Saturday, December 25, 2010
John Green’s memoir, “I Never Wanted To Be A Soldier.” Since
it is two a.m. on Christmas Day, I’ll be keeping this intro short.
In the summer of 1943, John Green arrived at E715, a
POW work camp, with 300 other British and Commonwealth
soldiers. As a POW, John was an old-timer having already been
a prisoner of war for three years, but nothing could have
prepared him for his new camp, which was part of the Auschwitz
complex. By December 1943, the E715 POWs were well
entrenched in their various jobs at the nearby IG-Farben plant
and since Auschwitz prisoners were also working there as slave
laborers, Hitler’s “Final Solution” was no secret to any of the
John became the foreman of his work party, which was
made up mostly of Royal Engineers. Their job was to get two 20-
ton filter tanks on top of a warehouse roof. The project was
overseen by a benevolent Nazi Party Meister, who had
handpicked his “strippee”* assistant, Hans, and saw to it that the
Austrian Jew slept at the factory instead of trudging back to the
Auschwitz III camp every night.
On Christmas Eve, the Meister allowed John Green's work party to have a Christmas celebration…
* Strippee was the British POWs term for the Auschwitz Prisoners.
“To us long-term POWs, Christmas 1943 seemed different.
A definite change was in the air. The Wehrmacht was crumbling
in Russia and they were being pushed back in Italy. There was
no doubt in anyone’s mind that the invasion of France would
come soon. We could smell victory. "We'll be home next
Christmas, mark my words." was now the common refrain.
With Christmas Eve falling on a Friday, we were expected
to work our jobs at the IG Farben plant. I asked Meister Legal
what we’d be doing that day? Much to my relief, in his limited
English he answered, "Enjoy yourself."
I smiled. "That is just what we had in mind."
"My welders, too?" Legel asked.
"Of course. Even Hans if he's up to it."
The Meister nodded approvingly.
All twenty-five POWs in our work party became Christmas
scavengers, turning our workshop and others upside down to get
things we could turn into an ornament or gift. One chap
“borrowed” a wheelbarrow full of light bulbs that were painted
red, green and blue and strung the lights up in the workshop and
the Meister’s office. I helped make flowers and Christmas
ornaments using Red Cross food tins, discarded newspaper,
greaseless paper and rags dipped in paint. A chap from Norfolk,
who came from a long line of bespoke furniture makers,
volunteered to make a gift for the Meister.
"You're in his office constantly. You know the Kraut the
best out of us lot. What do you suggest?" He asked me.
I didn't have to think too hard.
Yorkie and Blanco wouldn't let me in on what they were
preparing for Christmas Eve, but I didn’t expect anything from
the duo. Blanco was spending the majority of his time at the 921
workshop, which was filled with female forced laborers. Instead
of 12 days of Christmas, I figured he was serving himself 12
days of the Polish machinist, Sarabelle. And I started to think
Yorkie wanted to be more than Sunshine's big brother. He was
constantly staring at our 16 year-old Ukrainian welder’s chest,
which was filling out nicely.
"If that’s all you’re going to look at go give them a
squeeze," I told him.
"What are you going on about?"
When I explained what I was "going on about" he turned
"Lanky, you need a pair of spectacles, you do,” he
snapped. “Your eyes aren't right!"
But much to my surprise, both Blanco and Yorkie had
bundles under their jackets as we walked to the plant on a mild
Christmas Eve morning.
"What do you have shoved up under there?" I asked them.
They both grinned.
"Wouldn't you like to know," Yorkie said.
"No, I have no interest. None," I lied.
Once the fire in the workshop’s stove was set, we went
about hanging our ornaments and decorations. Our Ukrainian
welders watched with fascination as twenty-five grown men
scampered here and there, standing on this and that, hanging
handmade stars, snowflakes, flowers and angels. We were like
boys bouncing from one foot to the other waiting to open their
gifts from Father Christmas.
Blanco ducked outside. I figured he was off to see Sarabelle.
Ten minutes later he strolled back in wearing a woman's dress
made from parachute silk. A fortnight back, Blanco and Yorkie
had raided the costume closet for the camp’s plays and concerts,
which was in our dining hall.
"A Scouser told us they had Christmas costumes hanging
in there," Blanco explained.
"And that's the best you could do, Mother Christmas?" I
"Oh, come on. It's good for a laugh."
That it was. So much so, a few of the lads thought it would
be a hoot to take Blanco down to the 921 workshop.
"Sarabelle sees me like this she'll be wanting two chocolate
bars next time I get a leg over," Blanco weakly protested.
He ducked and dodged as the lads chased him around the
workshop, his dress flying up as exposing his bare backside. We
were all doubled over with laughter. Sunshine and the other girl
welder were giggling and putting they're hands halfheartedly
over their eyes. Meister Legel and Hans, who hadn’t budged
from the office, were laughing, too. Finally, four of the bigger
chaps carried Blanco off to Sarabelle.
We had tea and coffee brewing all day and cans of Spam
were opened. I walked into the office with two Spam sandwiches.
Legel and Hans kept working at their desks as if I wasn't there.
Without a word, I sat them down on a file cabinet and went back
to our festivities.
The lads sang, "Away In The Manger", "O Come All Ye
Faithful" and "Once In Royal David's City." They did a bang up
job if the faces of the welders and our guards were any
indication. Through Zoch, the welders’ foreman and translator,
we asked Sunshine and the other three welders if they knew any
carols. They sang two Ukrainian Christmas carols that none of
us recognized, but we were so taken by their voices that we
asked them to sing the songs again and we hummed or “la, la,
la”-ed along. After one of the lads put on his hand-painted Father
Christmas outfit, we were able to coax our guards into singing "O
The Christmas carols brought on a good weep for many of
us. Some lads went to a corner with head bowed. For more
privacy, others went outside to the sentry box toilet. I stood in
that box telling myself that crying was pointless, but it didn't do
any good. A knock on the door was the only thing that stiffened
my upper lip.
It came time to hand out the gifts. Yorkie went directly to
Sunshine and handed her the package he had been hiding. As
the sixteen year old tore through the greaseless paper, Yorkie
sang "You Are My Sunshine." She held up her gift, a bra made
out of the same parachute silk as Blanco's dress.
"I made that myself,” Yorkie said proudly. “Zoch, tell her."
"What is it?" Zoch asked.
"You blind fool, what does it look like?!"
It took Sunshine a moment to fully realize what this crazy
Yorkshire lad had given her. She turned red but gave Yorkie a
big, toothy smile.
"Don't show me the teeth, show me the tits," Yorkie kidded.
One of our Wehrmacht guards literally fell about laughing.
He really took to our brand of humor. He was the sort of chap
who always tried to end a conversation on a funny note. We
gave him and his partner a tin of fifty cigarettes. Zoch flashed a
bigger smile than Sunshine when I handed him a tin.
The day before I had asked Legel if we could give Hans a
present. It wasn't that I was seeking the German’s permission; I
just preferred that this one time we give something to Hans
completely out in the open. The Meister said we could as long as
he wasn't there when we did it.
"And if give me present, Hans cannot be here," Legel said
with a smile.
I got the queer feeling that he thought this formality was
All twenty-five of us POWs crowded into the Meister’s
office. As a group, we had decided that we'd give Hans and
Legel their gifts at the same time.
Still in the dress, Blanco announced, "Hans Meyer, we
have a small gift for you."
Turning his back on us, Legel got up from his desk and
walked to the other side of the office as if he was looking for
something. Hans smiled and nodded to Blanco, who reached
down the front of his dress.
"I need Sunshine's bloody bra," he said as he pulled out a
bar of chocolate.
"Thank you all," Hans said softly then placed the chocolate
in his desk drawer. He shut the drawer nosily and Legel stepped
back to his desk. I began to suspect that the Meister knew we'd
ambush them and they had choreographed their responses. Laughing, Hans turned his back to us when I stepped up to the Meister’s desk. The Austrian, who had no idea if his wife and children were alive or dead, was having a good chuckle about it all.
Legel's gift was a wooden hand, carved from the best piece
of pine that IG Farben had sitting about.
"From all of us, the hand of friendship," I said.
"You are all my friends," Legel said and set his present on a
prominent spot on his desk. We gave him back his office once it
was apparent that there were tears in his eyes.
In the workshop, we continued to sing carols, eat spam and
drink tea. A few of the lads slapped red and green paint on their
faces. Their jubilance was stunted when it was pointed out we
had nothing to take off the oil-based paints. Yorkie fell asleep on
one of the benches. His anxiety about giving Sunshine his
homemade bra had gotten the best of him, though he'd never
cop to it. In the office, the German Meister and the Jewish
architect were chatting and laughing. For a moment, I completely
forgot where I was and that Hans was wearing stripped pajamas.
It was a nice Christmas gift.”
Thursday, November 11, 2010
John Green with his fiancée, Lilian - 1939What you're about to read are Mr. Green's thoughts as he waits with his sergeant for the signal to crash their lorry in to the canal bridge that German soldiers and tanks are moving towards.
Most of the older men I worked with at the tannery were veterans of the Great War and none of them ever presented what they had endured in a heroic light. For them, war was not for anybody. Well, maybe it was for the officers way behind the lines who never got their uniforms soiled by mud and blood, but it sure wasn't for the everyday chap.
Wrecks people’s lives. None of ours are any better for it.”
“Solves nothing. It only gets people killed.”
We had this one co-worker in his late twenties who was a Communist, a bona fide red. He knew politics inside and out, a subject I, nor most everyone else in the tannery, knew much about.
“The uprising must come,” he'd spout, waving his finger at anyone and everyone in proximity. He was a pointer. “The bureaucrats must be beaten. It should be working men from the street ruling the country. We're England’s backbone.”
Some of the things he said made sense, but for the most part no one was interested, myself included. Other then trading a few good jokes, you just want to get on with your work and go home. You don't want to be stuck working next to someone who rabbits on about politics like a religious zealot.
When the Spanish Civil War started, he volunteered to go fight for the Communists. The older men told him he was a fool, that what was in store for him was not some noble crusade. Their words fell on a deaf ear, and within a fortnight management put up a notice that Harold Ogden had been killed in Madrid. He had only been in Spain for four days.
The older men said:
“Served him right. He shouldn’t have gone.”
“That’s what you get for being belligerent. You get killed.”
Sitting there in the lorry, I realized that I was strangling the steering wheel. I glanced at the sergeant. I don’t think he took notice. Then I thought, if I’m killed today my body will just lie there and Germans soldiers will step on it. Or, the lorry will catch fire before we reach that bridge and I’ll burn to a cinder, and then a tank will come and run over the remains leaving nothing of me to bury. What would those blighters at the tannery say if they saw a notice on the bulletin board with my name on it? I had a pretty clear idea and it didn't make me feel good.
"That's another one gone."
"I don't rightly remember."
Lt. Barr's flare shot up toward the circling Kraut spotter planes. The sergeant patted me on the back.
"John, this is where we live or die. Go."
I started the engine and, against my better judgment and all logic, pushed the accelerator down hard.
John Green was captured that day and 24 hours later he and another British soldier escaped their German guards and made it to Dunkirk Beach. While struggling to swim out to the boats, Stukas strafed the water, wounding John and killing the other soldier. Traumatized, John walked off the beach and was recaptured. He had been on Dunkirk Beach for 48 hours. John spent the next five years as a prisoner of war, the last year and a half in E715, the POW work camp that was part of the Auschwitz complex. John and his fellow E715 POWs were the first Allied witnesses to Hitler's "Final Solution."
"I NEVER WANTED TO BE A SOLDIER" is being compiled from 135 hours of audio interviews I conducted with John Green at his home in Warrington, England. Mr. Green passed away last September. He was 90 years old.