What’s in a name? My last name would indicate that I would be someone from a small stature, however with my 1.90 m (6ft23) I could not be considered small by any stretch of the imagination. The same can be said about Charles Coward one of WW2 biggest heroes despite his name.
Charles Coward, nicknamed the “Count of Auschwitz,” was held as a British POW but, since he had escaped so many other POW camps, he was sent to Auschwitz III, a POW camp near Auschwitz II in Birkenau.
Once, during an escape, he blended in with German wounded and was accidentally awarded the Iron Cross by Nazi officers. In the Auschwitz POW camp, he met a British doctor who would visit the camp from the Jewish side. One day he switched clothes with the doctor and spent a day in the Auschwitz death camp witnessing the horrors only a few meters away.
Coward joined the Army in June 1937 and was captured in May 1940 near Calais while serving with the 8th Reserve Regimental Royal Artillery as Quartermaster Battery Sergeant Major. He managed to make two escape attempts before even reaching a prisoner of war camp, then made seven further escapes; on one memorable occasion managing to be awarded the Iron Cross while posing as a wounded soldier in a German Army field hospital.
When in captivity he was equally troublesome to his captors, organizing numerous acts of sabotage while out on work details.
Finally in December 1943, he was transferred to the Auschwitz III (Monowitz) labour camp (Arbeitslager), situated only five miles from the better-known extermination camp of Auschwitz II (Birkenau).
Monowitz was under the directionof the industrial company IG Farben, who were building a Buna (synthetic rubber) and liquid fuel plant there.IG Farben also manufactured Zyklon B
It housed over 10,000 Jewish slave labourers, as well as POWs and forced labourers from all over occupied Europe. Coward and other British POWs were housed in sub-camp E715, administered by Stalag VIII-B.
Thanks to his command of the German language, Coward was appointed Red Cross liaison officer for the 1,200-1,400 British prisoners.
In this trusted role he was allowed to move fairly freely throughout the camp and often to surrounding towns.He witnessed the arrival of trainloads of Jews to the extermination camp. Coward and other British prisoners smuggled food and other items to the Jewish inmates. He also exchanged coded messages with the British authorities via letters to a fictitious Mr. William Orange (Code for the War Office), giving military information, notes on the conditions of POWs and the other prisoners in the camps, as well as dates and numbers of the arrival of trainloads of Jews.
On one occasion a note was smuggled to him from a Jewish-British ship’s doctor, who was being held in Monowitz. Coward determined to contact him directly; managed to swap clothes with an inmate on a work detail and spent the night in the Jewish camp, seeing at first hand the horrific conditions in which these were held. He failed to find the individual, later found to be Karel Sperber. This experience formed the basis of his subsequent testimony in post-war legal proceedings.
Determined to do something about it, Coward used Red Cross supplies, particularly chocolate, to “buy” from the SS guards corpses of dead prisoners, including Belgian and French civilian forced labourers. Coward then directed healthy Jewish prisoners to join the nightly marches of Jews considered unfit for further work from Monowitz to the Birkenau gas chambers.During the course of the march the healthy men dropped out of procession to hide in ditches; Coward scattered the corpses he had purchased on the road to give the impression that they were members of the column who had died on the march.He then gave the documents and clothes taken from the non-Jewish corpses to the Jewish escapees, who adopted these new identities and were then smuggled out of the camp altogether. Coward carried out this scheme on numerous occasions and is estimated to have saved at least 400 Jewish slave labourers, even though this wasn’t officially verified.
In December 1944 Coward was sent back to the main camp of Stalag VIII-B at Lamsdorf (now Łambinowice, Poland) and in January 1945, the POWs were marched under guard to Bavaria, where they were eventually liberated.
After the war, Coward testified at the Nuremberg war crimes trials, describing the conditions inside the Monowitz camp, the treatment of Allied POWs and Jewish prisoners, and the locations of the gas chambers.
In 1953, Coward also appeared as a witness in the “Wollheim Suit”, when former slave labourer Norbert Wollheim sued I.G. Farben for his salary and compensation for damages.
In January 1955, he joined the Old Comrades No. 4077 of UGLE.
He was the subject of This Is Your Life in 1960 when he was surprised by Eamonn Andrews at the BBC Television Theatre.
In 1954 John Castle’s book, The Password is Courage, describing Coward’s wartime activities, was published. It has been through ten editions since, and remains in print. On the back cover of the current edition he is billed as “The Man who Broke into Auschwitz”, (which is also the title of Denis Avey’s book). This was adapted into a 1962 film also titled The Password Is Courage starring Dirk Bogarde. The film was lighthearted compared to the book and made only passing reference to Coward’s time at Auschwitz; it concentrated instead on his numerous escapes and added a fictitious romantic liaison.
In 1963 Coward was named among the Righteous among the Nations and had a tree planted in his honour in the Avenue of Righteous Gentiles in Yad Vashem. In 2003 Coward was further commemorated with the mounting of a blue plaque at his home at 133 Chichester Road, Edmonton, London, where he lived from 1945 until his death. The North Middlesex Hospital has a ward named “Charles Coward” in his honour.
In 2010, Coward was posthumously named a British Hero of the Holocaust by the British Government.
This move was seen as a reaction to comments made by Shimon Peres, the Israeli President, who commended Mr Coward’s actions in the House of Commons on 19 November 2008.
His own father, Yitzak Persky, was also a prisoner of war who saved Jews from the gas chambers, and met Mr Coward, reportedly describing him as a “most impressive character”
En route, a New Zealand soldier died from hypothermia and starvation. “Coward took his dogtag and documentation off him and replaced my identity with his,” Persky reported. He used this identity for the rest of the war.
After Charles Cowards’s death there have been conflicting reports in relation to how many people has helped to escape.When Coward himself was questioned by Yad Vashem researchers in 1962 he offered few details about their identities or fates saying “It is not known exactly how many of these people regained their freedom, because some people went different ways and to different countries.” He added: “And naturally no records were kept of them because once they arrived in their new country, special papers were given to them and perhaps different names, etc.” The revisionist position is that Coward may have saved a few Jews, but certainly not hundreds, but does that make him less of a Hero? In my opinion it doesn’t.