The following is an article which was printed in The Sunday Review supplement of the Independent On Sunday, on the 15th March 1992.

 

OUT OF THE SILENCE

by ZoŽ Heller

 

        "I used to have nightmares about Auschwitz. I'd wake up crying: 'Help me, help me.' There are things you don't forget - the smell, the people being hanged... I don't think I can forget or forgive."

        These are the words of Alfred Battams, a 75-year-old Londoner, born and bred in Hackney. He is not a Jew or a gypsy or a homosexual. But for approximately six months in 1944 and 1945, he was a British prisoner of war at the Monowitz Arbeitslager, or "Auschwitz III". With three to four hundred other British POWs, he lived and worked alongside Jews who were daily going to their death at the main Auschwitz I camp, five miles away.

        The raison d'Ítre of Monowitz was a vast factory complex owned by the German industrial giant, I G Farben. The camp took its colloquial name, "Buna", from the synthetic rubber that the factory aimed to produce. It was, in fact, not one camp but a city of camps. Aside from the Judenlager, in which 10,000 Jewish prisoners were kept, the Buna contained separate camps for the different categories or 30,000 other foreign workers: Ukrainian women, French volunteers, Russian forced labour, British prisoners of war.

        British POWs feature briefly in If This Is A Man, Primo Levi's extraordinary account of  year spent in the Monowitz Judenlager. But because they slept in separate quarters, and because communication with them was illegal, Levi did not form friendships with any of them. They were aloof, unknown creatures - mute and vaguely exotic in their "wonderfully fur-lined jackets". As Levi went on to point out in The Drowned and the Saved, the Allied POWs were quite distinct: "[They] received foodstuffs and clothing through the International Red Cross, had good military training, strong motivation and a firm esprit de corps... but for a few exceptions, they could trust each other. They also knew that should they be recaptured, they would be treated in accordance with international conventions. In fact, they attempted many escapes and some were carried through successfully."

        It is possible to say, then, that the British POWs in Monowitz lived in conditions of comparative luxury, and since the war their experiences have necessarily been overshadowed by the horror of what befell more typical Auschwitz prisoners. Levi wrote, in reference to his own testimony: "We, the survivors, are not the true witnesses... we are those who by the prevarications or abilities or good luck did not touch bottom. Those who did so... are the rule, we are the exception." If surviving Auschwitz rendered Levi an "unrepresentative" witness, how much more anomalous were the stories of British men who survived with Red Cross chocolate and warm jackets.

        Yet, as Levi's work itself proves, anomalies cannot be dismissed as irrelevances. The Allied POWs at Monowitz observed the Nazi offence at close hand, but were neither perpetrators nor victims. The value of their testimony resides at least partly in the uniqueness of this spectator status.

        The three men whose accounts appear below were introduced to me by Maurice Hatton, an English film-maker who has recorded interviews with 17 such POWs. His attempts to make a television documentary about their experiences have so far proved unsuccessful; the television companies, he says, are "wary of the subject". Arthur Dodd, Richard Ridgers and Alfred Battams were captured by the Germans in north Africa. They were each taken on a similar route to Poland: across the Mediterranean, through Italy and Austria and across the ruined landscape of Greater Germany. For the sake of brevity, details of their capture and their journeys to Auschwitz have been omitted. Their accounts begin with their arrival at the camp and end with their liberation in Bavaria, after a five-month march across Germany.

        The men, all in their seventies now, were very young when they were captured - in their early twenties. Fifty years on, their memories are inevitably clouded: "Not only do [memories] tend to become erased as the years go by," Levi wrote in The Drowned and the Saved, "but often they change or even increase by incorporating extraneous features." As far as possible, these accounts have been restricted to what the men saw and heard themselves.

        Another factor affecting the men's memories is how rarely they have spoken about Auschwitz before. On returning to Britain after the war, they were given little or no formal opportunity to tell their stories. Debriefing was concerned with escapes or sabotage attempts; volunteered information about what they saw happening to Jewish prisoners was greeted with varying degrees of incredulity or indifference. After a while, the POWs gave up and kept their stories to themselves. Interestingly, Levi describes this fate - of not being heard, not being believed by outsiders - as the recurring nightmare of Jewish inmates. It was also, according to the Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal, the idea with which the SS militiamen habitually taunted their prisoners.

        What effect the enforced silence has had on the British POWs and the quality of their memories is difficult to calculate. Levi speaks of memory requiring "exercise", like a muscle. Certainly the POWs stories lack the easy flow of narratives frequently evoked. On the other hand, Levi points out the tendency of what is oft-repeated to become stale and lapidary. The accounts below are neither of those things. While relating their experiences, the men frequently broke off and sat in silence - startled, it seemed, by hearing themselves speak a particular horror for the first time.

 

        ALFRED BATTAMS joined the Royal Engineers in 1940, when he was 21. He was captured just outside Tobruk two years later.

        "When we got to Auschwitz and they were marching us to our camp, we passed these Jews in striped pyjamas. You could see they were Jewish. They had stars on, you know. We passed civilian camps - they weren't too bad - but these Jews... we couldn't believe it. The Sunday Mirror had printed these photos in about 1938 with Jews in these striped suits and we just put it down to propaganda.

        "Well, we went to our barracks and next morning we were sent out to the factory about seven. There was a smell in the air - a sickly smell. We passed endless streams of Jews in pyjama suits. They weren't really marching, though - they were shuffling. You can't describe what they looked like - walking skeletons. I said to one of the blokes who'd been there for a while - I said to him: 'What's happening here?' And he said they were from the concentration camp. He said, 'Don't talk to them. Just mind your own business.'

        "In the Fabrik we found out soon enough what was going on - the gas chambers. The only contact you made with the Jews was in the Fabrik, and you had to be very careful because there were SS guards and if you got caught you were punished. The Jews, they'd tell you what they'd done before this. One bloke was the managing director of a shoe company in Czechoslovakia... another, he was a bank manager. They talked in English, a lot of them. They didn't talk much about the chambers... You couldn't talk about it - it was so bad.

        "In the factory, they used to bring us POWs cauldrons of soup, and after about three weeks we organised a little group that gave soup to the Jews on the quiet. They was up one end of the factory and they'd look down at us - we'd see them looking with big eyes. When the guards went out for their lunch, we used to call them up and they had these little bowls and we'd pour ours out for them and now and then we'd slip them a bar of chocolate or a packet of cigarettes. I got caught once. I had two special friends - you know, some people you just hit it off with - two young boys who were about my age. I don't know, I just felt particularly sorry for them - to look at them, same age as me with their cheeks all drawn - and I got caught down by the lift shaft, giving them food. There was a bastard German there - I'd like to see this one again... I'd like to kill him. Frick, he was called, Herr von Frick, and he was a right... He was one of the heads and ho got me marched back to the camp for punishment.

        "Every night for 14 days I had to go to detention. I'd be marched into a little prison in the German camp - a little box, and I had to stand with my nose and feet against the wall. I always thought it was a good job I'd got a big nose! I did that for about an hour. Every POW got a copy of Mein Kampf. I didn't feel like work one day - it was one of them days where you don't care what happens - and I got this Mein Kampf, and all of a sudden the order for roll-call came up and I thought, 'Oh bugger, I'll see what happens,' and in comes this German. He says to me, 'Raus!' and I says, 'Oh, I'm so interested in this book, I couldn't put it down.' Do you know, they let me have the day off of work to read it? It's unbelievable, isn't it? I got away with it. Mein Kampf was in English. It made good toilet paper.

        "But there weren't many laughs. I've seen children horse-whipped. Kiddies... 12 or 14 years old. You couldn't help them. It was terrible, it really was. Kiddies only so high. [Crying] It was so shocking that people could lower themselves to do that to people.

        "We didn't talk about what was going on much - all we done was keep quiet, and where we could we helped them. It was best to see it all and keep that shut [gesturing towards his mouth]. We did a little bit of sabotage in the factory when we could. There was these big roof trusses - the timbers were very big and thick - and we were up 30ft on the gantry winding them up and for some unknown reason [laughing] they kept dropping down. The Germans tumbled it all right. Ooh, we got rollocked right, left and centre.

        "Once, I had the toothache and they took me down to Auschwitz town to the dentist - a Polish dentist. One of the old hands told me to take some cigarettes to give to the dentist. The guard come in the room with me and sure enough I slipped the dentist some cigarettes and everything was okey-dokey. But the strange thing was - I never forget this - right outside the window was these bodies. People strung up - I never found out who they were or why they was there. You didn't ask questions - that was the way of life. But all those people, the civilians, knew what was going on. I know they knew. But they never said a word.

        It was New Year's Day we pulled out. As we was marching, thousands of us, coming from all different camps into one big convoy, we passed storm gulleys and they were full of dead Jews just lying there in their striped suits. [In January 1945, the Soviet army began a new offensive from Baranow, 50 kilometres from Auschwitz. The camp, along with others in the area, was evacuated and all inmates except those who were too ill to move, were marched westwards. Most Jewish prisoners died on the way, from hunger, exhaustion or exposure.]

        "We marched about 15 miles a day. In a way, life is very sweet - it's amazing how you keep going. The Germans gave us these bits of paper asking us to join what they called the Free British Forces to fight Communism, and after the war when we'd beaten the Russians they would get us home via a neutral country. We were liberated in Germany and then we were flown down to Belgium.

        "I went into the Army A1 and come back D3, but I never got a pension. I didn't talk about any of what I'm saying now. I landed at a place called Wing, and I got debriefed by an officer. He asked me: 'What did you do there?' but we never talked about the Jews. He didn't ask. I don't know why I didn't talk about the Jews. I wanted to forget it. Not only that - people didn't believe what had gone on."

        After the war, Mr Battams went back to his former job as an engineering blacksmith. He is now retired.

 

        ARTHUR DODD was called up to the Royal Army Service Corps at the beginning of 1940 at the age of 20. He was captured at Badir in north Africa in June 1940.

        "We were unloaded at this little station and then we were marching for about five hours. This was just after Christmas 1943 and it was very, very cold. We came to this brand new camp - white sheets, and our own little rooms. One bloke, he said: 'Hey lads, I think we've cracked it for a good job.' We were here for three weeks - not doing nothing, just had good food... it was a mystery. Then they said: 'Now you've got to work,' and they got us out on this road and we marched along.

        "We started out about five in the morning and it was just breaking daylight when we come on to this factory. And then - well, this... oh, well, me wife knows, I've had nightmares over it. We come to the first entrance and there was a Jewish girl there and she must have just had her hair shaved off because her scalp was bleeding and this SS man was standing over her with a whip and whipping her. I can't describe how awful this sight was... When we saw this happening, six or seven of us made a dash for him, and he tried to get his revolver out. And the Wehrmacht [German army] came and pushed us back and one of them said in English: 'Get back, get back, he'll kill you, he'll kill you.'

        "When we got into the factory, we split up into groups. The Jews were there working - we knew they were Jews because they wore stars of David. We didn't really know what was going on - we'd never seen anything like this in our lives. But as the days went on we got the information. These Jews - horribly weak and thin - were carrying and laying bricks. And being hit when they weren't working hard enough. As we were split up in working parties - I was drying sand and putting it in pipes for pipe bending.

        "Each group of Jews had a Kapo. Some were brutal, some were good. The one where I was working, he could speak English good - he was a lawyer. The only time he wasn't good was when a Nazi was wandering nearby and then he'd shout at them a bit, but that was only put on. He gave us quite a bit of information about what was happening.

        "We knew very little at that point - we didn't even know about the crematoriums. That first day we went to work singing and whistling and when we went back that night, there wasn't a sound from anybody - it had knocked any spirit out of us. And when we got back into the camp there was no sound. You could hear a pin drop. Everyone just lay there with their own thoughts. I prayed that night and cried. I wasn't crying so much for the people I'd seen in the factory but for the girl who I'd seen being whipped. She was there in my memory. I could see her - oh, strewth... I can see her now. There are two things I think about still - that girl and later, when we were on the death march.

        "We never really spoke about things in the camp. Very little went on in the camp at night. We didn't know what to say about it.

        "When the wind blew in the direction of our camp, we could smell this horrible smell which turned out to be smoke from the crematorium. Once you smelled it, it was always there but it was more prevalent when the wind blew westerly. And you've heard about the orchestra haven't you? Well, we heard the orchestra very early in the morning when the wind blew our way.

        This Kapo told us about what was going on - about the crematorium and that. As time went on, you saw the Jews being kicked and punched and dropping down dead with exhaustion. The Jews spent a lot of time in the factory latrines, bless 'em - to try and escape the work. You had to be very careful. I and some of the other lads used to take little tidbits for the Jews. But you couldn't let anyone see you giving them, so I had little cubby holes where I'd hide it and then I'd let them know where they could find it. I remember once giving one of them sock and he came the next morning and I said, 'Where are the socks? You're not wearing them.' And he pointed to his mouth and he'd given them away for food. It was pathetic... terrible. It was a common occurrence to see Jews dropping down dead - it's because they were seen as expendable.

        "One night we were in the camp after work and there was no air raids at that time - and everything was lit up. It was about 10 o'clock and suddenly we heard children laughing and crying! We all got up and went to the wire and we saw these children - little kids marching along this road laughing and crying with their mothers, I think. The day after, the Kapo in the factory told me that he'd passed them and they had all gone to the gas chambers. [Crying]

        "In the factory I met up with this Polish fella - a partisan who arranged an escape. He wanted five me and he asked me if I was interested and I said yes. They buried me in little ceramic filters in a big bin and they picked me up in the early hours of the morning - me and four other British men. We got out. And we worked with them for about a week. We'd go back to the factory to blow up things. They did all the blowing up, like, and we used to have to carry the gear. When we'd done, we'd go back into the hills and hide. It had got to us that much - that at that point we didn't care whether we lived or died.

        "But after a week, we got a bit tired of this - a bit fed up. We saw this chappy who was in charge, we told him we wanted to be off and could he give us some information about the best way to go so that we could get off and tell somebody about what was going on. So he drew us a map - but he said he had one more job he wanted us to do, and that night when we went down there to do this job, the SS started firing at us and we scattered. We got lost - two lads got shot, but the rest of us, we escaped and got into Czechoslovakia.

        "We were travelling by night and eating mangel-wurzels and rotten potatoes - we were in an awful mess. Then this local policeman caught us and took us to this little village, to a sort of little club room and he kept us there for about a fortnight. He fed us well - we had porridge - and then the Wehrmacht came for us and questioned us and we actually got away with it pretty lightly. At the camp, the SS tried to get the names of these partisans off us, but we didn't expose anything and we just started back working again. I couldn't understand why they didn't punish us. I don't think they knew that we'd been involved in the sabotage.

        "In the factory where I was doing the iron bending, we'd put stones in the pipes to block them up - sabotage, like. And one day the engineers came up with these water pumps to pump water through these pipes to test everything and we were frightened to death because they'd shoot you for sabotage. And as they were going to start this up, the air raid started. There was only one bomb in that factory and it was on the building where these tests were going to be made! So if you're a non-believer, love, you want to start believing.

        "At the end, the Germans took us on a march into Germany - the death march. When we started off walking, for the first two days we were passing by the bodies of dead Jews. It took us from the first week in January to nearly the end of April when we were liberated.

        "I've had nightmare about Auschwitz for 50 years - and it's not just me. Talk to any of the POWs who were there and they'd tell you the same. If they didn't, they'd be very hard people. There's this young chap who's also from Northwich - he was at Auschwitz but he ended up going to a mental home. Now he's in a bedsitter on his own - but you couldn't talk to him about what happened to him because he's gone... gone too far, you see. I could have gone the same way. When I used to meet him, we'd talk about it - but we'd never tell anyone else, because they wouldn't believe it. It was ridiculous, really.

        After the war, Mr Dodd worked as a plant operator on the River Weaver. He is now retired.

 

        RICHARD RIDGERS joined the East Surry Regiment in June 1940 at the age of 18. He went up to North Africa in November 1942. He was captured four months later.

        "We went from Italy to Germany by train - in cattle trucks. There was just a little slit in the side of the truck with barbed wire. There were no facilities. We weren't told where we were going but we knew we were going eastwards. People had diarrhoea and everything. The chaps had to put their excreta into cups and threw it out of the little window. They opened up the doors once a day and gave us coffee and some thin, watery soup. When we arrived I got out and I wondered where the hell I was because apart from the swarms of SS troops, there were a lot of people in blue and white striped clothes... the SS were shouting at them, hitting them and bullying them.

        "They marched us to a POW camp. The word soon got around that the people we had seen in blue and white were Jews. Some of the Jews were trying to speak to us - some of them could speak English. Even then, Auschwitz didn't mean anything and we didn't know anything about the gassing and so on. There was one thing that really struck me - that was the terrible smell - it was the smell from the crematorium. I didn't know what it was at first but I can still remember it... so ghastly.

        "Eventually we were taken into the factory to work, and of course we were working among various people from the concentration camp. We found out from the Jews what was going on - that they were being taken to slaughter. Some were clobbered to death in the factory as well, and a lot just died of starvation. Our food was bad enough, but theirs was a darn sight worse. The first camp they took us to was brand new and very nice but afterwards we went to this one which was right by the factory. My job at the factory was to take oxy-acetylene cylinders to various places in the camp. So I was in a fairly good position to see what was going on.

        "I remember one morning in particular, I was in this workshop and there was an SS man - a sort of sergeant major - he came in on this bitterly cold morning and I was with my squad waiting for the orders to see where the cylinders had to go. A few Jews were in there - they were shivering away in their striped clothes and this SS man went up to them and started bashing them with his fists. He knocked one of them over and this poor creature came flying into me. I saw red at that particular moment and I went up to this German SS officer and I put my fist in his face and I said: 'You dirty German square-headed bastard.' I saw him put his hand to his revolver and then the rest of our squad surrounded him and we were literally going to kill him. He saw this and he saw how ready we were so he used his discretion and he left his revolver where it was. So I got away with that. And afterwards he always made a point of saying to me: 'Guten morgen.' [Laughs] It could have been very dicey.

        "I never realised what a lot of evil there is in the world. Coming from the innocence of a village, especially at an impressionable age, it made me think very, very seriously about what people suffer and what men make other men suffer. And of course it wasn't just men - it was women and children too.

        "The Jews were in a pitiful condition. The ones I felt most sorry for were the young lads in their teens. When they first arrived, these young lads, they seemed to think it was quite funny to be dressed up in these stripey pyjamas - like it was a bit of fun. They used to laugh at themselves at first, but you saw them getting thinner and thinner - wasting away... We never really talked about it much in the POW camp after work. I think at the end of work we wanted to try and forget it - not that I'm an escapist, but what was there to say?

        "I fell in love with a Russian girl - her name was Zena, and she'd been brought by the Germans to work in one of the factory offices. She wasn't treated too badly. I was very deeply in love, and so was she. It was difficult getting to see her sometimes, but I'd write her notes or whatever. I was going to go to Russia to marry her after the war, but she was killed by accident by Russian troops.

        "I was liberated in Bavaria, after marching for months with the Germans. One day, we woke up and the Germans had disappeared. I remember walking down the road, me and two others. We had no food and we were very hungry so we walked into a house and we said to the Hausfrau, 'Essen [food', and she brought out these pancakes for us. She had to do it because we were the victors now. Anyway, I decided to have a little wander through this house and I found this old German policeman sitting in one of the bedrooms and I saw he had a very nice pair of boots on. And mine were in a terrible state so I took his boots and gave him mine. And I remember saying to him, with some satisfaction, what the German officer had said to me when I was caught. 'For you, this war is over,' I said. I enjoyed that.

        "When I came back to England it was very strange, like coming back to a foreign country. I did tell people - but I found that the average person you speak to about these things, they can't really understand it or they're not particularly interested. It's finding people who want to hear that's been a problem. I've never wanted to get it out of my system - it's still part of my system now. After the war I didn't work for quite a while - I went to a rehabilitation centre. They were trying to get us back to civilian life... they were trying to think of the future rather than the past and trying to get us to think of the Britain we were coming back to, and the various opportunities. The opportunities weren't really what they said they would be, but a lot of things are like that, aren't they? I wanted to go back to Poland. I still do. I want to - what's the right way to put this? - I want to see a place that has been so bestial, now at a different time in my life when the death has gone... I expect I'll get round to it one day."

        After the war, Mr Ridgers worked as a security guard. He is now retired.