The ‘Count of Auschwitz’

Charles Joseph Coward England 1905 - 1976

Coward by name, but certainly not by nature – Charles Joseph Coward was perhaps the only person who willingly smuggled themselves ­into a German concentration camp. In doing so, he helped save countless Jewish lives, and was later able to testify against those responsible for the inhuman treatment of so many innocent people during the Second World War.

His remarkable tale of bravery begins in May 1940, at the start of the Siege of Calais. Following a vicious German assault on the port, the Allies were driven back, fleeing from France through Dunkirk. Most escaped, but Coward – who was serving with the 8th Reserve Regimental Royal Artillery – was not one of them.

Before he’d even been taken to a prisoner of war (POW) camp, he’d made two escape attempts. He then went on to successfully escape from various camps no less than seven times. On one occasion, he managed to disguise himself as a wounded German soldier at a field hospital, and after doctors had treated his wounds, he was mistakenly awarded an Iron Cross for his service to the German Army. His excellent command of the German language meant it took officials far too long to discover the impostor – when they finally did, he was sent back to his POW camp.

Despite his continued attempts at defection – and the fact that he was well known for instigating acts of sabotage while out on work details – Coward’s excellent language skills meant he was useful to the Germans. He was eventually transferred to Poland’s Auschwitz II (Monowitz) – just five miles from the better-known extermination camp of Auschwitz III (Birkenau) – to serve as Red Cross liaison officer for the 1,200-1,400 British prisoners held there.

His role was designed to help Germany maintain the pretence of honouring the Geneva Convention. The camp, however, was under the direction of industrial company IG Farben which manufactured, among other things, a toxic chemical called Zyklon B, which was eventually used in Jewish death camps as part of Germany’s ‘Final Solution’.

Given the nature of his job, Coward was permitted some measure of free movement about the camp – this allowed him to smuggle food and other items to inmates, as well as pen letters to his ‘friend’ William Orange back in England. Little did the Germans know that William Orange was a code name for war office, and that Coward was keeping Allied forces fully abreast of what was happening in his POW camp.

One day, Coward received a smuggled letter from a British ship’s doctor – also being held in Monowitz – asking for his assistance. Coward wanted to help, but faced a massive obstacle. The doctor, Karel Sperber, was being held in the Jewish side of the camp – a brutal place that housed 10,000 Jews made to work until they eventually succumbed to sickness and starvation.

Unperturbed, Coward managed to exchange clothes with another inmate and smuggled himself into the Jewish section of the camp. Sadly, among the crowds of thousands he was unable to find the doctor that had written to him, but he did see for the first time how horrifically Jews in the camp were being treated, and he vowed to help them.

His plan was unsavoury, but it worked. Coward would give the camp guards chocolate – a precious treat, at the time – in exchange for the corpses of non-Jewish prisoners, removing their clothes and identifying papers in the process. The bodies would then be cremated, and Coward would smuggle the clothes and documents to Jewish escapees – with help from the Polish resistance, they were smuggled out of the camp. Because the number of those who escaped tallied with the number reported dead, camp authorities were none the wiser, and the lives of several hundred Jewish prisoners were saved.

Come January 1945, the Nazi’s grip on the wartime conflict began to loosen, and as Soviet forces advanced deeper into Poland, Coward and other prisoners of war were forced to march away from the camps towards Bavaria in Germany. On the way, they were liberated by Allied forces, and the brutal nightmare was over for Coward, who had proven himself to be anything but his namesake, and who later became known as ‘the Count of Auschwitz’.

He later testified against the directors of Monowitz at the Nuremberg Trails, helping to have several key figures imprisoned for their criminal behaviour. In 1963, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, Yad Vashem, recognised Coward as one of the Righteous Among the Nations and in 2010, 34 years after his death in 1976, he was posthumously named a British Hero of the Holocaust. Writers Ronald Charles Payne and John William Garrod published a captivating novel in 1954 about Coward’s bravery, aptly titled The Password is Courage.

We will remember them

Charles Joseph Coward England 1905 - 1976
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