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Remembering the ‘sailors of Auschwitz’ on Holocaust Memorial Day

27 January 2020
Seventy-five years ago today Russian troops marched into the small Polish town of Oświęcim – and uncovered crimes unparalleled in history.

January 27 is now marked worldwide as Holocaust Memorial Day and more than two million people pay their respects every year by visiting Auschwitz I – the original concentration camp with the infamous Arbeit Macht Frei (‘work sets you free’) sign over the main gate – and nearby extermination camp of Auschwitz II, whose railway tracks and gate have been the iconic symbol of the genocide.

Almost unknown is the story of the sailors of Auschwitz. At least one Royal Navy sailor was killed in the Nazis’ factory of death, while a seafaring surgeon survived the horrors.

Three miles east of Auschwitz, chemical giant I G Farben built a huge plant producing synthetic rubber, or ‘buna’. Slave labour provided its workforce, housed in the neighbouring camp: Auschwitz III (Buna-Monowitz).

Among the inmates were British prisoners of war – the Nazis argued that as rubber could be used for peaceful purposes, this wasn’t a breach of international law.

Able Seaman Raymond Young was among 213 men captured when destroyer HMS Bedouin was sunk while attempting to protect a convoy to Malta in June 1942.

Bedouin’s survivors were taken prisoner by the Italians and held in camps on the mainland… until they were seized by the Germans when Italy switched sides in September 1943.

They would end up in camps across either Germany or German-occupied Europe; Raymond Young eventually in Monowitz.

Little is known about the junior rating beyond the fact that he hailed from the seaside resort of Skegness where his parents Leonard and Lizzie resided.

Fellow inmates have left accounts of the terrible conditions he endured, however: beatings for the slightest misdemeanour – especially offering any assistance to any Jewish prisoners in the Auschwitz camps, such as donating food from their Red Cross parcels.

Every nationality was done to death and every type of execution was used

Karel Sperber

Soldier Sergeant Arthur Dodd, who was locked up with Raymond Young, said every Briton in the camp did their upmost to disrupt the Nazi war effort and showed contempt towards their masters – it was as if they were still “fighting the war behind enemy lines”.

Dodd was in the same air raid shelter as AB Young on August 20 1944 when the US Air Force bombed the rubber works – but also hit the neighbouring camp.

One of the explosions killed 38 British PoWs, including Raymond Young. He was subsequently buried in a Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery in Kraków where his headstone inscription reads: ‘Resting where no shadows fall.’

Another British sailor known to have been incarcerated at Auschwitz was Karel Sperber, a Czech-born Jewish doctor who fled to the UK from his homeland when the Nazis invaded and volunteered for duties at sea as a surgeon/purser.

The 30-year-old Sperber is listed both as a Royal Navy and Merchant Navy sailor in contemporary sources. And certainly his ship SS Automedon was on official duties when sunk by the German surface raider Atlantis.

Although a prisoner of war, Sperber was eventually delivered to Auschwitz in late 1942 and was forced to work under Josef Mengele, whose hideous medical experiments on Jewish prisoners have gone down in infamy, before being transferred to the camp hospital at Monowitz.

“Every nationality was done to death and every type of execution was used,” he later recalled. “I saw thousands of innocent victims, mostly Jews, done to death by cyanide, hanging, shooting and the knife. I saw dead bodies piled 14ft high.” Auschwitz, he said, was a “hell hole”.

Marked with the number 82,512 – tattooed on his left forearm – Sperber did not enjoy liberation when the Red Army marched into Oświęcim, for able-bodied prisoners were force marched west in the face of the Soviet advance to prevent them falling into enemy hands.

Karel Sperber survived the journey – thousands didn’t, earning the name ‘death marches’ – and was put to work in the infirmary at Buchenwald camp in central Germany. He escaped and was subsequently liberated by American troops in April 1945.

His testimony was subsequently used at the Nuremberg Trials where Nazi criminals finally faced justice


Credit for the Liberation of Birkenau picture: US Holocaust Museum

Credit for the I G Farben works at Monowitz: Bundesarchiv

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