘racial’ policy nevertheless compromised IG Auschwitz’s ability to manage labor on a rational basis.
E715 began in September 1943, with the partition of Italy. Germany viewed Italy’s Allied PoWs as welcome relief for its labour-strapped economy, and sought to transfer those with building skills to unfinished chemical factories in Silesia. Already in August, Nazi Four-Year Plan representatives circulated vocational questionnaires among the PoWs. Some, like Arthur Dodd, refused to cooperate. A self-described ‘cat-burglar’ (actually a truck driver), Dodd attributed his subsequent transfer to E715 to his foolhardy response, but his time in the Royal Army Service Corps probably furnished the reason. Though hard data will not become available until 2020, when the Defence Ministry opens the PoWs’ ‘liberation interrogation reports’ to public researchers, support personnel constituted an important subset of E715. In September, the Germans removed 51,000 captives to the Reich, where most ended up at Stalag VIII B, Lamsdorf.
Located in Upper Silesia, Lamsdorf (Lambinowice) had been a PoW camp since the Franco-Prussian War. The influx of captives from Italy overwhelmed Stalag VIII B’s resources. According to an inspection report of November 1943, based upon a visit by Swiss Protecting Power Representative Gabriel Naville, there were 30,405 prisoners, with 17,432 in work detachments and 12,973 in the main camp. In November 1943, the Germans thereupon established a new Stalag 344 at Lamsdorf and relocated Stalag VIII B to Teschen, near the Polish-Czechoslovakian border.
Most E715 PoWs had from one to three year’s captivity before transfer to IG Auschwitz. All but a few had been in Italy, where they suffered privation due to inadequate diet. Initially, the camp was located at Lager VIII, four blocks due south of the plant perimeter fence. There 1,400 PoWs occupied space beside civilians from Poland, Belgium, Italy, and Ukraine. In February and March 1944, however, 800 prisoners were transferred to chemical plants at Blechhammer and Heydebreck. The population then stabilized at just over 600.
In a move injurious to morale, the Germans relocated the PoWs adjacent to the plant at Lager VI in mid-1944. Setting aside filth (more than one kriegie complained about body lice), Lager VI was opposite Auschwitz-Monowitz, which later became an autonomous concentration camp. The two camps were circa 1,500 feet apart, so one could look through the wire and peer inside the other. In the mornings, the PoWs saw bodies dangling from the Monowitz gibbet on the march to work. In the evenings, screams and gunshots interrupted their sleep.
At IG Auschwitz, the British occupied an anomalous position. The Geneva Convention and military training reinforced their sense of moral autonomy, even as forced labor. The Red Cross parcel ‘lifeline’ rendered them less dependent upon German rations and thus less vulnerable to German cajolery than other workers. Deemed ‘Aryans,’ their ‘race’ and status left overseers in a quandary. Dennis Greenham recalled: ‘The British group was treated by far the best.... Although they [the Germans] were obviously on top, they always seemed in doubt about giving us any treatment and seemed to be afraid they wouldn’t get away with it.’ Except for plant security, management held the British in high esteem. As cable-layers, ditch-diggers, pipe-fitters, welders, and porters, the kriegies worked in both segregated and mixed kommandos, in the latter with forced and contract workers. Buna engineer Hans Wojis called them ‘the nicest, most dependable, and cleanest foreign workers… employed in Auschwitz.’ Nevertheless, there were a few violent incidents: Corporal Reynolds was shot dead for refusing to perform a hazardous task and Private Campbell was bayoneted for helping a Polish woman. Scuffles occasionally broke out with meisters and SS troops, most often rooted in outrage at the maltreatment of the Jews.
The sight of gaunt and ashen-grey Jewish inmates shocked the PoWs. As John Adkins remarked, ‘we could not help notice[in] their wretched condition.’ The kriegies called them ‘walking corpses’’ ‘stripes’ (after the blue-grey uniforms) or, ironically, the ‘Healthy Life Boys’ (after striped packages of biscuits from Sterling, Scotland). David Alexander described the results of SS detention: ‘I had never before seen any group of human beings look so badly. Their faces were sunken and they would just shuffle along, unable to lift their feet.’ He added: ‘The picture stands out particularly clearly in my mind because of the difference between those who were already there and the new batches of political prisoners which continued to arrive.’
From the outset, rumours circulated about more sinister operations. The odour of burning flesh pervaded IG Auschwitz whenever there was an easterly wind. Furtive inquiries yielded similar, though second-hand, accounts of gas chamber/crematory complexes at Birkenau, ten kilometers west of the building site. In English or crude sign language, the stripees described missing comrades as going ‘up the chimney’. Independently, German meisters boasted to PoWs like Cliff Shepherd and William Ferris that Jews were selected for gassing, but not before their last reserves of energy had been spent. Behind such boasts were years of incremental barbarisation at IG Auschwitz. As Charters recalled, many German overseers ‘had no use at all for the Jews. They said that they were ruining Germany and it made no difference if they were disposed of.’ The kriegies quickly grasped that the Jews lived on borrowed time.
The British looked for ways to fight back. Perhaps because there was little they could do, escapes and acts of sabotage loomed larger in collective memory than the evidence warranted. Most escapes were motivated by the desire to see local women or the sights of Kattowitz, 40 kilometers away, not ‘homeruns’ (slang for returning home) or resistance. Similarly, sabotage was smaller and more impulsive than recalled decades afterward. Splicing cables, damaging pipes, or rearranging boxcar signs had minimal effect on the war effort, aside from the satisfaction of playing cat-and-mouse with the Germans. Typically, overseers would reassign a suspect to a less troublesome task, such as portering. Morally, however, the kriegies engaged in activities more pernicious to the Nazi New Order than property damage: they treated the Jews as human beings, not a species of ‘subhumanity.’
More spontaneous and individual than calculated and collective, aiding the stripees assumed many forms. Contact between PoWs and inmates was strictly forbidden, but in IG Auschwitz’s many unfinished structures, secret communication became the norm. Most commonly, the kriegies sneaked food or other gifts to the stripees. Despite the risks, Monowitz inmates eagerly solicited British succor. Paul Steinberg, the inspiration for ‘Henri’ in Primo Levi’s memoirs, incurred fifteen cane strokes for such contact. (While he was detained in Monowitz for six days, the kriegies assaulted the Jewish kapo who had denounced him.) For a similar transgression, foreman Israel Majzlik was assigned to the mines, which was tantamount to a death sentence. Owing to the gross numerical disparity between the two groups – by December 1944, there were over 10,000 inmates against 600 PoWs – kriegies like Ronald Redman expressed frustration with the many entreaties for help which perforce had to go unanswered.
Strengthening spiritual resolve constituted another type of help. For example, news of D-Day circulated quickly around IG Auschwitz, in part because of E715’s illegal radios. According to Levi, after hearing the good news, the kriegies practically dragged their escort on the march to work. Upon arrival, some celebrated with a one-day work stoppage. Hans Wojis observed that: ‘We accepted this demonstration and demanded neither investigation nor punishment.’ Word of Allied success at Normandy ‘was almost like bread,’ recalled Wollheim.
The kriegies attempted to relay details of the Jewish tragedy to the outside world. Redman, Hartland, and probably others contacted the relatives of detainees. Redman had befriended two sons of the former Austrian Ambassador to the United Kingdom, and informed him of their imprisonment. Separately, Denis G Avey wrote to his mother about what he had seen, in a childhood code known only to his sister and himself. In turn, his mother wrote two, as yet unanswered, letters to the War Office about the unfolding catastrophe. Regrettably, Avey’s cache of letters was lost after the war. As Man of Confidence, Coward exercised virtually unrestricted letter-writing privileges. In coded letters addressed to his deceased father, he contacted the War Office via his wife, who served as intermediary. As explained at Nuremberg, the missives detailed the number and nationality of Jewish deportees, and contemporaneous accounts of mass murder. But because they have not yet turned up, the content cannot be fully assessed. During inspections of E715 in May and June 1944, Coward approached the Swiss authorities about the brutalisation of Jews, but they were ‘helpless’, in his words, to do anything. Independently, the Man of Confidence at Stalag VIII B, Regimental Sergeant Major Lowe, alerted Dr Rossel of the International Committee of the Red Cross to the existence of gas chambers at Auschwitz, information that probably stemmed from E715.
Among E715 veterans, Coward stood out as a controversial figure. Partisans proclaimed him a hero and detractors suggested that he garnered more laurels than were justly due. His clandestine activities were more modest than what biographers Payne and Garrod alleged, but important nonetheless. At Nuremberg, he described a night he spent inside Monowitz, while in search of a British subject. The inmate in question, Dr Karel Sperber, had been illegally transferred to Monowitz from an Officers Camp (Oflag) in December 1943, on account of his ambiguous citizenship and ‘race’: Sperber was a Czech Jew. Exchanging places with an inmate, Coward joined a Monowitz kommando returning to camp. Inside, he shared bunk space with two others and passed a fearful night. ‘I had not succeeded in contacting the ship’s doctor[,] who was in a different part of the camp.’ Sperber was an anesthesiologist in the camp infirmary and probably never expected a PoW to take such a risk. With help from those around him, and the lure of more cigarettes for the kapo, Coward returned to E715.
Together with a comrade, Yitzhak Persky, Coward also sponsored Jewish escapes. Later known as Gershon Peres, Persky was a Jewish Palestine Brigade member and the father of Israeli Prime Minister, Shimon Peres. While in captivity, Coward protected Persky’s Jewish identity and helped him secure that of a deceased gentile PoW. In exchange for cigarettes, Coward obtained dead bodies on the building site and left them where escapees could fall out of columns returning to Monowitz. A kapo or guard would see the body, reconcile the count, and proceed to camp. Coward helped perhaps two or three stripees get away, though no escapee has ever come forward. For his efforts to save Jewish lives, the State of Israel awarded the former Man of Confidence the Righteous Medal in 1962.
On 21 January 1945, the Germans disbanded E715. The previous month, Coward had transferred to Stalag VIII B and no Man of Confidence took his place, though ‘Sergeant Andy’ assumed the leadership role. The image of snow-blanketed bodies at roadside, many with gunshot wounds, punctuated the march from Auschwitz. Through Poland and Czechoslovakia to Bavaria, the evacuation took almost four months to complete, because Allied bombing necessitated the avoidance of big cities, while German combat and support units had the right-of-way on secondary roads. In the first month, the kriegies felt the pangs of hunger which had been the stripees’ daily companion. Eventual relief came in the form of the ‘White Ladies’, trucks loaded with Red Cross parcels.
While other British PoWs became concentration-camp inmates, or worked alongside other stripees in the Auschwitz area, what set E715 apart was its comparatively long duration as a work detachment, breadth of contacts, and close proximity to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Between 1943 and 1945, the British at IG Auschwitz exemplified the persistence of moral autonomy, in attenuated form, within Nazi Germany. While German bystanders succumbed to nazification, the PoWs performed acts of solidarity and kindness on the victims’ behalf. As Norbert Wollheim declared, their deeds proved that ‘[e]ven in Auschwitz...humanity could prevail.’
The Password is Courage,
by John Castle, pseud.
[Ronald Charles Payne and John William Garrod] (Souvenir, 1954);
Industry and Ideology: IG Farben in the Nazi Era, by Peter Hayes (Cambridge University Press, 2001);
Survival in Auschwitz, by Primo Levi, trans. Stuart Woolf (Collier’s, 1961); The Drowned and the Saved, by Primo Levi, trans. Raymond Rosenthal (Vintage International, 1989);
Spectator in Hell, by Colin Rushton (Pharaoh Press, 1998);
Speak You Also, by Paul Steinberg, trans. Linda
Coverdale with Bill Ford (Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt & Co.,
A longer version of this essay first appeared as ‘Even in Auschwitz... Humanity Could Prevail’: British PoWs and Jewish Concentration-Camp Inmates at IG Auschwitz, 1943-1945, by Joseph Robert White [Holocaust and Genocide Studies 15:2 (Fall 2001): pp. 266-295].