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Oral History with Ron Jones

Ron Jones describes his experience as a POW in Auschwitz.
US Holocaust Memorial Museum

During World War II, many prisoners of war (POWs) in German captivity were held in German-run camps throughout Nazi Germany and the territories occupied by German forces. While some camps were designated for captured soldiers, others also held political prisoners, forced laborers, and Jews. Made up of many nationalities, these camp populations often lived in close quarters with one another in large camp complexes. POWs, forced laborers, and concentration camp prisoners lived in separate barracks with different guards under the authority of various German institutions—but they sometimes performed forced labor at the same work sites.1

The featured oral history, recorded with British veteran Ron Jones, recounts his growing awareness of the brutal treatment directed at Jewish prisoners in the camp system. Jones was drafted into a Welsh Regiment of the British Army and sent to fight in North Africa in 1940. He was taken prisoner by German forces in Libya in January 1942 and transferred to POW camps in Italy and Germany before arriving in German-occupied Poland. In September 1943, he was among 280 British POWs taken to a POW camp next to the Auschwitz concentration camp complex. They were transferred there in order to work at the I.G. Farben factory, which was located within the camp complex.2

In his oral history, Jones describes arriving at the camp and seeing Jewish prisoners conducting manual labor outside in the cold wearing only a striped uniform.3 He contrasts their living conditions with his own, housed next to Auschwitz III (Monowitz) with other British POWs in a camp with full facilities, including showers, toilets, and a place to cook. As a British POW, he received food aid packages and was treated relatively well by the guards. His status as a POW did not entirely shield him from violence—for example, he witnessed a German guard shoot a British POW during a dangerous work assignment.4

Soon after his arrival, Jones learned about the brutal treatment of Jews and other prisoners in the Auschwitz camp complex, including the killing center in Auschwitz II-Birkenau. A Jewish prisoner he knew disappeared, and Jones began to notice a smell coming from the crematoria in the camp. As a white, British soldier, Jones was not a target of Nazi racial persecution,5 but the extreme violence and mass murder of the camp complex weighed on him.  

As a British POW in Auschwitz, Jones was one of very few citizens from an Allied country to become a firsthand witness to Nazi Germany’s mass murder of European Jews. How did Jones understand the difference between the treatment he experienced at Auschwitz and the killings of other prisoners in the camp? How did he and other British POWs react to the murder of Jews and other prisoners by German guards?

Russell Wallis, British POWs and the Holocaust: Witnessing the Nazi Atrocities (London: I. B. Tauris & Company, Limited, 2017), 1-2. IG Farben is a large German industrial firm that produced many different chemicals and drugs during the war, including Zyklon-B, the poison used to gas Jews and others in Nazi-administered killing centers. After the war, several company employees were tried and convicted of war crimes by the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg in 1947. For more on I.G. Farben, German industry, and complicity in the Holocaust, see Peter Hayes, Industry and Ideology: I.G. Farben in the Nazi Era (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987). 

While Auschwitz is the most notorious Nazi killing center, the camp also hosted factories where thousands of Jewish and non-Jewish prisoners worked as forced laborers, including POWs, who lived in barracks near the entrance. There were approximately 1,200 British POWs working in Auschwitz III (The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos, 1933–1945, Vol. IV (forthcoming). As many as 11,000 prisoners, 90 percent of them Jews, lived in the camp. In Monowitz, Jewish prisoners survived for three to four months on average. See The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos, Vol. I: Early Camps, Youth Camps, and Concentration Camps and Subcamps under the SS-Business Administration Main Office (Bloomington: Indiana University Press in association with USHMM, 2009), 215–219. For more on forced labor during the war, see the related collection in Experiencing History, Experiences of Forced Labor in Wartime Europe. 

For more on camp uniforms, see the related item in Experiencing History, Camp Prisoner Uniform Jacket Worn by William Luksenburg.

Russell Wallis, British POWs and the Holocaust, 143–146.

German authorities murdered POWs from the Soviet Union upon capture, or intentionally starved to death them in camps. POWs from Western Allied nations were treated more humanely. More than three million Soviet POWs are estimated to have died in German custody during the war. For more on the treatment of POWs among the various belligerent nations in World War II, see S.P. MacKenzie, "The Treatment of Prisoners of War in World War II," The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 66 (Sept. 1994), 487–520.

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[....] eventually, they picked out 280 of us and sent us out to work at IG Farben chemical industry. That’s all we knew. 

Q: And, the British were effectively organizing themselves at Stalag VIIIB? 

RJ: Yeah, yeah, yeah. 

Q: So… 

RJ: The guards didn’t interfere with us they effectively just patrolled the grounds.
Q: So how did you go from Stalag VIIIB to… 

RJ: They took us on an ordinary civilian train, err, and (phone rings) we were on the train for several hours and then we pulled up in the station and we marched down to our camp. On the way down, we saw all this high barbed wire and men in pyjamas digging trenches. Now, don’t forget this is October and it’s pretty cold in Poland in October so I said to one of the guards, “Who are they?” And he said, “Juden!” I said, “Pardon?” And he said, just how I’ll say it, “Jews!” Like as though we should have known. It took us a couple of days to realize that it was Auschwitz. We didn’t know what Auschwitz was in those days but it didn’t take us long to find out what was going on. We went down to the works and found out. The first thing we noticed was a terrible smell and the Jews in the works told us it was the crematorium. We didn’t know what they were talking about to start with but after a while we realized what was going on. 

Q: When you got to Auschwitz, your first POW camp there: E711. 

RJ: Yes, yes, they took us into a camp called E711. It was pretty primitive. The toilets, for instance, were just a hole in the floor over a cesspool and we were there for two to three weeks and then they sent us over to E715 which I presume was a, a camp built for the Hitler Youth. There, of course, the facilities were totally different, we even had showers and flushed toilets and a place where you could do a bit of cooking. 

Q: And the actual location of your first camp, E711, compared to Monowitz. Whereabouts would you say?

RJ: I think. We didn’t march there. We just sort of strolled over to the new place so I should imagine that it was attached to it but I am not quite certain of that. 

Q: But within the compound of Auschwitz itself (Ron: yeah), within the actual wired facility (Ron: yeah) that was Auschwitz (Ron: yeah)? 

RJ: I would think we were about two to two and a half kilometers from Birkenau which was the death camp.

Q: And whereabouts was E715 Auschwitz? 

RJ: It used to take us about 10 minutes, quarter of an hour to march there so it must have been quite close to IG Farben. 

Q: And, what was the average day like for yourselves? In terms of… 

RJ: We got up at half past five with a cup of Ersatz coffee, burnt acorns as they called it. (Laughs) Er, that’s all we had then, then we, oh, they used to give us a piece of bread, with, we used to have cut up a loaf of bread which we would cut up between eighteen of us, just one thick slice. And then we used to get, what they called a piece of cheese, it was like a round, err, how could you call a round pasty of cheese? You could see fish scales in it and it stunk like all the heaven. But when you’re hungry then, believe me, you’ll eat anything. Err, and then we had sometimes a bit of, sometimes, a bit of jam to go on your bread. That was the rations you had then you marched to work, you got into, marched about six o’clock, then you got into works about ten to quarter past six and then they used to hand us over to the civilians. There were nine of us in a little gang and they they, they handed us over to a fellow called Master Beaver. He was a a a German civilian. In fairness, he was pretty fair to us. He’d say like, I want this, we were, we were constructing, err, I worked on a place, there was synthetic petrol, when I got there it was only just being built. They had, what they called, the Germans called “kramers”2 – it was like, erm, an iron pipe about sixty feet high. There were three of them there and they were full of clay filters and the petrol used to go in through the top and down through the filters but we used to move err machinery and rails and, fair play for Beaver, he used to say “Get this done, get that done and you can go back to the camp.” So, occasionally, instead of going back to the camp at six o’clock, we went back at three o’clock in the afternoon. When we had completed what he wanted us to do. 

Q: And what did you actually witness when you were at IG Farben when you were working in there with the slave laborers around you? How were they treated and what did you witness when you were there?

RJ: Well, we saw, all these Jews working there and they used to be digging trenches and laying cables and all what we would used to call the menial tasks. You know. Err, to give you an idea, one of them, I had some, we had some food parcels in, so we didn’t eat the German rations so I had a piece of sausage and I took it down to the works one day and I gave it to one of these Jews and he said his name was Josef, a couple of days after he gave me that ring3, he said he made it out of a steel pipe. I stuck it on my finger and there it’s been ever since. About a week after that, he disappeared, so I said to one of his mates, “Where’s Josef this morning?” and he said “Oh, gas chamber. Kaput.” That’s just what he said. The life of the Jews in the camp, they were in such a state, they were shambling about, bent up, couldn’t stand up straight and there lives at the works was about a month and when they couldn’t work they stuck them in a trolley (interrupts himself to correct) in a lorry and took them to the death camp to the gas chamber. So the fellow who made that ring for me went to the gas chamber. 

Q: Did you see any high ranking SS officials? 

RJ: Er, yes, we used to watch Kramer, I presume it was Kramer, someone said his name was Kramer. He’d been walking around the works with a gang around him. Fortunately, unfortunately, if a Jew got in his way then he’s just kick them out of his way and twice I’d saw him actually take his Luger out and shoot two of them. Different times. I’d actually seen him shoot a couple of Jews. [00:20:00] 

Q: When you saw that, what was your reaction?

RJ: Oh, crikey. Disgusted. It, it, it, if it had been in civilian life we would have mobbed him but what can you do against Germans that were armed? We, we, cat called, we shouted but he didn’t take any notice of us. 

Q: How were you treated? How were the British POWs treated? 

RJ: In fairness, the Jews (corrects himself) the Germans treated us alright. We never had really any problems. There was only one incident. These iron cylinders, the Germans used to call them “kramers.”4 One day me and Reynolds, err, Corporal Reynolds, was err, asked to go up and change over the pipes at the top because they occasionally flushed them, clean them out but Reynolds not able to speak enough German tried to explain that he did not have enough clothes or the right clothes. He said he was a bit hairy of heights, that he’d fall off, he kept on arguing and old Beever then sent for a guard. Unfortunately, it was, err, I don’t know his name but he was an Under Officer,5 like a Sergeant to us, three stripes. An argument, and he astonished me, he pulled his Luger out and he threatened Reynolds and Reynolds says I can’t go up there and he shoot him. You should have seen me go up there. I went up there like a monkey.

Q: What was your reaction when, when you saw? 

RJ: Oh, terrible. We all got together. A crowd of us got together and remonstrated but when we got to camp that night that Under Officer had disappeared. When we enquired what had happened to him because we wanted the Red Cross to come there they said they’d sent him to the Russian Front. 

Q: So you said that you wanted the Red Cross to investigate the shooting? 

RJ: We wanted the Red Cross to investigate it because, let’s be fair, the Germans weren’t like that, they didn’t, they didn’t treat us bad at all.

Q: Because they treated the Jews badly. 

RJ: (Jones does not hear and continues interview and ends reference to the Reynolds shooting by saying: That was just a one off). 

[DL] In terms of an actual war crime against the British POWs, as far as you’re aware, that was the only war crime which took place? 

RJ: That was the only war crime which I spied myself. 

Q: Okay. What was your initial impressions during your first few weeks at Auschwitz?

RJ: We couldn’t get over this smell and, and, and they were burning fellows, they were burning the Jews. It was astonishing. We just couldn’t believe it but, eventually, we knew it was right. That’s what was happening. It shook us rigid. We just didn’t know. We just couldn’t understand it. 

Q: In terms of the crematoria, how did you know, what?

RJ: Occasionally, we would see smoke coming up and we’d say to ourselves that’s some more poor buggers burnt to death again. 

Q: Were you scared of the crematoria? 

RJ: Of course we were. We thought if ever they got desperate then they’d put us in there. 

Q: So that was a very genuine concern? 

RJ: That was a genuine scare. Yeah. 

Q: Even though the Geneva Convention supposedly… 

RJ: Even though, there was always that danger. 

Q: Okay. How did the British POWs cope, how did you cope, knowing that the gas chambers were, were on site and what was happening to the Jews.

RJ: Well, well, we just carried on working and I, I just can’t remember. We were alright. Prisoner of war life wasn’t all that bad. [….]

Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
US Holocaust Memorial Museum
RG Number RG-50.030.0709
Accession Number 2012.448.1
Date of Interview
July 9, 2012
Duration 00:12:02
Time Selection 12:03–24:05
Interviewee
Ron Jones
Language(s)
English
Location
Wales, United Kingdom
Reference Location
Auschwitz, Poland
Interview Type Oral History
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