Charles Joseph Coward (1905–1976)
“The SS guards did what the IG people told them. The IG people were the most powerful people there, and they were the ones who ruled.”
Charles Joseph Coward was born in England in 1905. He entered the British Army on June 16, 1937. On May 25, 1940, he fell into German hands near Calais. At that time he held the rank of Battery Sergeant Major. He passed through several German POW camps and repeatedly attempted to escape, but was caught every time before he could get out of German-controlled territory. In December 1943, Coward was sent from Stalag VIII B in Lamsdorf (Łambinowice) to Auschwitz, where he was assigned to labor detachment E715 as British Man of Confidence (Vertrauensmann). It was his task to deal with the German Wehrmacht, which guarded the prisoner of war camp, and act as spokesman for the British POWs’ concerns.
In Auschwitz, Coward saw first-hand the brutal treatment of the prisoners in the Buna/Monowitz concentration camp at the I.G. construction site, and learned of the gas chambers in Birkenau. That prompted him to engage in a number of activities in opposition to the Nazis’ extermination policy in Auschwitz, and he told about them after the war. However, both the statements of former British POWs from Auschwitz and the research done by historians contain sceptical assessments regarding the possible extent and success of the activities described by Coward.
In particular, Coward reported that he had succeeded, with the help of the Polish resistance in the town of Auschwitz/Oświęcim, in smuggling weapons through the construction site to prisoners in Birkenau for use in their resistance activities. In letters to his wife, he said, he had informed the War Office in London of the happenings in Auschwitz. As these documents have not yet been declassified, their contents cannot be evaluated. He told Swiss representatives of the International Red Cross about the gas chambers during their visits to Auschwitz in summer 1944.
Coward, like other British prisoners of war, helped the concentration camp prisoners at the construction site by giving them food. Together with his friend Yitzhak Persky, whom he helped to conceal his Jewish identity under a false name, he reportedly helped prisoners escape. Coward also said that on several occasions he bought two or three corpses at the construction site from a German who was responsible for carrying them away, and then, with Persky’s help, hid them in a ditch at the roadside. He had arranged with prisoners, he said, that they would drop out of the column at the appropriate point on the evening march back to camp, so that only the corpses would be found at that place later on. Coward and Persky supposedly gave the inmates food and clothing for the escape and positioned the corpses at the roadside so as to be found by the German guards and make the headcount of prisoners “tally.” Coward reported that this also happened with prisoners who had been “selected” and were being moved to Birkenau—however, these inmates usually were moved to Birkenau in trucks, not on foot. How many prisoners managed to escape in this way is completely unclear. Thus far there is no information about any survivor who successfully managed such an escape.
Coward spoke to the I.G. plant management in Auschwitz about the prisoners’ poor condition and the selections, but laughter was the only response. His offer to give the prisoners some of the British POWs’ extra clothing, too, was declined. At the construction site, Coward heard about a British Navy doctor, Karel Sperber, whom the Germans were not treating as a British POW; instead, they had deported him as a “Jew” to the Buna/Monowitz concentration camp. Coward switched clothes with a prisoner in order to look for the doctor in Monowitz. He spent a terrible night in one of the barracks for prisoners, but failed to find the British doctor among the thousands of inmates.
In December 1944, Charles Joseph Coward was sent back to the POW camp Stalag VIII B. In January 1945, he and other British prisoners of war had to march under Wehrmacht guard all the way to Bavaria, where he was liberated. Coward returned to London. He made an affidavit in the context of the I.G. Farben Trial at Nuremberg on July 24, 1947, and was examined as a witness for the prosecution on November 13, 1947. On February 19, 1953, he testified in the Wollheim Suit. Coward was one of the few British prisoners of war who reported on their war experiences in the immediate postwar years in Great Britain. Coward’s experiences served as the basis for a novel by Ronald Charles Payne und John William Garrod, The Password Is Courage, published in 1954 and made into a motion picture in 1962.
On October 24, 1960, the BBC broadcast an episode of This Is Your Life, in which Norbert Wollheim was one of the participants. In 1965, Charles Joseph Coward became the first British citizen to be recognized as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem. Coward died in 1976.
(MN; transl. KL)