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July 2, 2011

Charles Coward, the first British POW who broke into Auschwitz

Filed under: Holocaust, World War II — Tags: , , , — furtherglory @ 10:58 am

The British started broadcasting on the BBC about the gassing of prisoners by the Nazis in June 1942.  So it is not surprising that two British POWs (Charles Coward and Dennis Avey) sneaked into Auschwitz to find out about the infamous gas chamber and to bear witness to the crimes committed by the Germans.  Charles Coward wrote a book entitled The Password is Courage in 1954; on the back cover the sub-title was The Man who Broke into Auschwitz. This is the exact same title as a book written by Dennis Avey which was published in the UK last year and just recently in America.

Both Charles Coward and Dennis Avey were prisoners in the E715 POW camp that was only a short distance from the barracks at the Auschwitz III camp, aka Monowitz, where Jewish prisoners lived while they were working in the IG Farben factories at Monowitz.

Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler at Monowitz, July 1942

The photograph above shows Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler, a five-star general, who was the head of the SS and the man who was responsible for all the Nazi concentration camps; he is on a visit to inspect the Monowitz factories on July 17th and 18th, 1942. Himmler is the man wearing a uniform. The two men on the right are German engineers.

The Brtish POW soccer team at E715 camp

The British soldiers in the POW camp were treated well because the British had signed the Geneva Convention of 1929 and their POWs were entitled to the protection of the Convention.  The Jewish prisoners were treated far worse, according to Dennis Avey’s account.

Charles Coward was captured in May 1940; he was sent to Monowitz in December 1943. Coward testified at the Nuremberg International Military Tribunal regarding the location of the gas chamber where Jewish prisoners were gassed.

The following excerpts are from Charles Coward’s Nuremberg affidavit:

Affidavit Copy of Document NI-11696, Prosecution Exhibit 1462

COWARD: I made it a point to get one of the guards to take me to town under the pretense of buying new razor blades and stuff for our boys. For a few cigarettes he pointed out to me the various places where they had the gas chambers and the places where they took them down to be cremated. Everyone to whom I spoke gave the same story – the people in the city of Auschwitz, the SS men, concentration camp inmates, foreign workers – everyone said that thousands of people were being gassed and cremated at Auschwitz, and that the inmates who worked with us and who were unable to continue working because of their physical condition and were suddenly missing, had been sent to the gas chambers. The inmates who were selected to be gassed went through the procedure of preparing for a bath, they stripped their clothes off, and walked into the bathing room. Instead of showers, there was gas. All the camp knew it. All the civilian population knew it. I mixed with the civilian population at Auschwitz. I was at Auschwitz nearly every day…Nobody could live in Auschwitz and work in the plant, or even come down to the plant without knowing what was common knowledge to everybody.

Even while still at Auschwitz we got radio broadcasts from the outside speaking about the gassings and burnings at Auschwitz. I recall one of these broadcasts was by Anthony Eden himself. Also, there were pamphlets dropped in Auschwitz and the surrounding territory, one of which I personally read, which related what was going on in the camp at Auschwitz. These leaflets were scattered all over the countryside and must have been dropped from planes. They were in Polish and German. Under those circumstances, nobody could be at or near Auschwitz without knowing what was going on.


COWARD: The figures indicated 11 and 12 were known to us as the concentration camps, and when I mentioned about the gas chambers or crematoriums, I mean to infer that I had visited what was shown to me to be a gas chamber some distance from the railway station at Auschwitz.

The railway station at the town of Auschwitz had a platform called the “Judenrampe,”  where the Jews exited from the transport trains and were then marched to the Birkenau camp; the old people and children were taken in trucks to the gas chambers in “the little white house” and “the little red house.”

Former location of the Judenrampe

The photo above, taken in October 2005, shows a group of tourists reading a sign board that tells about the Judenrampe, which was formerly in this location.

The tracks where the transport trains arrived near Birkenau

Charles Coward’s testimony at the Nuremberg IMT is quoted below:

DR. DRISCHEL (counsel for Defendant Ambros): Witness, it is remarkable that you state in your affidavit that for a few cigarettes you saw the gas chambers in Auschwitz and the crematoria. Can you tell its where that was in the city of Auschwitz?

COWARD: To my best belief the gas chamber and crematorium, as it was known, was about 50 yards from a railway station at the far end of, I think the name was Monowitz.

DR. DRISCHEL: Did I understand you to say that you saw the gas chambers in Monowitz?

COWARD: No, not actually in Monowitz, no. Where the station was at Auschwitz, you see – I very likely misunderstood your question. At Auschwitz there was a railway station, you see, and about 50 to 100 yards from Auschwitz there was a siding where they used to bring the civilians, you see; and about 20 yards on the other side of this siding was where this particular guard took me and showed me the place. –

DR. DRISCHEL: Witness, could you please indicate to what is on the map that is behind you? I don’t understand where these gas chambers are supposed to have been. If you will be kind enough to turn around you will see a map of Auschwitz.

COWARD: The city of Auschwitz, there [indicating] – Whereabouts is the station, farther over? You see, the station is not marked on the map, is it?

DR. DRISCHEL: Yes, I understand. I can define by question by saying that you, Mr. Witness, are of the opinion that these gas chambers and crematoria were located in the vicinity of the station of the city of Auschwitz. That is the way you described it previously. Did I understand you correctly?

COWARD: That is correct.

DR. DRISCHEL: Very well. Then I understood you correctly that you were never in the main camp of Auschwitz, which is on the lower left-hand side of the map, because you said that you were in the camp which is a few hundred yards next to camp VI.

COWARD: That is correct.

DR. DRISCHEL: Then, Mr. Witness, is your description in the affidavit; at least not very misleading?

COWARD: I do not think so. The figures indicated 11 and 12 were known to us as the concentration camps, and when I mentioned about the gas chambers or crematoriums, I mean to infer that I had visited what was shown to me to be a gas chamber some distance from the railway station at Auschwitz.

From this testimony, we learn that the Jewish barracks at Monowitz were very close to the barracks of the E715 POW camp, so it would not have been difficult for a POW to sneak into the Jewish barracks.

We also learn, from the testimony of Charles Coward, that the gas chamber at Auschwitz was near the railroad station, that is, near the Judenrampe.

The photo below, which I took in 2005, shows the buildings which are “about 20 yards on the other side of this (railroad) siding” as described by Charles Coward.

Abandoned buildings near the Judenrampe location

The Monowitz labor camp was kept open until just a week before soldiers in the army of the Soviet Union arrived to liberate the camp on January 27, 1945. The last roll call of the three Auschwitz camps showed a total of 67,012 prisoners. Out of this total, more than half were the workers in the Buna plant at Monowitz and its many sub-camps.

The Nazi records from Auschwitz were turned over to the Red Cross International Tracing Service by the Soviet Union after the fall of Communism. They were published in a book written by Danuta Czech.  The records showed that the number of prisoners in Auschwitz III Monowitz (Buna-Werke) was 10,223, with many more prisoners in the numerous sub-camps.  Although the Nazis were desperate for workers in their munitions factories, Hungarian Jews who were capable of working were gassed upon arrival at Auschwitz, according to Danuta Czech.