Last year I travelled with the Holocaust Educational Trust to Auschwitz and the
experience had a profound effect. I had been warned it would, but having been a voracious reader of Holocaust memoirs and literature, I thought I was prepared for what I would see. Others have
written more eloquently on this subject. Mark Ferguson, who was on the same trip as me wrote an excellent piece
on Labour List to mark Holocaust Memorial Day. As he says, there is no ‘normal’ way to respond to what you see at Auschwitz.
As we passed the infamous IG Farben chemical works and the site of the British POW camp E715, I was struck by how little we know about this place, even after the success of the bestseller The Man
Who Broke Into Auschwitz, Denis Avey’s memoir of his time in the camp.
More than a thousand British soldiers found themselves at the ‘anus mundi’ and the unwitting witnesses to the Holocaust. Only a tiny handful ever told their story. One of those men, it
turns out was Yitzhak Persky, the father of the Israeli president Shimon Peres, who served as a sapper in the Royal Engineers before being captured in Greece. Astonishingly, his comrades rallied
round to protect his identity and he survived the war to return to Palestine.
The Jewish Chronicle is now running a campaign for all files relating to E715 held by the National Archives and
the Ministry of Defence to be released, including Perksy’s service record. Shadow Defence Secretary Jim Murphy, Labour Friends of Israel chair John Woodcock and former Grenadier Guards
officer Adam Holloway MP have already joined the campaign and Harlow MP Robert Halfon has written to Defence Secretary Philip Hammond to ask for his support.
Academics who have researched Camp E715 have come to the conclusion that the British POWs were profoundly affected by what they saw and did what they could to help the Jewish prisoners they saw and
worked with. There is also evidence that they attempted to alert the War Office to what was happening.
This episode in British history has not been fully explored. I believe a team of researchers should be employed to dig into the archives and interview all the surviving POWs from E715, now in their
nineties, before they die. The UK government should also use this opportunity to pay special tribute to these men, who saw some of the worst atrocities of the war at close quarters and remained a
credit to the nation.
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