One of my regrets is that regional programmes made by the BBC are not widely publicised, so it was my great gift to come across this little nugget originally shown in 2014 in Wales on a trawl of the BBC I-player Service.
Ninety Six Year Old Ron Jones is a delightful gentleman with a twinkle in his eye and that lovely giggle that only a Welshman can muster. He is Newport Town football club's oldest fan. He met his wife Gwladys when he was 15 and she was 16. She had come out of the Girl Guides hut and they fell in love pretty much at first sight. Gwladys was his one and only girl friend. Married in 1938 , when he was 21 and she 22 they were barely wed before events in Germany interfered with their wedded bliss.
Ron was captured in the Middle East and transported to Germany. Travelling in cattle trucks for four or five days, the men were in a pretty poor state on arrival. Covered in lice, with no room to even lie down, they were forced to use the corner as a latrine. Finally he and about three hundred other British Soldiers arrived in Auschwitz. The British men had no idea why there were men in striped Pyjamas there in the neighbouring camp and were told blithely that they were Jews in a way that suggested no one should be surprised men were being treated like animals.
Ron states that it did not take long for the fate of the Jews to become apparent. Down wind of the crematoria was Camp E715 where Ron was interred. He says that the smell of the burning bodies was horrendous , a sickly sweet smell that would put you off the little food you were given. He can still smell it now when he thinks back.
The British camp was made to work in the factory for IG Farben, infamous for producing the Zyklon B gas used in the gas chambers, the Brits were utilised to make aircraft fuel. The Geneva Convention forbade Prisoners Of War working for the enemy war effort but a Nazi Luger put on the desk when told this made an adequate point that they cared not a whit for conventions outside camp surrounds.
The huge cylinders of the factory often needed pipe changes and at 70- 80 foot high they were very dangerous in the wintry temperatures , so when Ron and a Corporal Reynolds were asked to go up there, Reynolds demurred saying he was afraid of heights and did not have the correct clothing for the icy conditions, a guard was called and after still arguing his point, Reynolds was shot and the guard told Ron he would be next. Ron said he shimmied up that cylinder like a monkey, but news of this murder spread through the camp and everyone was very frightened.
Now there again, Ron describes being back at Auschwitz as bitter memories and he has a lump in his throat much of the time on his arrival with presenter Joe Crowley. He is a sweet stoic man but this visit was bound to stir memories. Thankfully Crowley is sensitive to the distress this visit might cause and questions Ron gently letting him set the pace and detail of his answers.
Unlike the concentration camp nearby, as Prisoners Of War ,they were administered by the military and not the SS and so were permitted to receive Red Cross Parcels and were even able to write home. Back at home in Wales ,Gladys hoarded all of Ron's Love letters safely. Ron reads two of them in the course of the programme.
I reproduce one faithfully here:
My Dearest Wife,
I've just received the sweetest letter I have ever had from you darling. It's so full of love I can almost imagine you in my arms every time I read it. I had your photograph too and it is a good one of you dear, you'll be getting younger every photo I get. I am afraid it isn't the same with me, I feel about ten years older, but it doesn't alter my love for you dear, in fact it's greater than ever.
We are still waiting for that second Honeymoon, still it will be all the sweeter when it does come, I lay awake planning where it will be, but I always plan a different place, so I think I will leave it entirely to you sweetheart. Remember I still love you Darling. More than ever I love you, Always yours,
When Ron sees a photo of the barracks, he remarks on the open windows saying it must have been taken in the summer as in the winter, icicles would form on the inside of the windows and then on seeing a picture of the bunks, So like the ones he slept in,Ron fills up and has a little moment of emotion at the memories it evokes. Conditions were severe for the Brits, but not as horrendous as for the Jews who if they had escaped the Gas Chambers on arrival were worked mercilessly, piled into barracks like cattle and beaten by Kappos, prisoners given special privilege by the Nazis.
Ron tells a touching story of a Jew named Josef who he sneaked a bit of sausage from his own Red Cross food parcel and a couple of days later, Josef gave Ron a Cygnet ring which he still wears to this day. Two weeks after giving the ring, Ron asked after Josef and his friend said "Gas Chamber. Kaput" and made a signal for a overhead shower.
All was not doom and gloom however. On Sundays some British Prisoners were allowed out of camp to play football, another unexpected and strangely incongruous privilege not afforded Jews or the other inmates of Camp 4. When the Red Cross got wind of this, they sent four sets of national strips to the camp for the Separate nations to have proper teams, Ron played in Goal for the Welsh Team. He even made some Welsh Feathers from some old socks that he embroidered onto a backing. Not many folk can claim to have played for Wales, but even fewer can claim it from the confines of Auschwitz.
As the allied expeditionary forces burst into occupied Europe and USA bombed sites of special military interest, the IG Farben factory was hit and several British Prisoners were killed outright. Sheltering in a underground trench the bomb exploded right at the entrance and so Ron, who was claustrophobic, had escaped unhurt as he refused to shelter there. He helped dig out survivors. Stranger still, it seems a second bomb landed in 1945 on the grave of those lost in the factory hit so those tragically killed were bombed twice once in life and once in death.
The men would have terrible nightmares and worried that if the Germans were pushed too hard, that they might even put them in the Gas Chambers. In January 1945 approximately 56,000 prisoners were evacuated from the concentration camp in what has become known as the Death March. British Soldiers from the factory were also taken along, Ron Among them. No food was provided by the soldiers, so they scavenged, taking the fruit about to be eaten by a wild pig and even eating raw chicken to stay alive in below freezing temperatures. Eventually Ron's boots disintegrated and he wrapped hessian sacking around his feet. They walked for seventeen weeks. Those that died on the way were just thrown into snowbanks.
Ron tells of a German a Officer who took a liking to his Rolex watch and eventually he swapped it for some loaves of bread. "It was only Dry Bread, but believe me, it tasted of honey" He thinks that unexpected bread might have been why he survived the trek.
In April 1945 he arrived in Germany after crossing Czechoslovakia whereupon,after being shut in a barn in Regensberg for about four days, they were freed by the exciting sight of a U.S. Tank bursting through the doors.
Slowly through newsreel and witness accounts, the world started to realise the true horror of what went on in Auschwitz. It is estimated that a million people lost their lives in the near industrial scale genocides in Poland. Piles of hair were found taken off the Jews to prevent lice infestation and to remove dignity .Ten thousand of this number which were workers at IG Farben.
A group of the British Farben prisoners gave evidence at the Nuremberg Trials, resulting in 14 managers being convicted of a War a Crimes and IG Farben being broken up into smaller companies, BASF and BAYER still trade in today's market.
When Ron returned home he had gone from thirteen stone healthy and vibrant man full of life, with a spring in his step to seven stone and unable to carry his Kitbag. He had seven loose teeth due to malnutrition. He had nightmares, awaking shouting and bathed in perspiration, was constantly afraid of his own shadow and had to climb stairs backwards to feel safe.
His return to the small village of his birth was such a relief. Family and friends had hung a banner and balloons and the first person in the doorway was his beloved Gwladys.
Taken back to Rosemead by Joe, this was his first marital home, and scene of his homecoming. The visit is so infused with happy memories of that time and their life afterwards, that it brought a lump to my throat.
When Gwladys broke down at the sight of his thinness in the bath, Ron being unable to get in unaided, it broke my heart.
" Don't cry Darling, I left men behind who will never get a bath again"
Ron serves as an inspiration, still energetic for his advanced age, he has accurate recall of events and ultimately humble and grateful that fortune or God smiled on him so he could return to his Gwladys and live a happy life with her.
I think that Presenter, Joe Crowley felt privileged to have journeyed with Ron back into his memories. What a beautiful love story's his was framed in such horror and a testament to the truly strengthening power of Love to keep oneself soldiering on through adversity and despair.