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Karel Sperber (1910–1957)

Karel Sperber was born in Tachov, Bohemia, in 1910. He studied medicine in Prague and Vienna. After Germany invaded Czechoslovakia, he fled to England, where his status as an alien prevented him from practicing medicine. He signed up as a ship’s doctor on the Automedon, a British merchant ship, which was attacked and sunk off Sumatra by the German Navy on November 11, 1940. Karel Sperber and the other surviving members of the crew were taken to Bordeaux. After detention in several prisoner-of-war camps, Karel Sperber eventually was put in prison in Bremen in late 1942. On December 13, 1942, he arrived at the Auschwitz concentration camp, classified as a Jewish prisoner, although he should have been treated as a British POW, in accordance with the Geneva Convention. The pretext for this action was provided to the German authorities by the ship’s papers of the Automedon, which listed Sperber as a Czech national. At Auschwitz, he was forced to assist an SS physician, Dr. Carl Clauberg, in sterilization experiments on Jewish women. In 1944, Sperber worked in the prisoner infirmary of the  Buna/Monowitz concentration camp.


When he learned that British POWs also were being used for forced labor at the I.G. Auschwitz construction site, Karel Sperber attempted to make contact with them. He could do this only by using other prisoners as intermediaries, because his work in the infirmary gave him no opportunity to leave the Buna/Monowitz concentration camp. His message reached the British POWs’ man of confidence, Charles Joseph Coward. Coward took the risk of switching clothes with another prisoner at the construction site and smuggling himself into the Buna/Monowitz concentration camp for one night. But he failed to find Sperber among the thousands of prisoners there. Karel Sperber also seems to have known nothing of Coward’s venture.


On January 18, 1945, Karel Sperber was forced to set out on the death march to Gleiwitz and then to Buchenwald, where he managed to escape. He hid in the forest until he ran into American troops on April 1, 1945. Karel Sperber returned to England, where he made a written record of his wartime experiences. In 1946, he received the Honorary Order of the British Empire. Karel Sperber signed on as a ship’s doctor once again. He worked for the British Colonial Medical Service in Ceylon and for several years in Ghana. There he fell ill and died of Hodgkin’s lymphoma in Accra in 1957.

(MN; transl. KL)


Testimony of Karel Sperber (1946). Courtesy of the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre.



Romney, Claude: “How All Roads Could Lead to Auschwitz: The Extraordinary Story of Dr. Karel Sperber.” In: Zachor – Remember. The Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre Newsletter 3 (August 2005), p. 9.

White, Joseph Robert: “‘Even in Auschwitz…Humanity Could Prevail’: British POWs and Jewish Concentration-Camp Inmates at IG Auschwitz, 1943–1945.” In: Holocaust and Genocide Studies 15 (2001), No. 2, pp. 266–295.