Friday, April 27, 2012

British prisoners of war were imprisoned at Auschwitz and were visited by the Red Cross

Martin Bright, of the Jewish Chronicle (UK), has written an article about British POWs imprisoned at Auschwitz during WWII. The POW camp was called E715 and housed about 1,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers. They were not treated like the Jews - they received Red Cross food packages and were protected by the Geneva Conventions. (Soldiers from Western armies were generally treated this way by the Germans when they were captured - Soviet POWs on the other hand were starved to death and worked as slave laborers, and more than 3 million of them died at the hands of the Nazis). Another POW camp was at Teschen, about fifty miles away from Auschwitz. (For more on the British POWs, see a January 14, 2010 article in the JC by Simon Round - "Revealed: The British Troops Imprisoned at Auschwitz").

The most amazing fact in this article, in my opinion, is this:
The Red Cross visited Auschwitz in the summer of 1944 and in September reported the concerns of Sergeant-Major Lowe, the British camp leader - or "Man of Confidence" - at Teschen.
"Spontaneously, the principal Man of Confidence at Teschen asked us if we were well-informed about the 'shower room'. Indeed the rumour runs that in [Auschwitz] a very modern shower room exists where the detainees will be gassed in series... This was impossible to prove. The detainees themselves did not talk about it."
The Red Cross visited Auschwitz in the summer of 1944?! I presume he means they visited the E715 POW camp, not the extermination camp itself. Nonetheless, they were quite close to the extermination camp, as is apparent from Bright's article. Bright writes about the British POWs:
They knew about the summary executions, they could hear the sounds of mistreatment and see the physical condition of the "stripeys", as the Jewish inmates were known to them. They could also smell the burning flesh from the crematoria at Auschwitz-Birkenau and those who did manage to speak to Jewish prisoners heard about the "showers".
And if the POWs could hear the sounds and see the physical conditions of the Jewish inmates, and smell the burningn flesh, so could the Red Cross visitors. Did they make this information known publicly? Did they press the Nazis to visit the extermination camp itself? Their record is otherwise not very good, as is shown by the evidence of the Red Cross visit to Theresienstadt also in the summer of 1944.

The Danish Red Cross and the International Red Cross sent 3 delegates to Theresienstadt to examine the camp on June 23, 1944. They were allowed in at the insistence of the Danish government, which wanted the Red Cross to gather information about Danish Jewish prisoners in the camp (they had been sent there in October 1943). The Nazis prepared the camp before they arrived and created an elaborate Potemkin village, presenting it as a model village where a soccer game was being played and the children's opera Brundibar was presented. The International Red Cross inspectors were taken in and did not report anything untoward at the camp. (Information from the US Holocaust Memorial Museum website - Theresienstadt: Red Cross Visit).

When I visited Theresienstadt in the summer of 2005, I was taken aback to see that at the Small Fortress, which was used by the Gestapo for political prisoners as well as Jews, that the slogan "Arbeit Macht Frei" had been painted at the entrance of the prison. Did the Red Cross not see this part of the camp? If they did go there, did they wonder about the strange slogan?


  1. The Red Cross could have asked to see the camp, but either the Germans would have refused, since it was not covered by the Geneva Convention, or they would have gone through the charade used at Theresienstadt. And the article's reference to the Red Cross reaction to rumours about Auschwitz reinforces the difficulty of verifying conditions at camps. Indeed, the Red Cross had some difficulty separating the German picture of life in POW camps from the harsh reality even at those they visited.The sign over the gate is unlikely to have aroused suspicion; I guess they would have concluded that it was merely an exhortation to work hard.

  2. But by the summer of 1944, wouldn't the Red Cross have had a pretty good idea of what was happening at Auschwitz? By then even the New York Times was publishing articles about the extermination of Jews there. There is a report from July 3, 1944 about Auschwitz, on page 3 of the newspaper, entitled "Inquiry Confirms Nazi Death Camps." I'll post it to the blog.