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World War II: Jewish POW's at Colditz Castle

by Martin Sugarman

The fairy-tale 11th century Colditz Castle, sited on a rocky hilltop overlooking the town on the River Mulde between Leipzig and Dresden in the former East Germany, is notorious for its use as a high security Nazi prisoner of war (POW) camp in World War Two - Oflag IVc.

Allied Officers who had made repeated attempts to escape from other POW camps were housed here by the Germans in the expectation that they would never get out of such an imposing fortress. However, as seventy books and various films have shown, 300 did escape and several made “home runs” back to Allied lines.

The POW population was typically a shifting one but of the thousand or so who were there, it is estimated about 40 were Jewish and it is known that there were about 60 French Jewish political internees as well. Thus, about 100 Jewish prisoners out of 1000 makes a very high percentage compared to our numbers in the general population. Of the military prisoners, approximately one third were French, one-third Polish/Dutch and one-third British/Commonwealth. Only some of the Jewish names are known, especially as many Jewish POW’s used pseudonyms and new identities to protect themselves [1] .

One famous Jewish NCO, however, was cockney Fusilier Solle Sydney Goldman, Royal Northumberland Fusiliers, who was badly treated by the Germans because of his Jewish faith but was sent to Colditz as an orderly for senior officers. He was remembered for his terrific sense of humour despite the ill treatment (although the British Officers tried to protect him) and when he finally became ill, was repatriated to Britain in 1943, but died in 1974 of illness as a result of his experiences in German hands [2]

Anthony “Fish” Karpf was a Polish Jewish Officer born in Rzeszow; he too was ill treated and subjected to a mock execution at Colditz. He eventually escaped and came to live in Britain after the war [3] . The work of Benjamin Miertchak [4] made it possible for the author to cross reference the list of POW’s in Colditz, taken from Chancellor’s book [5] , with Meirtchak’s list of Polish Jewish POW’s and revealed the following names, though this is not definitive as we know many Polish Jewish servicemen hid their  true religious origins from both the Poles and the Germans; 2nd Lt Franciszek Baumgart;  2nd Lt Mieczyslaw Chmiel  ( he made two escape attempts but was later murdered at Buchenwald after the escapes of  September  19th and 20th 1943); Capt. Henryk Fajerman; Lt Jerzy T. Grudzinski (later killed in the Dossel  Oflag “friendly fire” bombing by the RAF in 1943); Capt. Mayer F. Hauptman; Lt Bernard P. Jasinski; 2nd Lt Adam Niedenthal (died 27/9/44); Col Poznanski; 2nd Lt. Benjamin J. Rubinowicz; Lt. Bernard Stajer/Staier; 2nd Lt Jakub/Jerzy Stein (Navy) [6] ; 2nd Lt. Henryk Stiller; Lt Col. Henryk E. Szubert.  It also appears that two Polish Jewish civilians were interned at Colditz – Pinkus Kurnedz and Jack Aizenberg [7] .

When the French Gentile Officers tried to ostracise their fellow French Jewish comrades in their barrack, British officer Airey Neave ( a “home runner” and later a Conservative Minister in the Thatcher government) and many of his Commonwealth comrades, expressed their outrage and total solidarity with the Jewish officers  and the row died down – though it was much exploited by the Germans in their propaganda.

Among the French Jewish escape attempts were Lieutenant P Levy, Col. P. Francis Didier, Lt. P. Manheimer (the youngest French officer in Colditz) and Lt. C. Clein (two escape attempts). In Chancellor’s lists (see above), the following Jewish names appear as POW’s at Colditz – O. Bergmann; Capt. R Blum; G. Cahen-Salvador; Capt. Dreyfus; A Hirsch; M Hirsch; Lt R Levy; Lt. A Levy-Ginsburger aka Levit; E Rosenberg;  R Schaeffer;  A Sternberg; S/Lt Klein of the Free French ; Cpl. N Blomme of the 1st French Paras

On a recent visit to the museum at Colditz the author found and photographed displayed portraits of prisoners Capt. Isidore Schrire/Schire, MBE (a Jewish officer in the South African Army Medical Corps, captured at Dunkirk) [8] . There was also a very famous Palestinian Jewish Royal Engineers officer, Lt Shimon Ha-Cohen [9] ; he boasted to the Germans – to the great amusement of the British - that not only did he come from Israel, had been born in Russia – and was thus thrice damned by the Germans! Ha-Cohen had been a Sgt. Major in the British Army in World War One [10] .

Another French Colditz POW was Baron Elie de Rothschild; there were also about 60 French political Jewish prisoners held there too.

Capt. Julius Green – a dental officer from Glasgow – was exceptional in that he worked for MI9 in the prison and sent coded letters to his wife. The information was forwarded by her to British Intelligence. It included material supplied to Green by recaptured escapers about local German railway, troop and shipping movements and anything else gleaned whilst on the “outside”. He also advised on what materials useful for escape could be smuggled into Colditz via parcels from home as well as advice on what officers should carry with them in battle in case they were captured and sent to Colditz – hidden compasses for example – that would be useful for escapes.  He published a book about his experiences [11] . Green’s other important act was to expose the English Nazi stooge in the prison, Purdy, who was prosecuted for treason after the war

Rifleman Solomon Dennis Halfin (KRRC - Rangers) aka Halpin, arrived in Colditz by accident. Born son of Israel and Edith in West Ham, London on 1/1/18, he was captured in Crete by the Germans on 29/5/41 but escaped and spent 3 months in the mountains with the Partisans [12] . On the night of an attempted escape by submarine, he was re-captured with some other Commonwealth troop evaders when the Germans got wind of this escape plan, and ended up at Lamsdorf camp in Germany, where he became friends with a French Canadian POW Sgt Roger Cordeau, a dental technician by trade, captured at Dieppe. Dennis escaped from a working party at Lamsdorf but was re-captured at the Polish border. About to be sent to another camp, and not wanting to be separated from his friends, he exchanged identities with Cordeau. But his plan backfired when the Germans noticed he (Halfin aka Cordeau) was a dental technician, and he was sent to Colditz to assist with the POW officers dental care in June 1943! The first man he met on entering the castle was an old friend, 6850731 Riflmn. Samuel Cohen aka Cowen, of the same Rangers batallion as his, also at Colditz as a batman to POW officers! By Sepember the Germans, having seen Cohen and Halfin talking and meeting, discovered evntually that he was not really Cordeau and he ended back at Lamsdorf! [13]

Another British Jewish inmate was Lt J M Barnet, Royal Engineers, [14]   who was captured  in November 1940, arrived in Colditz (re Chancellor’s list) on Aug. 4th 1941 and was repatriated to Britain  on 6/9/44 with feigned illness and so counts as an “escaper”.

Another probable Jewish inmate was Ft. Lt. Josef Bryks of the Czech Sqdn., RAF. A sadder case is that of Commando Rifleman Cyril Henry Abram, captured with 6 others after a successful raid in Norway (Operation “Musketoon”) in Sept.1942. They spent  2 weeks at Colditz in 1944 and were then taken and murdered at Sachsenhausen Death Camp [15] . Abram, from Manor Park, was probably Jewish.

Among the Dutch escapers was a “Home Run” by Cdr. Francis Steinmetz of the Royal Netherlands Navy, via a manhole, in August 1941, (with comrade Lt. F Larive). Other Dutch Jewish inmates included Capt. A P Berlijn, Lt. M Braun, Lt L De Hartog, Capt. A J A Pereira, Lt. J G Smit and Capt. L T W De Vries – of the Royal Netherlands Army, and Stoker W De Lange of the Royal Netherlands Navy [16] .

Anyone with further information and names of other Jewish POW’s at Colditz should contact Martin Sugarman at AJEX House, East Bank, Stamford Hill, London N16 5RT.


Martin Sugarman, reprinted with express permission

[1] Michael Booker (see note 2) told the author that at least two inmates called Smith, were not Smith at all and were probably Jewish POW's.

[2] Jewish Chronicle 12/7/74; also cuttings from the archives of the Colditz Association, with thanks to Michael Booker of the Colditz Society  - copies in AJEX Museum Colditz file.

[3] Jewish Chronicle obituary in AJEX Musuem file and story related in several published books on Colditz.

[4] "Jewish Officers and Enlisted men in the Polish forces who were POW 1939-45" Tel-Aviv 2003, Association of Polish Jewish War Veterans of Israel.

[5] "Colditz, the definitive History" H. Chancellor, Hodder & Stoughton, 2001, London

[6] In his taped interview at the Imperial War Museum Sound Archives  reference16974/3,  Stein is asked by the interviewer  pointedly about his non-Polish name and he answers that he thinks one grandfather was German; he also says he was born in Kostrin  25/3/20 and his father was a businessman in the agricultural wholesale trade - a typical Jewish occupation at the time. He interestingly says nothing about the fate of his parents, even though he came to live in the UK in 1945. He is rather typical of Polish Jews who wish to hide their Jewish identity. He was not an escaper.

[7]   Imperial War Museum Sound Archives 9337/4 and 15536/3

[8] "Stalag Doctor" London,  A Wingate, 1958

[9]   On display in the Colditz Museum is a Hebrew language edition of  Pat Reid's best selling , "The Colditz Story".

[10] After the war he published in Israel in Hebrew and English a delightful collection of drawings of POW's he knew, composed whilst he was in the camp, dedicated to his comrades and his family; this is now a very rare item and a copy is lodged in the AJEX Museum Archives in London.

[11] "From Colditz in Code" by JM Green, R Hale 1989

[12] Personal interview by the author in May 2003 on telephone with Dennis in North York, Ontario, Canada

[13] I am grateful to Dr Andrew Caplan of Royal Holloway College, University of  London, for putting me in touch with Dennis Halfin

[14] His AJEX card was found - there are over 60,000 of these kept at the AJEX Museum, compiled by the Jewish Chaplains in WW2.

[15] "Operation Musketoon"  S Schofield, J Cape, London 1956.

[16] My thanks to Jelka Kroger of the Dutch Jewish Historical Museum  for assistance with these names.