The Auschwitz papers could reveal a hidden Shoah story
Over the past three weeks the JC has been running a campaign to open the files held by the Ministry of Defence and the National Archives about British prisoners of war held at Auschwitz. To their credit, ministers have reacted quickly to pressure from MPs and offered to help in any way they can.
The campaign was sparked by the discovery that Yitzhak Persky, the father of Israeli President Shimon Peres, was held at Camp E715, as the British camp at Auschwitz was known.
But beyond this extraordinary tale of one man's survival, there is a broader story that needs to be told.
As many as 1,400 British prisoners arrived at Auschwitz towards the end of 1943 and hundreds were forced to work at the IG Farben chemical factory. Each one of these men was a witness to the Shoah. Their story has never fully been told, nor has the British government paid full tribute to the dignity and humanity these men demonstrated in helping the Jewish inmates in the camp next door.
In mid-1944, the POW camp was moved directly adjacent to the plant and was therefore in direct view of Auschwitz III (Buna-Monowitz). British prisoners therefore witnessed the routine brutality meted out to the Jewish slave labourers including those hanged from the gates of the camp as an example to others. At times the "kriegies", as the POWs were known, and the "stripies", as they called the Jewish prisoners, worked together, formed friendships and exchanged information. Thus it was that the British soldiers discovered the source of the sickly-sweet burning smell that hung over the camp.
These files could transform what we know
Detailed research carried out into E715 by the American academic Joseph Robert White for the Centre for Advanced Holocaust Studies shows the British POWs in a genuinely positive light. Their response to incarceration was not to identify with their captors and turn a blind eye to the mistreatment of their fellow human beings, but to help where they could with clothing, food and information.
Over the 65 years since the camps were liberated there have been many attempts to tell the story of the British prisoners of war at Auschwitz. The latest of these, The Man Who Broke Into Auschwitz, by former POW Denis Avey, has become a bestseller.
And yet, several important questions remain unanswered.
For instance, what role did Yitzhak Persky play in helping the head of the British camp, Sergeant-Major Charles Coward, facilitate the escape of Jewish prisoners from Auschwitz? What happened to the coded letters sent by Mr Coward to the War Office warning of the atrocities being carried out against the Jewish people? And is it possible that the British prisoners made contact with the Polish underground in the towns and villages surrounding the camp, even, as some accounts suggest, smuggling explosives and weapons into the camp?
The story of E715 has the capacity to transform our understanding of the Holocaust in this country. We are rightly proud of the stand Britain took against fascism. But we do not know how we would have fared under occupation. The dignity and humanity shown by the men of E715 at least suggests that we would not have simply rolled over. It should be given greater prominence in the national narrative.
Norbert Wollheim, a Jewish prisoner at Monowitz who famously sued IG Farben for compensation in the 1950s, said: "England can be very, very proud of these men... who really proved that even in Auschwitz... humanity could prevail." He recognised that the British POWs "extended the... hand of solidarity of man" to the inmates of Auschwitz III.
The Yitzhak Persky story also raises the issue of British Jewish POWs. German documents held by the Wiener Library show that in December 1943 there were 772 Jewish soldiers out of the 10,537 British prisoners held at the giant Stalag VIIIB at Teschen . What was life in captivity like for these men? Where are their testimonies? A previously unseen letter in the files demands an investigation into the shooting of Krauze and Eisenberg, two British Jewish prisoners of war.
Before it is too late, we should pay tribute to both these groups of men: the British POWs from E715 Auschwitz and Jewish servicemen who spent time in German POW camps. We have a duty to honour their courage and deepen our understanding of the unprecedented horrors they witnessed.