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The Novel The Password Is Courage, by John Castle (1954)

The novel The Password Is Courage is largely based on the story of British prisoner of war Charles Joseph Coward. The storyline begins with one of his attempted escapes; it later will prove to be a turning point in this narrative plot, which follows a strictly chronological structure apart from this initial scene. Coward is presented as a courageous, sometimes foolhardy sergeant from modest London circumstances, who was taken prisoner by the Germans at Dunkirk (Dunkerque). An odyssey through several POW camps follows. Attempts to escape fail repeatedly, and Coward is brought back to the Lamsdorf main camp. In these passages, the war, in narrative terms, still seems like a continuation of World War I, and the dispute with the German guards, the work deployments, and the thwarted escapes have a sporty aspect. This changes with the detailed story of Coward’s second escape from Lamsdorf. He flees by train to Vienna, via Bratislava. On the journey, a V-1 flying bomb plant concealed in the woods catches his attention. He leaps off the train to reconnoiter the factory and then continues on to Bratislava on foot. There, at the train station, he sees a group of Slovak Jews being herded through the city.


The encounter with the Nazi policy of extermination leads to a break in the narrative and a change in the perception of both the war and the Germans. They are no longer viewed as enemies of equal value because of their inhuman behavior; hatred arises, along with the readiness to do everything possible to defeat them. Coward continues the journey to Vienna, where a prostitute betrays him to the Gestapo, which sends him back to Lamsdorf. Several weeks later, in the role of Red Cross representative, he comes to the camp for British prisoners of war at Auschwitz. From his predecessor, Coward takes over contacts to the Polish underground and helps smuggle weapons out of the town of Auschwitz to the construction site, where he passes them on to prisoners from Birkenau whose job it is to carry the corpses away from the construction site. When he sees the prisoners, his hatred of the Germans grows. Increasingly, Coward and other British POWs find arms smuggling less important than getting food to the prisoners at the construction site and even helping some of them escape. Coward asks I.G. Farben employees to treat the prisoners more humanely, but they respond to him with cynicism. The only alternative for the POWs is sabotage at the construction site. Coward’s increasing commitment to the prisoners and resulting opposition to the Nazis’ extermination policy ultimately bring him into the Buna/Monowitz concentration camp himself. Searching for a British ship’s doctor, who as a Jew was moved from the POW camp into the concentration camp, Coward switches clothes with an inmate and spends a night in the camp, but he fails to find this one inmate among the thousands.


Now the novel ramps up the narrative tempo. Coward’s actions increasingly gain the Nazis’ attention, his room for maneuver is restricted, and finally he goes to another POW camp. From there, in early 1945, he is sent farther and farther westward, to Hanover, where a last escape leads him into the arms of the U.S. Army. The novel closes with short remarks on Coward’s testimony at Nuremberg and in the Wollheim lawsuit, whose result is cause for happy conversations in Coward’s local pub in London.

(MN; transl. KL)


Castle, John: The Password Is Courage. London: Souvenir Press, 1954.

Castle, John: The Password Is Courage. New York: Ballantine Books, 1954.