Sunday, March 20, 2011
I was the man who broke into Auschwitz
By Neil Tweedie
Neil Tweedie meets Denis Avey and hears his astonishing tale of breaking into the Nazi's most feared concentration camp.
The music came from an orchestra hidden just out of sight: Wagner, wafting across the blasted ground. Denis Avey was 25 and a prisoner of war for more than two years. It was 1943 and this was the latest in a long line of PoW camps since his capture in North Africa, a collection of huts in the shadow of an enormous industrial complex in southern Poland. The nearest town was called Oswiecim in Polish. To the Germans it was Auschwitz.
“I thought, what is an orchestra doing here?” remembers Mr Avey. The British soldier soon had his answer. The camp just out of sight was full of Jews, slave labourers imported from all corners of Occupied Europe to build a giant plant for the German industrial giant I G Farben. The synthetic rubber and methanol it was designed to produce were vital to the Nazi war effort. The labour camp, known as Monowitz or Auschwitz III, was part of that vast, sprawling killing machine that included Auschwitz I, a Polish army barracks turned concentration camp, and Auschwitz II, otherwise known as Birkenau, the extermination factory, home to the gas chambers and crematoria.
When the labourers of Monowitz had served their purpose, when months of back-breaking work, starvation rations and furious beatings had taken their toll, the lorries would arrive. The men, by then shadows of men, would be driven away to the gas chambers that had already claimed their mothers and fathers, wives and children.
“The site was crawling with strange, slow-moving figures,” says Mr Avey. “Thousands of them in tattered, striped shirts and trousers. Their faces were grey. They were indistinct, ready to fade away at any moment. The lads in the camp called them Stripeys. The orchestra was very good. It played for the SS.”
Denis Avey is 92 now, a resident of Bradwell in the Peak District. His house, hidden down a narrow lane, overlooks a bowl-shaped valley disappearing eastward into the mist. Here, in this restful place, he summons memories, only recently unlocked, of that terrible place; and one of the most remarkable feats achieved by a British serviceman during the Second World War. When thousands would have given anything to escape Auschwitz, Denis Avey was trying to get in. And in mid 1944, he succeeded.
On two separate occasions he smuggled himself into the Monowitz camp to experience the torment endured by its inmates. It was, he admits, a mad escapade, likely to end in summary execution for him and the Dutch Jew, a man he knew only as Hans, who swapped clothes with him in order to gain entry.
“The thing is, everything I did there I did naturally,” he says. “I have always believed in seeing things for myself. My mates didn’t want me to do it but they agreed because they realised I was going to do it, and that was that. I had watched people being murdered literally every day and I knew someone would have to answer for it. I wanted to get in and identify the people responsible.”
The young private spent two nights in Monowitz, speaking in whispers to two other inmates who had helped to smuggle him through the camp gates in a returning work party following the exchange of clothes with Hans in a hut on the Monowitz construction site. The three men, two of them almost certain never to see the outside world again, shared the same wide bunk, swapping stories and body lice during a night punctuated by the groans and cries of those soon to die.
Only now is the story being told in Avey’s book, The Man Who Broke Into Auschwitz, written with the BBC journalist Rob Broomby. There is another, moving facet to Avey’s account: the story of how he helped a German Jew called Ernst to stay alive through donations of cigarettes and chocolate, the most valuable currencies in the camps; and how the prisoner of war used coded letters to his mother in Essex to inform Ernst’s sister, who had fled to Britain before the war, that her brother was still alive.
Avey’s near-suicidal expedition into a man-made hell is better understood on meeting him. Even at 92 he displays a steely resolution. After the war he took up martial arts in one of many attempts to exorcise his demons, and is still remarkably strong, despite a recent operation for cancer. A glass eye testifies to the time he was pistol-whipped by a German after calling him a ''sub-human’’.
Born in 1919, he studied engineering before enlisting in the Army in October 1939. His father had trained him in firearms and his marksmanship earned him a place in 2nd Battalion The Rifle Brigade. One sunny August morning in 1940 he left Liverpool aboard a troopship bound for Egypt.
The Rifleman saw plenty of action in the desert the following year, before his capture by the Afrika Korps at Sidi Rezegh in November. He was lucky to survive the action. Part of the crew of a Bren gun carrier, he narrowly escaped death when a grenade exploded inside the vehicle, killing his friend. He was one of some 2,000 Commonwealth prisoners of war being taken to Italy in the merchantman Sebastiano Venier when she was torpedoed by a British submarine off the coast of Greece. Typically, he took matters into his own hands, climbing out of the hold and jumping over the side.
Clinging to some wreckage, he reached the Greek coast and was recaptured some days later. A year in an Italian PoW camp followed, punctuated by an escape attempt. Considered a ''suspect’’ prisoner, he was sent to Germany, passing through numerous camps and witnessing the summary execution of five Russian prisoners in a mine. “I was a red-head and had a red-head’s temperament to match,” he says. “I always kept with me the quotation 'Stone walls do not a prison make nor iron bars a cage’. I have always been a fighter by nature; I was always ready to take on a dare when I was a boy.” So, after months in camp E-715, the British PoW Camp at Monowitz, he took on the ultimate dare.
British prisoners worked side by side with Jews, but fraternisation was strictly forbidden. Avey encountered Hans while musing over a mathematical formula he had chalked on a pipe. The Dutchman recognised it and a snatched conversation began. Slowly, the relationship developed. In addition to the two other inmates, Avey used cigarettes to recruit a Kapo, a criminal turned gangmaster, because his co-operation would be needed.
“I noticed this Kapo was half-hearted when he administered beatings and thought I could turn him,” says Avey. “I had learned from my escape in Italy and planned everything carefully. I was an engineer and you do a lot of studying as an engineer. That is what I did: studying the walk of the prisoners, their appearance, when they removed their caps. I developed a false cough so that I would have an excuse not to speak.” For Hans there was the promise of cigarettes and a night in a British PoW bed and British rations. Still, the risks were enormous. “A lot of chaps just accepted what was happening around them and got on with it as a defence mechanism. I never did. It made me very angry. I was angry all the time.”
Avey left Auschwitz in a column of prisoners just as the Red Army approached in 1945. Finally making his escape, he was liberated by the Americans. Tuberculosis caught in the camp led to a long stay in hospital. The world had moved on when he finally recovered. But he continued to suffer from what would now be termed post-traumatic stress disorder.
Only last year, after his story came to light was he honoured by Israel and Britain, principally for the help extended to Ernst Lobethal, who had survived Auschwitz before emigrating to the United States. Before his death, Ernie Lobet, as he became known, was filmed talking about the camp. He remembered an English solder, who he knew as Gingey, who had helped him survive by providing cigarettes. He had used some of them to get his shoes repaired, and that had saved him during the death march from Auschwitz at the end of the war. Avey had identified himself to Ernst simply as ''Ginger’’.
It was only during research for the book that Ernst’s survival came to light. Avey met Ernst’s sister Susanne, who he had last visited shortly after the war, when her brother’s fate was still unknown. Some kind of closure had been achieved. Still, the memories persist.
“One day, a stranger arrived at the door,” remembers Avey. “He said he worked for Combat Stress. He wanted to know if I needed any support. I explained: 'You’re 60 years too late, mate’.”
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