Revealed: how ‘Count of Auschwitz’ saved Peres’s father

The full story of the wartime experiences of Yitzchak Persky, President Shimon Peres's father, are today made public for the first time.

A folder that had been hidden in the Yad Vashem archives before being given to President Peres last year has been seen by the JC. It contains the testimony of Polish-born Yitzchak Persky, given to a Yad Vashem researcher in January 1965.

The document confirms that Persky, who changed his name to Gershon Peres, spent time as a German PoW, and pays tribute to the men who helped him hide his Jewish identity.

These included Charles Coward, the so-called Count of Auschwitz, who was later honoured as a Righteous Gentile for helping Jews escape from the death camp.

The testimony does not directly confirm that Persky was in the British PoW camp at Auschwitz, but it does show that at one point he was close by, at a camp on the Polish-Czech border.

Persky had joined the Royal Engineers as a sapper from Mandate Palestine and served in Greece in 1941. According to his Yad Vashem testimony, he was rescued by a Greek man while he was "on the run avoiding German captivity". This happened between autumn 1943 and winter 1944, although the exact dates are unclear.

The Greek partisan took Persky "to the village of Lamia, near Mount Olympus. Approximately 18 British and Australian soldiers were already there, one of whom was Charles Coward. He organised a group, which under his command wandered to the vicinity of the Turkish border. There, we obtained a boat and set sail towards the Turkish coast".

En route, a New Zealand soldier died from hypothermia and starvation. "Coward took his dogtag and documentation off him and replaced my identity with his," Persky reported. He used this identity for the rest of the war.

He continued: "While rowing, we were discovered by a German navy plane, which flew lower and lower in order to stop and tow us to captivity. Coward summoned the group, ordered us to raise our hands and made us swear not to reveal my Judaism when we were in German captivity. Everyone took the oath. His immediate, spontaneous and quick response demonstrated his attitude towards the Jews and, to a certain extent, saved my life at that point."

At one point Persky and the other prisoners were in a PoW camp called Tost, 95km from Auschwitz. "Coward decided to escape and added me to the escaping group. We managed to slip away from the camp. We split into two pairs. He went with a Scotsman and I went with an Australian. While travelling by train, during inspection the Australian revealed his fears. We were caught and sent back to the camp. Charlie and his friend were not captured then; only later were they captured as well."

Persky and his fellow prisoner then planned an escape from the train on the way back to the PoW camp. "We obtained tools, a file and a saw and we were at the point of completing the preparations when it was all discovered. The German officer who accompanied us held me and another soldier from New Zealand responsible for the attempt. His verdict was to execute us. He led us naked along the side of the railway in order to carry out his verdict.

"Charlie (Coward) and his group demanded that a priest (also a prisoner) be sent to take confessions from those who were about to be executed. They informed the priest that one of the two of us was Jewish and that he should protect him and try to save him.

"But the priest, who arrived on time, managed to influence the Nazi officer by using threats and persuasion to delay carrying out the verdict until we arrived at the camp where an investigation and trial would be lawfully carried out. The priest even claimed that if he had murdered us, he would have to kill him too.

"We were brought back to the wagon and proceeded on our way to the camp. The punishment was indeed severe, but I stayed alive. From that time, we became very good friends (with Charlie). He shared with me his additional escape plans which followed".

At one stage while in Tost, "a Scottish prisoner had a row with me and called me a Jew. I was both insulted and worried. I told Charlie. He assembled the prisoners and told them about the incident. He expressed his shock and ordered the Scottish prisoner to leave the camp. By virtue of his authority and self-discipline (being the company's Sergeant-Major), he could make that happen. But because the Scotsman cried and begged me for forgiveness, Charlie rescinded his order and stood by my side to ensure that no harm came to me."

In the two decades between the end of the war and giving his testimony, Persky appears to have become confused about some of the details of his experience. It is unlikely, for example, that he met Coward in Greece, as the British sergeant-major had been captured in France in the first months of the war.

But his account tallies with those of other PoWs who encountered Coward in the camp. PoWs were regularly moved from camp to camp, often on work detail. A network of German camps in Silesia included Tost, the giant Lamsdorf camp, and its sub-camp in Auschwitz.

A copy of the original document, which is still held by Yad Vashem, was formally presented to President Peres, 89, last September, during the 50th anniversary commemoration ceremony for the Righteous Among the Nations.

"Coward took his dogtag and documentation off him and replaced my identity with his," Persky reported. He used this identity for the rest of the war.

He continued: "While rowing, we were discovered by a German navy plane, which flew lower and lower in order to stop and tow us to captivity. Coward summoned the group, ordered us to raise our hands and made us swear not to reveal my Judaism when we were in German captivity. Everyone took the oath. His immediate, spontaneous and quick response demonstrated his attitude towards the Jews and, to a certain extent, saved my life at that point."

At one point Persky and the other prisoners escaped from the Tost PoW camp, 95km from Auschwitz, only to be recaptured and sent back. They then planned an escape from the train on the way back to the camp. "We obtained tools, a file and a saw and we were at the point of completing the preparations when it was all discovered. The German officer who accompanied us held me and another soldier from New Zealand responsible for the attempt. His verdict was to execute us. He led us naked along the side of the railway in order to carry out his verdict.

"Charlie (Coward) and his group demanded that a priest (also a prisoner) be sent to take confessions from those who were about to be executed.

"They informed the priest that one of the two of us was Jewish and that he should protect him and try to save him. But the priest managed to persuade the Nazi officer to delay carrying out the verdict until we arrived at the camp, where an investigation and trial would be lawfully carried out. The priest even claimed that, if the officer had murdered us, he would have to kill the priest, too." Although Persky was punished, he was not killed.

While in Tost, "a Scottish prisoner had a row with me and called me a Jew. I was both insulted and worried. I told Charlie. He assembled the prisoners and told them about the incident. He expressed his shock and ordered the Scottish prisoner to leave the camp. By virtue of his authority and self-discipline (being the company's Sergeant-Major), he could make that happen. But because the Scotsman cried and begged me for forgiveness, Charlie rescinded his order and stood by my side to ensure that no harm came to me."

In the two decades between the end of the war and giving his testimony, Persky appears to have become confused about some of the details of his experience. It is unlikely, for example, that he met Coward in Greece, as the British sergeant-major had been captured in France in the first months of the war.

But his account tallies with those of other PoWs who encountered Coward in the camp. PoWs were regularly moved from camp to camp, often on work detail. A network of German camps in Silesia included Tost, the giant Lamsdorf camp, and its sub-camp in Auschwitz.

Last updated: 11:45am, March 1 2013