THE MAN WHO BROKE INTO AUSCHWITZ: A TRUE STORY OF WORLD WAR II
By Denis Avey with Rob Broomby
Foreword by Martin Gilbert
Da Capo, $25, 263 pages
This is an important and profound book. It begins almost as an adventure story rather than the moral examination it really is. The author, Denis Avey, writes that he enlisted in the British army not for love of king and country but for the sheer hell of it. He was a 6-foot-tall redheaded country boy, good at sports, good at fixing things, a potent boxer and a crack shot, having received his first shotgun, a diminutive .410, at the age of 8.
But he was more than just an athletic teenager. He had been raised with a solid sense of morality and decency. When he joined the army, he was sent to Egypt and ended up on the Libyan frontier facing the invading Italian army. There he participated in a number of patrol actions, saw his best friend blown to bits next to him and killed an enemy soldier in hand-to-hand combat. Those events remained with him for the rest of his life.
Although the outnumbered British army handled the invading Italians with considerable skill and success, it could not deal with the heavily armored panzers of the German Africa Corps. In a futile British counterattack, the author was wounded and taken prisoner. The Africa Corps medics treated his wounds properly and, when he was sufficiently healed, shipped him along with other prisoners to Italy.
Because the Italians did not need another mouth to feed - they barely had enough food for themselves - he, along with other POWs, was sent by cattle car to labor-hungry Germany. He ended up in a camp that was part of Auschwitz with limited latrine facilities and was worked 11 hours a day. Both hygiene and food rations were in short supply, and only the arrival of Red Cross food parcels kept them going.
As bad as things were, Russian POWs, who did not even have the shreds of a convention to shield them, were treated worse. But at the bottom of the heap were the “Stripeys,” Jewish prisoners in zebra uniforms who labored under the heading of “Vernichtung durch Arbeit,” “extermination through work.”
They were under constant abuse, beaten, often shot for small infractions of the rules. Their rations were not enough to live on, and the stench from where their dead bodies were burned pervaded the entire camp. Senseless cruelty was rampant.
One image was of a boy forced to stand at attention while guards beat him over the head until blood flowed everywhere. The author could not restrain himself and called one of the guards “du verfluchter Untermensch” - “you damned subhuman.” The guard struck the author in the eye with a pistol; then he disappeared. The author carries the damage to that eye till this day.
In Auschwitz, Mr. Avey found himself frustrated at every side. Escape was impossible, and there was little he could do to affect events. Then he realized he could at least bear witness to the bestiality that surrounded him.
To do this properly, he felt it necessary to experience at firsthand the conditions that the lowest stratum, the stripeys or Jews, faced. He then planned one of the most audacious schemes imaginable, and after much scouting and preparation, he traded places with Jewish prisoners on two occasions. These were soul-searing events that he did not want to duplicate, but they made him the verifiable witness he wished to be.
With the Russian army approaching, prison authorities organized a march out of camp that in the wintry countryside soon became what everyone called it, the “Death March.” The author took advantage of the escape opportunities that arose and after much hardship reached an RAF evacuation point from where he was finally flown to England.
His homecoming was not particularly joyous; his mother had aged noticeably, and his father, who had enlisted in the army upon the outbreak of war, was still recovering from wounds and imprisonment. Like many returning servicemen, the author found it difficult to talk to civilians. Upon the death of his mother, he went north to Manchester to find employment. He did extremely well in industry as an engineer, achieving a luxurious lifestyle; nevertheless, he could not rid himself of his wartime nightmares. Equally painful was his inability to convey his feelings and to “bear witness,” which had once been his primary goal.
The BBC had begun a series of programs on returning servicemen and wanted to include Mr. Avey. After extraordinary effort, they were able to find the sister of a Jewish inmate whom Mr. Avey had befriended and brought them together for an interview. In this friendly atmosphere and under the skilled and sympathetic questioning of the BBC staff, the dam that had kept Mr. Avey’s emotions in check cracked and he could finally express himself. He did so ably and fully and soon became a public figure.
In 2010, then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown presented him with a medal designating him one of the British Heroes of the Holocaust. Mr. Avey, by then older than 90 and retired from business, had concentrated on publicizing the story of the Holocaust so that the horrors he and others endured could not happen again. England should be proud that its society could produce a man such as Denis Avey, and the world can only hope that he is not the last of his kind.
• Sol Schindler is a retired Foreign Service officer.