It is one of the most astonishing stories of the Second World War: how a Jewish soldier from British Mandate Palestine found himself in a prisoner of war camp in Auschwitz, and how he survived thanks to the protection of his comrades, who hid his true identity.
The story is all the more remarkable because the man was Yitzhak Persky, the father of the present-day President of Israel, Shimon Peres.
To mark Holocaust Memorial Day, senior British MPs have called for the release of Mr Persky's service record and archive files about his time in the British army - in particular, the period he spent in E715, as the British PoW camp at Auschwitz was known. E715 was situated next to the IG Farben chemical works within sight of the Buna-Monowitz camp, which housed up to 20,000 people.
The JC campaign is backed by President Peres, whose spokesperson said on Wednesday: "The president was very moved by the initiative to open his father's service file, and hopes to hold soon documents that will shed light on the story of his father's heroic war against the Nazis."
It is hoped that these files will also shed new light on the heroism of other British prisoners who witnessed the atrocities of the Holocaust at first-hand, and allow this country to pay full tribute to the role played by Yitzhak Persky.
Shadow Defence Secretary Jim Murphy said: "I strongly back the release of this information to the family, not because Shimon Peres is a powerful man and President of Israel, but because, much more importantly, his father served and was imprisoned for our country."
Mr Murphy, who will raise the matter with Defence Secretary Philip Hammond, is backed by Conservative MP and former Grenadier Guards officer Adam Holloway. He said: "The Ministry of Defence and the National Archives need to release all the information it holds about Yitzhak Persky and other British PoWs at Auschwitz. These men served their country and we should pay full tribute to their courage."
John Woodcock MP, chair of Labour Friends of Israel said: "I fully support this campaign to secure the release of these files. Yitzhak Persky's remarkable story is a poignant reminder of the terrible crimes committed by the Nazis and the bravery of prisoners of war in the British army. We should also be proud of the ties that we have long enjoyed with the people of Israel – ties based on shared sacrifice and values."
Karen Pollock MBE,
Chief Executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust
said: “As witnesses to the
Holocaust grow frailer and fewer in number, archive material grows ever more
crucial and any information which can help shed light on the lives of British
POWs at Auschwitz will be vital in helping
understand this important chapter in British
Mr Peres's memoirs, Battling for Peace, recount the story of his father's time in the British army in a tantalising few pages. Mr Persky joined the British army on the outbreak of war as a combat engineer or "sapper". He was first captured in Greece, but escaped and spent a year alone hiding in monasteries. The Greek underground later led him to other escaped British prisoners, reported to include Sergeant-Major Charlie Coward, an escape specialist whose exploits were later celebrated in the film The Password is Courage. A failed attempt to reach the Turkish coast led to a further capture and after serving time in a series of POW war camps, Mr Persky found himself in E715.
Sergeant-Major Coward, who became known as the "Count of Auschwitz," used his position and good command of German to liaise on behalf of the British prisoners and get word out about the atrocities. He also helped several Jewish detainees escape and later gave evidence at the Nuremberg trials. It is now believed that the character of "Clatterbridge" who appears in the book of Passport to Courage as the man who alerts SGM Coward to the underground resistance in Auschwitz, was in fact Mr Persky.
Charlie Coward, who died in 1976, remained in contact with the Peres family after the war and was the first Briton to be honoured on the Avenue of the Righteous at Yad Vashem in 1965.
Dr Joseph Robert White of the Centre for Advanced Holocaust Studies, and an expert on Camp E715, has concluded that the British PoWs did what they could to help the Jewish prisoners they had contact with and get the message out. "While German bystanders succumbed to nazification, the PoWs performed acts of solidarity and kindness on the victims' behalf".
However, Dr White's researches have been frustrated by the fact that key documents are missing or yet to be released. These include letters from Charlie Coward to the War Office detailing transports and killing techniques and interrogation reports of the released POWs, which Dr White says are closed until 2020.
A spokesman for the Ministry of Defence said: "It is right and proper that we recognise those who fought in the Second World War and suffered persecution as prisoners of war and, wherever possible, support efforts to highlight the sacrifices they made in our name."
Brian Bishop, who was sent to camp E715 after being captured in North Africa, said he was not surprised that British soldiers protected the identity of President Peres's father. "There were Jews in the British army and we did hear rumours talking about 'he is a Jew and the Germans mustn't find out'. But no-one would blab. People would not tell anyone else."
Duncan Little, author of Allies in Auschwitz, paid tribute to Mr Persky and said the safety of Jewish PoWs fighting in the British army was by no means guaranteed. "This man was very brave, but also very lucky to have been surrounded by British PoWs who rallied round and protected him."