Thursday, January 27, 2011


     Today is the 66th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the largest camp established by the Germans. A complex of camps, Auschwitz included a concentration, extermination and slave-labor camp and was located 37 miles west of Krakow (Cracow), near the prewar German-Polish border. John Green was a POW at E715, a POW work camp that straddled the IG Farben-Auschwitz factory, and was a mile from Auschwitz III (Monowitz), a slave labor camp. All of the POWs at E715 were British or Commonwealth soldiers. John Green had arrived in the summer of 1943 with 300 other POWs. In early January 1945, John and his mates were completely in the dark if the Wehrmacht was going to ship them into Germany or abandoned them.

     "None of us wanted to be liberated by the Red Army. There was a real concern on how they would treat us since the Soviet Union wasn't a signature country with the Geneva Convention. If they overran our camp, we had no protecting power. We'd have no rights even though they were an allied country."

     Every day the POWs were marched into the plant along with the Auschwitz slave and forced laborers. No work was being done, but the Germans had to keep up appearances till the bitter end. John and the other members of his work party didn't mind. They appreciated the equality and fairness their German Meister had fostered in the workshop. They admired the Jewish architect who was his assistant and adored the Ukrainian teenage welders they worked beside.

     Here is an excerpt from John Green's memoir, I NEVER WANTED TO BE A SOLDIER, on his final days at Auschwitz.

     E715 had been a military camp before we were trucked in and it had the appearance of a military camp while we were there. With the Soviets closing in, that was a problem. Yak fighters dropped sprinter bombs on the camp for three consecutive days, wrecking a few non-essential buildings. Luckily, there were no casualties as the majority of us were laboring at the IG Farben plant. If those Yaks flew over during morning roll call there would be dead POWs. The end of the war was too near to peg out thanks to some Ruskie shrapnel. The order was given by our camp leader to pilfer paint from the plant’s storerooms. Our guards were more than happy to allow the counterband past the camp gate since it was to their benefit, too.
     On a cloudy December night, Yorkie and I climbed up on our hut’s roof. We cleared it of snow and ice as we waite
d our turn with the paint brushes. Three hours later, the two of us were warming up next to our room’s pot belly stove and “POW” was slowly drying on every barrack roof. Unfortunately, there was no paint left to give our guards to use on their huts outside the wire. Sometimes snow just isn’t white enough.
     If the Wehrmacht had an evacuation plan for when the Red Army appeared on the horizon they weren't shari
ng it with us. And we asked daily, because our fear was that they had no plan. IG Farben plant staff, forced laborers and Heaftlinge were constantly asking us when we were going to be sent away. They could hear the Soviet artillery, too. For them, our departure would be the signal that the Germans couldn’t hold the Red horde any longer.
     When I sat in our factory workshop and looked ov
er at the office, the question in my mind was what was going to happen to Meister Lagel, our German supervisor, and Hans, Lagel’s strippee assistant? (Hans was an Austrian Jew and a well-respected architect who had been Lagel’s assistant for over two years) I figured that we POWs would fair much better under the Soviets than Hans and worlds better than Lagel. When I asked the Meister if he was going to stay to the bitter end, he smiled and shook his head “no.”
     "Munich. I go home, where I belong."
     I hesitated to ask my next question.
     "What are you going to do about Hans?"
     Lagel's smile became pursed lips.
     "That's not your business."
     When I spoke to Hans, he wasn't too concer
ned about his fate.
     “I’m privileged, I think.”
     Both men did their best to keep it under their hats, but I got the distinct impression that the plan was for Hans to accompany Lagel to Munich. How they were going to accomplish that was beyond me, but these were two very resourceful men. I had no doubt they could pull it off.
     Hans was much more concerned with the fate of his fellow Heaftlinge. Would the SS kill them before they retreated? If the Nazi goons abandoned them, which seemed more likely, what would the Soviets do when they found the strippees? Seeing the state these men were in, would the Red Army just end their suffering as if they were a pack of diseased dogs? The Soviets probably
didn’t have the means to feed and medically treat the Heaftlinge, the two things they would desperately need.
     Our little welder Sunshine and the other female Ukrainian forced laborers didn’t hear the distant thunder as coming from the canons of their liberators. Every one of them believed they’d be cast as traitors to the Soviet Union and the Red Army soldiers would systematically beat and rape them. They h
ad tasted life under the Soviets and had no desire to experience it again. They desperately wanted the German Army to stop the Red Army advance, which would allow the British and Americans to liberate Auschwitz.

Ukrainian forced laborer working as a welder at IG Farben Auschwitz

     With her expanding English vocabulary, Sunshine told Yorkie and I, “Ruskies no. Chaps, Brits, Yanks come get us. Yes?”
     Yorkie nodded his head, which brought a big smile to the seventeen year old’s face. He then went outside and took out his frustration and anger for lying to her out on a pile of pipes.
     I asked Zok, the welders’ supervisor, "What are you going to do when this war ends in our favor?"
     The Pole became deflated and I immediately regretted asking. He was a scared man. Having given up his Polish citizenship to become a German, once the war was over Herr Zok would be a traitor in the eyes of the Soviets and his fellow Poles. He couldn’t stay in Poland if he wanted to continue breathing. After the New Year, Zok went missing.
     "Well, here’s to him burying that Gummi-Deutsche passport and falling into our hands," Yorkie proclaimed.
     Yorkie had advised Zoch to disappear into Germany and lose his Gummi-Deutsche passport, so that at the end of the war he’d be considered a displaced person. It was his best chance to regain his Polish citizenship without many questions or complications.
     Lagel called me into his office.
     "I leave."
     I wasn't expecting him to be candid about his departure. I figured he just wouldn't turn up one morning too.
     "When?" I asked.
     "I not here tomorrow.” He sighed, then continued in his limited English. “This not be easy for any of us."
     "No, I don't suppose it will be."
     “Do not go toward Russian front," Lagel said with a smile, and then we shook hands. "Please don't say to your men until in camp."
     I nodded. I got the impression he was feeling slightly guilty for abandoning “his boys” and couldn’t face saying twenty goodbyes.
     Later in the day, Hans took me aside.
     "I would like to shake hands with you, but make sure no one is watching."
     "I’m proud to have worked with you,” I told the Austrian. “I have learned volumes from watching you."
     "Thank you."
     “Maybe some day we’ll…”
     Hans cut me off. “Maybe.”
     We both knew we would never see each other again.
     The next day we walked into the workshop along with the Ukrainians to find the office empty and locked. There was no work for anyone still coming through the IG Farben gates. All the Meisters left at the same time.
     “I bet you can’t buy a bike in Auschwitz,” I cracked as we headed back to camp that evening.
     The exodus had begun. By the end of the week our welders didn't show. We figured they made a quick get out-get away. Yorkie was crestfallen. He had wanted to say a proper goodbye to Sunshine, but was glad that she had “got gone.”
     We continued to go to the plant and sit inside the empty workshop. The lines of shuffling strippees stopped passing by the workshop window. (On January 18th, 1945 the Auschwitz KLs were abandoned.) What was the point of the last two y
ears, I wondered as I stared out at the falling snow? The IG Farben plant was nowhere near operational. What had been achieved by treating men like insects, crushing them under boot heels without a blink of an eye? No one was better off. I didn’t believe there was one POW who would be able to forget the shit we had seen day after day. The Jewish strippees who’d survive would grow old with no loved ones to lean on. I was pretty certain the SS would be held accountable after their Fuhrer’s surrender. The stench of those crematoriums, the stench of their crimes, would never leave them. The stench would never leave any of us. And it was at that moment that I realized there weren’t going to be any victors in this small patch of the world.

     John Green and his fellow POWs were marched out of E715 on Sunday, January 21, 1945. They would endure a three and a half month forced march in one of the most brutal winters Europe had seen in 100 years. John, who was 5'2", weighed six stone - 84 pounds - when they arrived in Regensburg, Germany. I'll have more about this in a future blog post.

     On January 27, 1945, the First Army of the Ukrainian Front under the command of Marshall Koniev liberated the Auschwitz camps. They found more than 7,000 remaining prisoners, who were mostly ill or dying. It is estimated that the SS and police deported at a minimum 1.3 million people to the Auschwitz complex between 1940 and 1945. Of these, the camp authorities murdered 1.1 million.

Soon after the liberation, surviving children of the Auschwitz camp walk out of the children's barracks (January 27th, 1945)


  1. Brian, after reading this I want to
    Keep us posted!!