- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Jack Patterson
- Location of story:
- Auschwitz Concentration Camp, Poland
- Background to story:
- Royal Air Force
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 24 October 2003
Watching Herman Wouk's 'War and Remembrance' and the TV pictures of the POWs captured during our war with Saddam Hussein have motivated me to recall some of my memories of an incarcerated young man with whom I had the opportunity to meet and talk with over a period of almost a year, back in the days of our war with Adolph Hitler.
Franz Irving never had his name mentioned in a newspaper or in a TV newscast, but I just feel that his story needs to be told so that some record of his ordeal in this world will exist. Perhaps writing about my time with Franz will help me feel that I have done something in his memory.
Arrival at Auschwitz
This story begins on a day in late September, 1943, as Buck, Link and I scrambled out of a railway boxcar to find ourselves at a small station called Auschwitz, or Oswiecim if you were Polish. We were members of a group of some 300 British soldiers, most of whom had been taken prisoner at the time of Dunkirk. We were a working party sent out from a large POW camp in Eastern Germany.
Buck was an English fighter pilot who flew an early wartime twin engine Whirlwind aircraft; Link and I were Canadian crew members of a downed RAF Halifax bomber. We were planning to escape and, as our first move, had exchanged identities (unknown to our captors) with some British soldiers who were slated to go out on the working party. I now called myself 'Sammy Crichton', a Scot from the Isle of Bute in the Firth of Clyde.
Little did we know that we had arrived at a place which would become as well known and remembered as any battle in the war. Franz Irving was already a prisoner at Auschwitz, but in very different circumstances to our group. Let me now set the scene of my view of this infamous location.
From the railway station our group marched several miles to a fenced-in compound of barracks, which we could see was on the perimeter of a large industrial area surrounded by a high fence that was being patrolled by German SS soldiers. On the way we passed a large number of barrack-type buildings without any containment fence. About a mile to the south of our compound we could see the guard towers and fence of a large prison camp of some type. We were soon to learn that the large industrial area was an IG Farben chemical complex under construction, designed to utilise the soft coal of this Polish region of Upper Silesia to make lubricating materials and other products supporting the German war effort.
Following arrival at our barracks, we were given a long list of work trades with instructions to indicate our preference. 'Sammy Crichton' chose the trade of blacksmith, believing that, being a former bank clerk, he would not prove to be of too much use in this capacity!
The multinational workforce
Early in the morning our group, attracting considerable attention in our British uniforms from the many civilian workers en route, marched through the gate of the Farben plant. It was then that the true nature of this workplace started to become apparent. A sign on the gate spelled out 'NO SMOKING' in some ten languages. The workers were forced labourers 'recruited' from all the areas occupied by the German military, consisting of 3,000 or more Frenchmen; a large group of Czechs and Slovaks, along with Belgians, Dutch and Ukrainians. The Ukrainians included several thousand women, most of whom were strong, stocky, peasant types who were seen digging trenches and moving heavy materials.
However, the largest contingent of this multinational workforce came from the concentration camp we could see from our barrack compound. Some 6,000 or more obviously undernourished and mostly Jewish men came each day, struggling to keep up in long marching columns escorted by the SS guards and urged on by some of their own comrades wearing armbands, signifying Kapo (or group leader). Franz Irving was among these Haftflingers, as they were called. They were highly visible in their fragile white and blue striped prison garb, with matching beret caps and shaved heads. (Our fellows often referred to them as 'Stripes' or the 'Dead End Kids').
In this large work force there were also many Polish men and women from the surrounding villages and towns, as well as some German civilians (mostly skilled tradesmen such as welders and pipe fitters, engineers and management types). The area of this workplace was about a mile square, with various large and small buildings, mostly in the early stages of construction and connected by overhead steam and gas pipes.
'Sammy' becomes a blacksmith
'Sammy Crichton' soon found himself working in a small blacksmith shop as a helper to a short stocky Czech blacksmith called Jan, from near Prague. Jan had been a blacksmith all his working life, and it did not take him long to decide that the newest addition to his helpers knew very little about heating and hammering metal! Several Frenchmen and Poles were also in this shop, and Jan allowed me to put my time in almost as I wished.
As I found my way around the work area, I found that it was possible to move about without too much danger of being challenged. I also found that the British uniform carried a certain amount of respect from civilians and the German army guards. Shortly after the first of two Christmases at this location, over half of my group, including my comrades Link and Buck, were moved to another location in Poland. At this particular location we were receiving regular deliveries of Red Cross food parcels and cigarettes from home, so we did not have to depend on the daily ration of thin turnip soup that was ladled out to Haftflingers such as Franz Irving (who I would soon come to know very well).
In the spring of 1944, Auschwitz and the surrounding industrial area became almost a daily target for US heavy bombers based in Italy. Bombs fell only seven times on the Farben camp, but on the first bombing 18 of my English comrades were killed when several bombs fell on our compound one Sunday at noon. The air-raid siren would sound just before noon almost every day until late in the autumn, although on most occasions the bombers would fly on to other targets.
It was fairly early after the air-raid alarms became part of our daily life that, while taking shelter among the support pillars of one of the largest IG Farben structures, I came into contact with Franz. He was a tall, very thin Jewish chap wearing the striped prison garb, a matching beret on his shaven head and a prison identification number tattoo on his arm. His group was working nearby in this building and he had been able to move a little way from his guards without being missed. He said 'Hello Englander', and I replied telling him that I was Canadian.
I was pleased to find out that Franz spoke English quite fluently. We didn't have a great deal of time during this first encounter, but it was long enough for me to find out that Franz had been a school teacher in Berlin before the war. Anxious to improve my ability to understand and speak the German language, I suggested that we try and meet at this location as often as possible at noontime. Franz could tutor me in German and, for my part, I would try to bring him some bread and other food that I could do without.
It turned out that this was the first of many times that we were able to meet and talk - sometimes for only a few minutes and at other times for most of the half hour noon break. Franz was a capable teacher and helped me considerably with my German. More importantly, I was able to bring him some bread and biscuits. I had managed to acquire a thermos flask in barter, so I also had hot tea and coffee to share with him. I like to think that perhaps these meetings helped to make his hard struggle to exist a little more bearable.
Franz's story, as he related to me over the period of our meetings, was very sad. However, he said it was in many ways typical to that which thousands of other Jewish men in the camp would tell, if they had the opportunity. There were many more who would never get to tell their story, as they were no longer alive.
Franz said, 'I was so happy in earlier days and still cannot believe what has happened to my family. I was born in Berlin and, after graduating as a teacher from college in the city, I was able to obtain a teaching position at a primary school in the city. I married Juli, a classmate in my secondary school days, and in a few years we had a family of a son and a daughter, who would be nine and seven years old now. My father was a watchmaker and also ran a small jewellery store with the help of my mother. For a time, life was very happy and fulfilling for our family…'
As the world knows now, life changed dramatically after Hitler and the Nazi party gained control of the German nation. The day came when Franz was called into the school principal's office and told that, being Jewish, he could no longer continue teaching. Meanwhile, his father was forced to close his business because of vandalism and lack of customers. Some of his father's business friends had been ordered to join labour battalions and his father also expected soon to get a similar summons.
Franz continued, 'Not too long after I was dismissed as a teacher, two government men came to our flat. I was told that I had to work to help the war effort and was given an order to go with these men and register with a labour unit near Berlin. After registering, I was also told I could come home for a few days, and would have leave to visit my family each month. Although I had some misgivings, I had no choice but to go with these Nazi officials and that night I found myself being herded into a railway boxcar along with about 50 other Jewish men from the Berlin area, some of whom I had known. We were sent to this Auschwitz concentration camp and I have not had any word about my wife and children since I have been here. I have very little hope that they are still alive.'
Franz went on, 'I have little reason to continue to exist in this world. Once you become too weak to work, you are transferred to a special barrack called a hospital. However, in reality this is the first stage of going up in smoke at the nearby crematorium. Many of my fellow prisoners, usually the older men first, have been moved to this hospital and none have returned. Soon I may just give up and let them take me.'
Hopefully, as we continued our talks, I was able in some degree to encourage Franz to continue the struggle.
Fleeing to the west
As Christmas 1944 approached, tension in the area steadily increased with the Russian army reported to be coming closer each day. My meetings with Franz became less frequent. Sometimes Franz would not come and I would think that he had been moved to another job, or was ill; then he would be there the next day. When we did manage to meet, we just talked about our hopes for the future rather than continue with the language lessons, as this seemed rather pointless now.
It was a few days before Christmas that we had our last meeting. I had promised to bring him some extra food and a special surprise for Christmas. However, there were many rumours that the Germans were soon to evacuate the area and, like my English comrades, I was trying to accumulate additional supplies in case of a sudden move. Although we had not been receiving the Red Cross parcels for some time, I did have a few extra biscuits hidden in my bunk.
I guess that, when it finally comes down to our own survival, most of us tend to look after ourselves first. So I held back on my gift to Franz and brought him something less than I might have done. In his desperation Franz admonished me for not being more generous - and rightly so! This will always be in my memory. To Franz and the others in his circumstances, the English soldiers (including this Canadian amongst them) had it all, including a hope of survival and going back to our families. Theirs would most likely not be there if they made it out. At our last meeting, we discussed the possibility of Franz coming into our compound. I would try and locate a spare British uniform and bring it to him at our next meeting. Looking back at all the confusion that developed at that time, I think now that this could have been done. If so, then Franz might have been here now to tell his own story.
During the first week in January 1945, the evacuation of the Auschwitz area began with the sound of Russian artillery not far distant, with some shells even bursting over the Farben plant. German civilians with Volksturm armbands (indicating that they were now members of a people's defence group) were marching to the east to help hold up the advancing Russian army. Our group was marching to the west on the first leg of a long trek in the dead of winter. As we marched into the open country we came upon bodies dressed in the familiar stripe uniform, frozen in the ditches. It's possible that Franz Irving was among them. Although he had given me the address of one of his uncles living in Australia, when I wrote to him after arriving back home in Canada I never received a reply.
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