Son of POW on quest to find 'lost rings of Auschwitz'
When former British POW James Archer passed away in 1969, among his possessions was a mysterious, beautifully crafted and engraved ring.
The war-time memento was one of a set of six rings made by a Jewish engraver, a prisoner in Auschwitz, for Archer and five Polish men he worked with as slave labourers.
The rings were fashioned from a piece of stainless steel they had stolen as an act of sabotage and resistance working at Hitler’s huge I.G. Farben chemical works.
Archer’s son Jim Archer, a former engineer in the Royal Navy, has worn the ring on his right hand almost every day since his father’s death.
Now, at the age of 74, he is desperate to find out what happened to the other rings and the men who owned them. He is appealing to anyone in Poland who might know something about them.
The Auschwitz rings shine a light on the lesser-known story of British prisoners and their camp known by the alphanumeric E715, one of the strangest in the whole of Germany's vast complex of camps in the town they called Auschwitz.
Archer was a soldier in the Green Howards when he was captured fighting the Germans in Libya in 1942.
After being imprisoned in Stalag VIII-B in Lamsdorf, now Łambinowice in Silesia, in the spring of 1944, he and other men from his regiment were transferred to prisoner-of-war camp E715, which was on the perimeter of Auschwitz III Monowitz, the camp that provided labour for the I.G. Farben complex.
The British POWs at the camp worked alongside Jews and Polish prisoners and they were witnesses to the extreme cruelty perpetrated against other prisoners.
They saw prisoners hanging from gallows and could sometimes smell the terrible stench of burning bodies that came from the crematoria just a few kilometres away at Birkenau.
The regime at E715 was not as brutal as it was for other prisoners at Auschwitz as it was operated not by the SS but, like other POW camps, by the Wehrmacht.
British prisoners were allowed to receive food parcels from the Red Cross, so they were able to share food with the other prisoners they worked alongside.
One British prisoner is known to have been shot by German guards for disobedience. However, as many as 40 prisoners died when an American bomb targeting I.G. Farben struck the camp.
Why the Germans allowed the British POWs to get so close to Hitler’s death factory and witness the Holocaust at its height has baffled historians ever since. Other death camps at Treblinka, Sobibór and Bełżec were hidden in forests far from potential witnesses.
Holocaust researcher Michael Challoner told TFN: “By 1944, the Nazis were murdering 10,000 Jews a day. The Nazi administration was in chaos, so something like this could happen. They were also desperate for workers for the chemical plant”.
James Archer was one of them. His son Jim told TFN that his father was probably moved to Auschwitz because his army paybook said that he was a Driver Mechanic. The mechanic part of the job description was a skill that the Germans coveted.
Jim said: “Once at I. G. Farben, he became pals with five tough Polish guys who knew the ropes; two spoke some English, Dad spoke a little German.”
Around late August 1944, the group decided to sabotage a compressor, cutting out a piece of 25 mm stainless pipe, about 8 inches long, from the machine.
“They had met and befriended a Jewish camp inmate who was an engraver/jeweller by profession, who agreed to make the gang six identical rings from the piece of pipe,” Jim said.
“The rings were all identical, but with each man’s initials engraved on the face.
“Dad's ring showed his initials, J. E. A. They all hid the rings as the origins of the metal would have been obvious!”
Archer and the Poles parted ways in January 1945, when Archer and the other prisoners from E715 set out on the Death March towards Germany.
His column was about ten days behind the Jewish concentration camp column, so they saw the terrible sight of people who had been frozen, starved and shot along the road.
“Dad said his march was horrific, nearly forty days I think, but nothing compared to that of the Jewish prisoners.
“One morning he woke up in a barn to find that the German guards had left their post. He and his gang continued to head west, keeping to the roadside, and then the following day they met some Americans, bringing their war to an end,” he said.
Archer returned to Scarborough and married in 1946. He corresponded with two of the Poles who also had the same rings until 1956.
“That was when his letters were returned unopened due to the clampdown following the Hungarian uprising,” he said.
Like many men of his generation, James Archer spoke little about his wartime experiences. However, when Jim was a teenager in Scarborough and went on delivery rounds with his father, who was then a fishmonger in town, he started to learn about his time in Auschwitz.
“I learned a bit then, and later when I was on leave from the Navy, I found out more. Unfortunately, Dad died in 1969 at the age of 48 so I didn’t hear everything,” Jim said.
“He gave me the ring as my 21st birthday gift and asked me to name my son, if I had one, James Edward. Sadly, I have no son so the ring will go to the Green Howards Museum on my passing.”
Little is left in Oświęcim to suggest that camp E715 ever existed and it remains a footnote in the history of Auschwitz.
Challoner, who has carried out extensive research at the site said: “All that exists now are the stumps of the concrete gate posts and a bomb shelter, a water tower and possibly the remains of the latrines.”
Jim is now trying to find out what happened to the other rings and their owners. “I am trying to trace the surviving rings. They might be held, like in my case, by the children of the Polish men.”
Do you know what happened to the rings or their owners? If so get in touch with us: firstname.lastname@example.org