British Prisoners of War in Auschwitz
The British prisoners of war (POWs) who were housed in the E715 prisoner of war camp at Auschwitz between September 1943 and January 1945 were forced to work at the I.G. Farben construction site. According to the Geneva Convention, it was not acceptable to have them produce war materiel. When that led some to protest their use in gasoline production, the I.G. Farben camp manager in charge, Gerhard Ritter, made it clear to them with his pistol that it was he who decided how the Geneva Convention was interpreted in Auschwitz.
The British POWs had to work about 12 hours a day, and days off work were few in number. They were deployed in a wide variety of work detachments, in some cases also as skilled workers. Many British POWs sabotaged the German war efforts as they worked. For example, they improperly laid cables or pipelines for the power plant of I.G. Auschwitz, and they damaged freight cars when working in the freight depot. The extent to which the British sabotage actions succeeded in delaying the building of the plant is unclear, however.
Conflicts between the British POWs and the civilian workers of I.G. Farben, the SS men, and the members of the Wehrmacht occurred with regularity. They usually were brought about by the poor treatment of the concentration camp prisoners and the East European forced laborers. But some I.G. Farben Meister, too, thought they could treat the POWs as they did the concentration camp inmates, and the Wehrmacht had to admonish the I.G. Auschwitz construction management accordingly. After 1945, former prisoners told of two instances of brutal attacks on British POWs: Corporal Reynolds was shot by an SS man at the construction site for refusing to perform a risky task without protective measures. Private Campbell was stabbed by an SS man for helping a Polish woman; he survived the attack.
In general, the British POWs received better treatment than all the other groups of forced laborers of I.G. Auschwitz. Since the Germans treated Allied servicemen in accordance with the Geneva Convention, the British POWs had a right to receive food parcels from the Red Cross, correspond with their family members, and have visits from Red Cross representatives. Thanks to the food parcels, the British POWs had a relatively good diet. Thus they could forego the soup they received in I.G. Auschwitz and give it to individual concentration camp inmates.
The British POWs also had contacts with Ukrainian women working as forced laborers at the construction site, whose poor treatment they later described; there probably were a few affairs with Ukrainian women, as well as with Polish women from the surrounding area. British POWs allegedly switched uniforms with so-called Fremdarbeiter (“foreign workers”) in order to make “excursions” into the surrounding countryside, as far as Katowice.
In their scant free time, the British POWs entertained themselves with sports, mainly soccer, and theatrical performances. Eric Lindsay was especially active in the latter, and he added a Shylock character, “the Hunchback Saul,” to a staging of Lord Dunsany’s A Night at an Inn in December 1944. Other incidents, too, indicate the presence of anti-Semitic attitudes among some of the British POWs, but this does not seem to have prevented most of them from helping the predominantly Jewish concentration camp prisoners whom they encountered at the construction site.
(MN; transl. KL)