The Auschwitz goalkeeper: British prisoner of war who played in football match at Nazi death camp returns to bury the past

  • Ron Jones, 96, held in E715 – a prisoner of war camp alongside the main Auschwitz extermination camp in Poland
  • During the week prisoners of war were employed at forced labour camps but on Sunday allowed to play football
  • Games would take place on a field outside the camp with armed German guards watching
  • The Red Cross provided the teams with four sets of shirts – English, Scottish, Irish and Welsh
  • JSN_3062

An Auschwitz survivor who played in goal for the Welsh team in the Nazi death camp’s football league has returned to its site to bury the ghosts of his past.

Ron Jones, 96, was held in E715 – a prisoner of war camp alongside the main Auschwitz extermination camp in Poland – after being captured by German troops during World War II.

He said the soldiers were terrified.

‘We did not know what would happen to us. We thought at one time they would stick us in the gas chamber,’ said Ron.

‘It was not just Jews going in, it was Polish, political prisoners, gypsies, homosexuals.’

During the week prisoners were employed at forced labour camps, but on their rest day they were allowed to play football on a field just outside the camp – with armed German guards watching from the sidelines.

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Father-of-one Ron said: “We didn’t work on a Sunday so we used to play football.’

The Red Cross heard about it and brought the teams four sets of shirts – English, Scottish, Irish and Welsh.

Ron, a widower, of Newport, South Wales, played in goal for the Welsh team at the camp, which is situated near the Polish town of Oswiecim.

‘When you’re under those conditions it was a real pleasure to play football on a Sunday,’ he said.

‘But we could only play in the summer, of course, because in the winter it was deep with snow.’

Ron Jones

Prisoner of war Ron Jones (centre, back row) – the goalkeeper for the Welsh team in the Auschwitz football league.

Football was a brief respite from the prisoners’ suffering as throughout the games smoke would rise ominously from the chimneys of Auschwitz.

“The first thing you’d notice was the smell,’ said Ron. ‘If the wind was in your direction the smell was terrible.’

‘We were always frightened we would be next.’

He left the camp near the end of 1945 as part of the Auschwitz death march – when the Nazis forcibly moved prisoners as the Soviet army came to liberate.


Former Nazi death camp Auschwitz in Oswiecim, Poland, where Ron played in goal for the Welsh team during World War II.

For more than four months he was marched 900 miles across Europe before eventually being freed by American troops.

He lost half his body weight and had to watch more than a hundred of his allied comrades die in the freezing conditions.

But he survived the ordeal and eventually returned to his home to be reunited with his wife Gwladys.

Ron is now only one of three men still alive who survived the death march.

He has returned to Auschwitz as a book about his survival called The Auschwitz Goalkeeper is published later this month.

Ron said returning to the death camp stirred up strong memories.

Auschwitz 1945

Auschwitz-Birkenau in 2005, and in 1945, where Ron was held after being captured by German troops.

‘There was the humiliation and the lack of food but on the whole life wasn’t too bad.’

‘The Germans, contrary to what a lot of people think, were pretty good to us on the whole.’

But it was the march that was terrible.

‘I could still see it when I first went back to Auschwitz, I couldn’t sleep with the memories.’

About 1.5 million people, primarily Jews, were killed at the Auschwitz  complex between 1940 and 1945. Two years after the end of World War II it became a museum.




Cast overview, first billed only:
Rhys Ifans Rhys Ifans
Howard Marks
Chloë Sevigny Chloë Sevigny
Judy Marks
David Thewlis David Thewlis
Jim McCann
Elsa Pataky Elsa Pataky
Crispin Glover Crispin Glover
Ernie Combs
Andrew Tiernan Andrew Tiernan
Alan Marcuson
Omid Djalili Omid Djalili
Saleem Malik
Jack Huston Jack Huston
Graham Plinston
Ania Sowinski Ania Sowinski
Jamie Harris Jamie Harris
Patrick Lane
Christian McKay Christian McKay
Hamilton McMillan
Kinsey Packard Kinsey Packard
Patti Hayes
Ken Russell Ken Russell
Russell Miegs
Craig Stevenson Craig Stevenson
Luis Tosar Luis Tosar

Rhys Ifans: ‘Howard Marks is still stoned’

Smoking role: Rhys Ifans plays Howard Marks in Mr NiceSmoking role: Rhys Ifans plays Howard Marks in Mr Nice

Rhys Ifans looks very relaxed. He’s sitting by the pool just down the coast from Malaga, on the Costa del Sol, in his shorts and an open shirt, tall drink in one hand, long blazing reefer in the other. He’s not, contrary to first impressions, indulging in a hedonistic holiday. The 42-year-old Welsh actor is, believe it or not, hard at work; he’s midway through production on the big-screen adaptation of Mr Nice, the autobiography of fellow Welshman Howard Marks, the Oxbridge-educated valley boy, one-time cannabis smuggler and now full-time folk hero.

‘This feels kind of right, sitting here, playing Howard,’ begins Ifans, once his sitting-in-the-sun scene is done, drink and spliff put aside as hair and make-up people fuss around him. ‘I met Howard 13 years ago when he came out of prison, at a Super Furry Animals gig in Pontypridd.’

This was after Ifans’s active involvement in the band and before the publication of Marks’s best-selling 1996 book (Super Furry Animals put Marks’s image on the cover of their debut album, Fuzzy Logic, which was released in the same year as Marks’s autobiography). ‘We kind of made a verbal agreement there and then,’ continues Ifans, ‘that if ever there was a film to be made of Howard‘s life, I’d play him. At the time, I hadn’t really acted all that much, so it was a bit of a pipe dream.’ He pauses. ‘If you’ll excuse the expression.’

More than a decade later and that film is unfolding in southern Spain, with Ifans in situ as the lead and Chloë Sevigny and David Thewlis providing able support. The little-known Bernard Rose, who released Candyman 18 years ago, directs, telling a story that sifts through the key moments in Marks’s life, skittering through his early years – bad at sport, good at lessons, bullied – to his arrival at Oxford University.

Once enrolled, his education does indeed become ‘higher’, as he’s seduced into the world of marijuana and acid, and then into smuggling. He becomes bolder, falling in with IRA man Jim McCann (played by a delightfully frenetic Thewlis) and together they import copious amounts of resin into Britain. As the money floods in, Marks becomes bolder still and the authorities become suspicious, tracking the smuggler, his young wife (Sevigny) and their family. Once the US DEA becomes involved, his card is marked.

Forty-three aliases, 89 phone lines and 25 registered companies later, Marks has spent seven years behind bars in the US and is now a hero to many liberally minded folk. ‘Yeah, he’s been a hero of mine,’ notes Ifans, once his band of polishers and preeners finally moves away. ‘Actually, he turned up on set a couple of weeks ago and he had video footage of our actual first meeting. You can see us talking away and shaking hands, like doing the deal! He’s a really good friend of mine.’

Is it difficult playing a close friend, I wonder. ‘On paper, you’d think it would be,’ says Ifans. ‘If it was another mate it might be different but with Howard, I wanted him on set. He brings such joy and energy. There’s no vanity to Howard, so he’s not an intimidating presence. Everyone on the crew has fallen in love with him.’

While Marks is no longer a wanted man, and his smuggling days are over, he’s not changed his outlook. He remains as quick-witted as ever, according to Ifans: ‘He’s stoned. He’s still smoking.

He comes along and seems really amused by the film. It’s a real stoney thing watching your whole life pass before you… without drowning.’

The actor recalls a moment when shooting a scene in which Marks fakes his own kidnapping from his parents’ house in Wales. ‘He came down on set and the actors who were playing his mum and dad were there,’ says Ifans. ‘I said to Howard: “Was that a bit weird?” and he said: “Oh yeah, watching your own kidnapping, it’s really f***ing weird. But it’s even weirder when you fancy your mum.”’

As Ifans is called back to set, he picks up his drink and reefer. Has he ever smoked with Marks, I ask as he saunters off – after all, when in Rome? ‘You might think it would be rude not to,’ smiles Ifans. ‘Although, of course, I didn’t inhale.’

Mr Nice is in cinemas from Friday.