An English PoW at work in Auschwitz

Overview of IG Farben's plant, near Auschwitz" ; circa 1941 Source : German Federal Archive

Overview of IG Farben’s plant, near Auschwitz” ; circa 1941

The Geneva Convention rules governing Prisoners of War differed between officers and ‘other ranks’. Their prison camps operated quite separately in Germany and it was expected that ‘other ranks’ would work. In general their living conditions were a great deal harsher. For an excellent study of how ‘other ranks’ fared in Germany see Sean Longden: Hitler’s British Slaves. What might ordinarily be considered ‘work’ and what the Nazis considered work were two different things.

For Denis Avey, captured in North Africa, conditions were particularly bad. After a series of escape attempts he was marked down as a trouble-maker and sent to labour camp E715 near Auschwitz III. It was a very different existence to the officers in Stalag Luft III. Here Avey was working for the same industrial plant as prisoners from the Auschwitz concentration camp, sometimes working alongside them:

We worked eleven hours a day. Forget everything you have seen in war movies where the men swan around in cricket sweaters, doing a bit of gardening or gym to cover their escape tunnels, smoking pipes and teasing the Germans. It may have been like that in the officers’ camps but for us, the ‘other ranks’, it was hard, physical work, though it was not nearly as hard for us as for the stripeys.

Each day I saw Jews being killed on the factory site. Some were kicked and beaten to death, others simply collapsed and died in the dirt of exhaustion and hunger. I knew the same was happening in every corner of the camp, in every work detail.

These Jews might be able to prolong their lives a little but the outcome was likely to be the same. They weren’t fed enough to survive. Around midday the dreadful cabbage soup arrived. We could barely stomach it, though ours offered some nutrition while the stuff the Jewish prisoners had was little more than stinking water.

From time to time we managed to exaggerate the numbers on our work Kommando to get more soup than we needed. We couldn’t give it directly to the Jews but we left it standing around where they could get to it. If the guards or the Kapos saw them eating our soup they kicked it over to stop them. There was usually a beating.

At the Buna-Werke they sucked the life and labour from each exhausted man and when he was spent, he was sent to be killed. I did not know the names then but they went west, either to the original brick-built camp, Auschwitz One, or the vast new wooden sprawl of Auschwitz-Birkenau. There they would be killed sooner rather than later, many immediately on arrival.

Behind it all stood the SS and the executives of IG Farben itself. The Kapos, the prisoners put in charge of their fellows, became the focus of my anger. They were evil men and many wore the green triangle of the career criminal. Their survival depended on keeping the rest of the prisoners in line. If they lost their privileged job they were friendless and then they didn’t live long.

People talk about man’s inhumanity to man, but that wasn’t human or inhuman — it was bestial. Love and hate meant nothing there. It was indifference. I felt degraded by each mindless murder I witnessed and could do nothing about. I was living in obscenity.

For the Jewish prisoners anything that could be traded or swallowed had value. It might offer them the chance to live a bit longer. They all had to find a niche, a way of securing a few extra calories a day, or they died. The risks for them were enormous.

Later in 1944 Denis Avey would take radical steps to witness what was actually happening to the Jews in Auschwitz Denis Avey: The Man Who Broke into Auschwitz.

Picture taken during the visit of Heinrich Himmler in IG Farben factory in 1942. In the first row there are engineer Maximilian Faust and the Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss. Picture taken on July 18, 1942. (Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum Archives)

Picture taken during the visit of Heinrich Himmler in IG Farben factory in 1942. In the first row there are engineer Maximilian Faust and the Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss. Picture taken on July 18, 1942. (Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum Archives)

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