"We could smell the bodies being burnt"

January 14, 2010

Brian Bishop, now 89 and living near Chard in Somerset, was captured by the Germans in North Africa in 1942. He later spent 15 months in the British prisoner of war camp at Auschwitz. This is his story.

I was captured in North Africa. We were surrounded by the Germans and we fought until we had no ammunition left and then we had to give ourselves up.

We were handed over to the Italians and I spent the next year and three months in Italy. When Italy capitulated we were captured by the Germans. I was taken to Germany and eventually ended up on the train to Auschwitz.

I’d never even heard of it before I got there. The shock of getting off the train and walking down by the side of the IG Farben factory was enormous. We saw the Jews in what we called their pyjama suits. Most of the lads laughed at them more than anything else because they didn’t really know what was going on.

We fairly quickly got an idea about what the place was all about. We got to know a few of the Jews there. We were delegated for jobs in the factory and they worked with us. One or two spoke English, which was helpful.

The crematorium was about two miles from us, and if the wind was in the right direction, we got the awful smell of burning bodies — it was a very sickly smell. When the Jews came up the following morning, we asked where the rest of them had gone. They replied they had gone for a “shower”. They seemed to know by then what “a shower” meant.

There was a lot of brutality, not only by the Germans but from the Jewish kapos. Some of them were as bad as the Germans. We were treated well generally speaking but the food was poor and had it not been for the Red Cross parcels we would have starved. We used to get a big vat of soup every dinner time. You would take the lid off it and it absolutely stank – no exaggeration at all. I know this sounds awful but you couldn’t eat it. It had rotten cabbage leaves and goodness knows what else in it. We never used to stir it up. We’d give it to the Jews and they were thankful – well, you would be if you didn’t have anything else. We gave them other things sometimes too.

There were a few attempts at sabotage in the factory but it was all very trivial. A few of the lads who were working on the pipework would fill them with earth or any old rubbish. It was a waste of time. The Germans had powerful air blaster and any stuff in there got blown out. I’ve heard fairy tales about the sabotage some fellows did but I don’t believe many of them.

I was at Auschwitz until January 21, 1945, when the Germans decided to move us out because the Russians were getting close. The Jews had been marched off before us and we followed in their tracks. The road into Czechoslovakia was strewn with dead bodies of Jews who had succumbed to the awful weather. Fortunately, we made it and were liberated by the Americans.

It took me about 10 years to get over it after I got home. I was put in a hospital for psychiatric treatment. They said I was psycho-neurotic — more or less what post-traumatic stress disorder is now. I presume so anyway. I went into hospital in Dartford for a few months. Then they discharged me from the army which I objected to but they sent me home anyway.

I went to technical school to study electronics and worked in that field until my retirement. I never spoke about my time in Auschwitz until four years ago — even my wife never knew I had been there. I felt there was nothing to be proud about in being a POW, and although my old teacher said I should write it down, I didn’t see the point. At the time, there were so many things coming out about the amazing things some chaps had done that I didn’t think my experiences would be interesting to anyone. So I just conveniently forgot about it.”

Last updated: 10:21am, January 14 2010