Regular readers of this newspaper will remember the series of articles we ran last year about E715, the British prisoner of war camp at Auschwitz.
A handful of memoirs of the POWs at Auschwitz have been published, including Denis Avey’s controversial bestseller, The Man Who Broke Into Auschwitz. But the full story of the 20,000 soldiers interned in the camp has never been told.
Now, thanks to the Holocaust Educational Trust, this situation is about to change. Dr Russell Wallis, an expert on Britain’s reaction to the Holocaust, from Royal Holloway College, London, has been engaged by the charity to carry out the first detailed research into this extraordinary episode in wartime history.
The point about the men of E715 is that they were among the few Britons to witness the Holocaust at first hand.
Although the British soldiers themselves were held under the terms of the Geneva Conventions and received Red Cross food parcels, they could see, and smell, what was happening to the Jewish prisoners around them.
They worked alongside “the stripeys”, as they were known, in the IG Farben chemical plant at Auschwitz.
They were among the few Britons to witness the Holocaust
According to the testimonies of the few men to have spoken publicly about their experiences, there were even attempts to get the message back to Britain about what was going on in the gas chambers.
Most intriguingly, there are reports of escape attempts, some even said to be organised by Yitzhak Persky, the father of the Israeli president Shimon Peres, who fought in the British army and is thought to have been interned at E715.
The new research will also shed light on the role played by Sergeant-Major Charles Coward, the so-called “Man of Confidence” at the camp, who was honoured as Righteous Among Nations in 1963 for the help he gave to Jews in Auschwitz.
Dr Wallis was recommended by the celebrated historian David Cesarani, who is professor of history at Royal Holloway.
Dr Wallis’s book, Britain, Germany and the Road to the Holocaust: British Attitudes to Nazi Atrocities, was published by IB Tauris last month.
The research will complement the important work of March of the Living UK, which organised the first memorial event for the men of E715 at the site of the camp last April, attended by Israel’s ambassador to the UK, Daniel Taub.
I believe this is a hugely significant moment that could profoundly shift our understanding of Britain’s relationship to the Holocaust.
In this country, we did not suffer the ignominy of defeat, occupation and collaboration. Nor were we forced to stand by as our fellow human beings were transported to the camps. We are rightly proud that we stood alone against the Third Reich, but that pride can easily turn to complacency.
Holocaust education is particularly important in a country which did not witness the effects of the Nazi genocide on its territory. That is why the HET should be saluted for commissioning this new research into the British men who saw the atrocities of Auschwitz with their own eyes.