As the world prepares to mark the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz on Tuesday, World War II Welsh veteran Ron Jones tells Abbie Wightwick of his remarkable tale of how he was held prisoner in the shadow of the gas chambers – and why the world must never, ever forget
Sifting through a 1940s chocolate box Ron Jones gently lifts a pile of love letters stored there. They are letters he wrote to his wife Gwladys from Auschwitz. Written on paper so thin you can almost see through it the words are testament to the power of love which kept one man going through the darkest days of World War II.
Captured in Libya in 1942 Ron was transported to Auschwitz and put to work alongside Jewish slave labourers at IG Farben’s infamous chemical factory. Seventy years on the 97-year-old retired dock worker from Bassaleg, Newport, will mark Tuesday’s 70th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camp later this month remembering all those murdered there, including those he knew.
The atrocities of Auschwitz must not be forgotten, the retired dockworker says as he holds a ring given to him by a prisoner who never made it home. “We should not forget all this. It was a terrible thing and terrible how they treated the Jews. We know about it now but we did not know about it when we were sent there.”
As a 23-year-old lance corporal in the 1st Battalion Welch Regiment, Ron was captured in Bengazi in the third week of January 1942. It would be five years before he saw his wife or home again. Along with other prisoners, the young Welsh soldier was shipped back to Nazi-occupied Italy where he volunteered to leave for Auschwitz, a place he’d never heard of, after being told he was going to work in a motor factory.
Enduring a nightmare four-day journey packed in a train truck with 40 other PoWs Ron arrived at Auschwitz to be struck by a sickly smell and prisoners shuffling in pyjamas. The smell was the smoke of burning bodies from the gas chambers, something the young soldier could not bring himself to believe for weeks.
“It was terrible how they treated the Jews. They kicked them around and killed them. I saw two Jews shot in front of me. I was told ‘they are only Jews’.” The British PoWs were held in E715, close to Auschwitz III, Monowitz, which held mainly Polish resistance fighters, political dissidents, homosexuals and captured Soviet troops.
Monowitz was not officially a death camp, though killings happened, but it was not long before Ron was aware of the industrial killing in Auschwitz II, Birkenau. Taken by guards to play football on fields beside Birkenau, the men saw “walking skeletons” at work and smoke from crematoria. As PoWs they received occasional Red Cross food parcels and could write letters home but witnessing killings and cruelty it was hard to stay sane, and fear was ever present.
“The kapos [guards] knocked the Jews around as they worked. It’s hard to describe. Sometimes you can’t make people believe how they treated Jews. But it happened. “When we started work the Poles told us they were gassing people and burning them. “I remember I said ‘don’t be daft’. It took us three or four weeks to realise it was true. “We had no idea what Auschwitz was. We didn’t know.”
Existing on one loaf of bread between 20 people a day, a slice of sausage or piece of cheese and ersatz coffee made from roasted acorns, the Pows would not have survived without Red Cross food parcels, Ron believes. Put to work in a factory making synthetic petrol he tried to sabotage his work, but learned to keep a low profile after a fellow PoW was shot.
“There were big iron cylinders 70ft high and they put the petrol in the top. I used to go up and put sand in it. “One day when the German employee in charge sent us up the towers my mate Reynolds, another PoW, argued he would get hurt and refused to go up, so they sent a guard.
“The guard pulled his gun out and pointed it at Reynolds. He shot him and then turned the gun on me. Well, I couldn’t get up that cylinder fast enough. “I was terribly upset and frightened. They sent for the Red Cross after that but don’t forget it was war. You had to just get on with it.”
One day Ron gave a piece of sausage from a Red Cross parcel to a starving Jewish worker in the factory. In return the man, who he knew only as “Josef” handed him a ring he had made from steel pipe. When Josef vanished a month later Ron was told he’d been sent to the gas chambers.
Twisting the ring, which he still wears today in Josef’s memory, Ron says he tried to find his family to hand it to, but without a surname it proved impossible. Although many were brutal, a few guards – often old World War I veterans – didn’t bother the PoWs. “If you got some guards on their own they’d call Hitler all the things under the sun. They were scared to death of the Gestapo.
“As PoWs we were treated better than the Jews but we had malnutrition and our teeth were always going loose. One day they took three or four of us to Kadrici to a dentist. The guard took us to his house and gave us a meal.”
Another privilege was playing football. “We made a rag ball and someone bribed the guards with fags, to let us use the field between our camp and the Jews’ camp to play football. “I was the goalkeeper. It was exciting for us to get out. There were guards with rifles but they didn’t really bother us.”
Dividing themselves into nation teams of England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Ron was goalie for Wales, carefully making a badge from old socks, a badge he keeps carefully in the chocolate box with his letters. On January 27, 1945, with the Russian army closing in, guards ordered the PoWs to march out. Thin and exhausted, the men headed off through deep snow as temperatures dipped to -20C.
For 17 weeks they trudged over the Carpathian Mountains through Czechoslovakia to Austria, eating whatever they could find. Not all of them made it. Of the 280 PoWs who started the march, only 150 survived. “We ate whatever animals had left in barns. In one barn we ate two raw chickens. If you knew what starvation is you’d get a shock. Raw chicken doesn’t taste bad when you’re starving.”
A healthy 13st at the start of the war by the end of the march Ron was 7st. “That march really did for us. We got frost bite and starved and some died. “By the time we started the march they had been releasing Jews and we saw dozens lying dead on the road.” Eventually liberated by the Allies Ron was sent home to Wales, wearing rags on his feet, too traumatised to talk about what he’d been through.
“I was in a hell of a state when I got home. I had nightmares for years and was covered in boils, but my wife was a wonderful woman. The doctor told her to give me six small meals a day. I had boils for 18 months. I couldn’t sit still. “I was jumpy, eventually Gwladys suggested I did embroidery to keep my hands busy.”
Like many others coming back Ron didn’t want to speak about what he’d been through, but says it helped when he and Gwladys had a son, Leighton, in 1946 and also when he was able to return to the career he’d had before the war as a wire drawer at Cardiff Docks.
“After the war it was too bad to mention. It never entered our heads to talk about it. It was too bad to remember. And we were ashamed because we had been PoWs.” It was not until 1993 after Steven Spielberg’s film about the Holocaust, Schindler’s List, came out that Ron began to talk about the war.
Since then he has returned to Auschwitz with a BBC television film crew, written a book about his experiences and shed tears at the atrocities he saw. “When I went back to the camp with the television I could still see those poor Jews. One day I saw four or five Jews hanging from a post. They had been killed by the Germans. I could never understand the hate.”
As a grandfather and father Ron says he wants future generations to know what happened. “I did not suffer from it in the long term but some people never came back,” he says staring down at Josef’s ring. “We must not ever forget this terrible thing.”
By Abbie Wightwick