Saturday, October 29, 2005

# Posted 5:15 PM by Patrick Belton  

MAIL BAG - BRITS AND THE HOLOCAUST: Reader Paul Hurley obligingly sends this in further to the ministre des Affaires étrangères-gate story below.
Besides the few English Jews deported to Auschwitz from the Channel Islands, there may have been members of the UK armed forces or merchant marine who were captured by German forces, ascertained to be Jewish, and then sent off to Auschwitz (or other death camps) and oblivion.

At least one possible instance is documented in a 1954 book about a British senior NCO, Sergeant-Major Charles Coward, one who was captured by the Germans (during the battle of France, May 1940), and later came to be in charge of a detachment of other captured British troops, assigned to a POW work camp immediately adjacent to Auschwitz.

The book's title is The Password is Courage; it later was made into a movie starring Dirk Bogarde (1962; haven't seen the movie in its entirety so don't know if it covers the following episode from the book or not).

The captured British troops were frequent observers of Jewish "detainee" work groups and often worked in close proximity to them. One day, one of these Jews managed to slip the NCO a note (in English) from a captured British national.

The note said the writer was a captured "naval" doctor but did not give a name or location (also, as I recall it was unclear if he was Royal Navy or a civilian doctor from a sunken merchant vessel).

The captured British troops were trusted by their German supervisors and had fairly minimal supervision, so the senior NCO disguised himself as an inmate and slipped into the death camp to try to find the doctor. However, he had no location in which to search and it was hopeless; he was lucky to get back out again to his own compound.

I think he later was called before a war crimes tribunal (Nuremburg?) to give testimony about what he saw, in particular during this one episode when he actually spent the night in one of the death camp barracks.

A hair-raising story when I first read it in my youth. Had a used paperback copy which I gave away to a college professor years ago, so unfortunately I do not have a copy handy now to check my recollection.

His story may seem almost unbelievable now to someone who has never heard of it, but I believe it is well documented. The book is certainly still available.
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