Ron Jones (102) recalls his internment at Auschwitz as a POW (prisoner of war) and remembers the Death March that followed in 1945, when POWs were marched 800 miles criss-crossing the countryside from Poland to Germany in the middle of winter.
Nothing can prepare you for the influx of emotion you feel when entering Auschwitz, even today. It remains a symbol of pure evil, where genocide and inhumanity demonstrated a total disregard for the sanctity of life. It should serve as a constant reminder of the dark side of mankind’s nature and the capability our species has for both good and evil.
Auschwitz, located just outside Kraków in Poland, was the National Socialists’ largest concentration and extermination camp. Auschwitz was split into three main sections: Auschwitz 1, the administrative centre for the huge complex, Auschwitz II or Birkenau, the extermination camp; and Auschwitz III, also known as the Monowitz-Buna site. The function of Auschwitz III mainly consisted of renting out slave labour to German companies to undertake industrial production with no regard for the workers’ welfare or lives.
Between 1.1m and 1.5m people were murdered in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. More than 90% of them were Jewish,the others made up of Poles, Soviet Prisoners, Roma and Sinti travellers, homosexuals, political prisoners, Jehovah’s witnesses and others, including 1,400 British Prisoners of war. The vast majority of the victims came from both Western and Eastern Europe and were transported to the camp like animals in cattle-cars, arriving in a total state of collapse. The majority never entered the camp. Following the ‘selection’, they were sent to the gas chambers, disguised as shower facilities. This was industrial killing on a grand scale with upwards of 5,000 people murdered every day. By the end of the Second World War, the National Socialists had systematically murdered an estimated 17m people whom they’d deemed ‘racially inferior’.
People chosen for slave labour were stripped of everything including their personal identity and self-worth. A tattooed number replaced a name. Shaven heads and striped uniforms added to the further dis-individualisation, forced upon men and women alike. In 1943, British POWs started to arrive in Auschwitz. Lance Corporal Ron Jones was among the first to be sent there. In all 1,400 British POWS entered Auschwitz, but 800 of them were soon transferred to Blechhammer and Heydebreck in Germany.
Ron Jones was working in a reserve occupation as a wire drawer and was somewhat surprised when he was conscripted. It was all due to a ‘clerical error’ he tells me. His form had been put in the wrong tray. Ron joined The South Wales Borders in 1940 but was captured by the Germans just outside Benghazi (Libya) in 1942. He was shipped from Tripoli to Naples and then interned as a POW in Italy. ‘Italy was a terrible place, conditions were very poor and the amount of food allocated was pitiful. If it wasn’t for the Red Cross parcels that came now and then I don’t think I’d have made it out.’
The prisoners were told that the Italians needed workers for their car factory in Milan and were asked if any of the POWs were engineers. Many put their hands up tempted by the prospect of better food. The next thing Lance Corporal Jones heard was ‘Raus, raus.’ (‘out, out’). The POWs were moved out of Italy, rather than destined for Milan. This was at the beginning of 1943 and Italy was facing defeat. The collapse of the African front on 4 November 1942 and the Allied landings in North Africa on 8-12 November exposed Italy to an invasion by Allied forces.
The Germans crammed about 40 POWs into each truck and sent them across Europe without food, water or latrines for several days. ‘Imagine the humiliation, only your shirt tail to wipe your backside.’ They arrived at Stalag IVB Mühlberg where they were deloused and had their uniforms cleaned. Shortly afterwards, they found themselves on the move again to Stalag VIII Lamsdorf in Silesia, Poland, a large holding camp before being moved on again. ‘We were told we would be working in a dye factory.’ When they arrived at their destination, they had no idea where they were. When they disembarked, they were marched down the road and came to barb-wire fences with sentry posts and saw men digging trenches in pyjamas. It was October and very cold. When they asked the guards who these people were, he said ‘Juden’, as if they should have known.
Initially, they were housed in E711 which had probably been a former Hitler Youth camp. It had flushing toilets, good showers, proper bunks and no guard towers. But this state of affairs wouldn’t last for long: the POWs were moved to E715 force labour camp, where Russian prisoners had been housed previously. ‘It was a bit of a dump,’ Ron tells me. They had to clean it up. The hut was divided into four section with eighteen men sleeping in double tiers in each section of the building. There were basic washing facilities. They sat on bars over a cesspit as a toilet.
The British labour camp was some distance from Auschwitz-Birkenau but ‘there was always a terrible smell in the air.’ It took Ron and his fellow prisoners about a month to understand what was happening. At first, they were sceptical about what they were told by Poles in the IG Farben plant where they worked. It wasn’t long before the truth hit home. E715 was opposite Buna-Manowitz concentration camp. From here, POWs saw bodies of men hanged and heard shots at night. Slowly, they started to take in the cruel reality. E715 was administered by the Wehrmacht, unlike the Buna-Manowitz, which was run by the SS with little mercy for its occupants. In the British camp, the guards were mostly old men or soldiers who had been wounded in battle and weren’t fit for action. They too were frightened of the SS who still retained the command of all the camps and sub-camps.
Ron worked twelve hours a day, six days a week in the I.G. Farben chemical factory, making synthetic petrol. The same company also manufactured Zyklon B, the gas used in the gas chambers. A huge chemical conglomerate, the factory used slave labour, exposing its labourers to terrible conditions – poor sanitation, minimal food, work to exhaustion…
Ron Jones and Joe Lovejoy, The Auschwitz Goalkeeper – A Prisoner of War’s True Story (Gomer,2013)
Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, Poland http://auschwitz.org/en/
The United States Holocaust Museum https://www.ushmm.org/learn