Today, I ran across a news article published by the Times Online on February 25, 2010.
The article is about a British POW, named Denis Avey, who claims that he sneaked into the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II, and he is just now coming forward with his story, after 65 years of silence.
E715 was a POW camp for British prisoners, which was administered and guarded by Wehrmacht soldiers; it was a subcamp of the Stalag VIII B POW camp that was located in Lamsdorf, Germany and after November 1943, in Teschen, Germany. In the winter 1943 and 1944, around 1,400 British POWs were interned at E715.
According to the book “Spectator in Hell,” written by British POW Colin Rushton, there were 17 times as many Jewish prisoners as British soldiers who were working at the I.G. Farben factories at Auschswitz III, also known as Monowitz. The author mentions that there were “Kommandos” (work groups) in which Jews worked alongside British POWs.
The British POW camp was several hundred meters west of Auschwitz III (aka Monowitz) near the construction site of the I.G. Farben Buna plant. The first 200 British POWs arrived in September 1943.
As the Red Army of the Soviet Union was approaching Auschwitz, the Wehrmacht closed POW camp E715 on January 21, 1945, and forced the British prisoners of war on a death march all the way to Stalag VII A in Moosburg, Germany. In April 1945, the U.S. Army liberated Stalag VII A in Moosburg, and freed the British POWs who had formerly been in E715 at Auschwitz. (Source: Wollheim Memorial Site web site)
The following quote is from the Times Online. My comments are interspersed between the paragraphs below:
Denis Avey, even at the age of 91, cuts a formidable figure. More than 6ft tall, with a severe short back and sides and a piercing glare, he combines the pan-ache of Errol Flynn with the dignity of age. This is the former Desert Rat, who, in 1944, broke into — yes, into — Auschwitz, and he looks exactly as I expected. He removes his monocle for the camera, and one of his pupils slips sideways before realigning. It is a glass eye. I ask him about it. He tells me that in 1944, he cursed an SS officer who was beating a Jew in the camp. He received a blow with a pistol butt and his eye was knocked in.”
My comment: An SS officer was beating a Jew in the camp? Apparently, this SS man didn’t get the memo from Heinrich Himmler in which it was stated that SS men were strictly forbidden to “lay violent hands on the prisoners” in the concentration camps. If any whipping had to be done, it was a prisoner who did it, not an SS officer. So how did Denis Avery really lose his eye?
In 1939 he volunteered for the Army — because he was too impatient to wait a week for the RAF. “I ended up in the 7th Armoured Division, the original Desert Rats,” he says. “We operated behind enemy lines in Egypt. In 1942 we were ambushed. I was wounded and taken prisoner by the Germans.”
Avey was a troublesome prisoner. In the summer of 1943 he was deported to Auschwitz, in Poland, and interned in a small PoW camp on the periphery of the IG Farben factory. The main Jewish camps were several miles to the west. “I’d lost my liberty, but none of my spirit,” he says. “I was still determined to give as good as I got.”
Remarkably, Avey was able to think beyond the war. “I knew in my gut that these swine would eventually be held to account,” he says. “Evidence would be vital. Of course, sneaking into the Jewish camp was a ludicrous idea. It was like breaking into Hell. But that’s the sort of chap I was. Reckless.”
Avey’s audacious plan was made possible by Ernst Lobethall, a German Jew from Breslau, who worked alongside Avey at the Farben factory. Although fraternising was forbidden on pain of death, the two men became friends. “We spoke out of the corner of our mouths,” Avey says, “a difficult thing to do in German.”
My comment: So Avey spoke German?
He discovered that Lobethall had a sister, Susana, living in England. “I wrote to my mother, who told Susana that Ernst was alive. She posted 200 cigarettes to me via the Red Cross. Miraculously, four months later, they arrived. The cigarettes were worth a king’s ransom. Ernst suddenly became rich.”
My comment: She could have just sent the package directly to Ernst Lobethall via the Red Cross, as even the Jewish prisoners at Auschwitz were allowed to receive Red Cross packages.
With the cigarettes, Lobethall was able to buy boots and scraps of food that would later save his life. He also used them as bribes to help Avey to gain entrance to the Jewish camp.
My comment: “The Jewish camp?” Jewish prisoners were transferred from the main Auschwitz camp to the new Monowitz barracks at the end of October 1942. In 1943, the Jews who worked at the I.G. Farben factory lived in the barracks at Monowitz, which are shown in the photo below.
The operation was planned meticulously. Avey found a Dutch Jew with a similar physique and persuaded him to exchange places for a day. Avey knew that they marched past each other at the same time every week. “The Nazis were rigid, you see,” he says. “To them orders were orders, to be carried out exactly. That was what allowed me to find a way round them.”
Avey shaved his head and blackened his face.
My comment: Why did he blacken his face? Was this Dutch Jew black?
There was a Dutch Jew, named Leon Greenman, who was a prisoner at Monowitz; he is mentioned in the book “Spectator in Hell,” but curiously there is no mention of Ernst Lobethall, nor is there any mention of Denis Avey trading places with a Jew at Monowitz.
At the allocated time, he and the Dutch Jew sneaked into a disused shed. There they swapped uniforms and exchanged places. Avey affected a slouch and a cough, so that his English accent would be disguised should he be required to speak.
My comment: Wait a minute. I thought Avey could speak German.
“I joined the Stripeys (prisoners in striped uniforms) and marched into Monowitz, a predominantly Jewish camp.
My comment: So he marched into the Jewish barracks at the Auschwitz III camp, also known as Monowitz?
As we passed beneath the Arbeit Macht Frei [work makes you free] sign, everyone stood up straight and tried to look as healthy as they could.
My comment: Hold it right there! The Arbeit Macht Frei sign? That sign was only on the gate into the Auschwitz I main camp, not the Auschwitz III camp, also known as Monowitz. The Jews who worked in the factories at Monowitz were NOT living at the main Auschwitz camp in 1943.
There was an SS officer there, weeding out the weaklings for the gas.
My comment: Say what? An SS officer was making selections for the gas chamber at the Auschwitz main camp? No, no, no! The selections for the gas chamber were made at the Auschwitz II camp, also known as Birkenau, never at Monowitz, and never at the main camp in 1943.
Overhead was a gallows, which had a corpse hanging from it, as a deterrent. An orchestra was playing Wagner to accompany our march. It was chilling.”
My comment: At least he got something right — there was an orchestra playing as the prisoners marched into the main Auschwitz camp after coming back from their work. This definitely identifies the camp that he sneaked into as Auschwitz I, the main camp, which was a camp for political prisoners; there were almost no Jews in the main camp in 1943, and besides that, the Jews at the main camp did not work at Monowitz.
They were herded through the camp, carrying the bodies of those who had died that day. “I saw the Frauenhaus — the Germans’ brothel of Jewish girls — and the infirmary, which sent its patients to the gas after two weeks. I committed everything to memory. We were lined up in the Appellplatz for a roll call, which lasted almost two hours. Then we were given some rotten cabbage soup and went to sleep in lice-infested bunks, three to a bed.”
My comment: The Frauenhaus? No, no, no. The brothel was called “die Puff.” The prostitutes in the Puff were not Jewish; Jews were not allowed into the brothel, which was for non-Jewish prisoners only. Patients in the infirmary were sent to the gas after two weeks? Why not just send them directly to the gas without bothering with a stay in an infirmary?
The night was even worse than the daytime. “As it grew dark, the place was filled with howls and shrieks. Many people had lost their minds. It was a living hell. Everyone was clutching their wooden bowls under their heads, to stop them getting stolen.”
My comment: “Wooden bowls?” Avey has apparently never even been to the Museum exhibits at Auschwitz, which display the enamel covered metal bowls used in all the camps. He has apparently never even seen Schindler’s List, or he would know that Schindler was making a fortune by manufacturing enameled metal bowls for the Germans.
Lobethall had bribed Avey’s bedfellows with cigarettes. “They gave me all the details,” he says, “the names of the SS, the gas chambers, the crematoria, everything. After that, they fell asleep. But I lay awake all night.”
My comment: So they had to be bribed with cigarettes? Why wouldn’t the Jews give this information without bribes?
In the morning, Avey joined other prisoners for a roll call, followed by “breakfast” — a husk of black bread with a scrape of fetid margarine. “It wasn’t enough to sustain life. Everything was designed to make you waste away.” They were formed into groups and marched out of the camp, again to the accompaniment of an orchestra.
My comment: Black bread and margarine was the standard breakfast for the German people back then, and probably still is. Butter was rationed during World War II, even in America. The prisoners who worked got the standard German second breakfast, called Brodtzeit.
“When we passed the shed again, I slipped in to meet the Dutch Jew,” he says. “That was hair raising. Although I trusted him, I couldn’t be sure that he’d turn up. And if an SS officer had looked in the wrong direction at the wrong time, that would have been it.”
The changeover went smoothly, and Avey returned to the POW camp. “The Dutch Jew perished, but I’m certain that this short reprieve prolonged his life by several weeks,” he says. “Whether that was a good thing, I don’t know.”
My comment: How convenient that the Dutch Jew died, so there is no one alive today to corroborate Avey’s story.
In 1945, as the Soviet Army closed in, the Nazis abandoned the camp and herded 60,000 prisoners in the direction of Germany, in what would become known as one of Death Marches. Avey, who by then was suffering from tuberculosis, was among them. Around 15,000 prisoners died on the way. “The road was littered with corpses,” he says. “I saw a chance to escape and seized it.”
My comment: O.K. now we know that he’s making this story up. The British prisoners in the POW camp did not leave on January 18, 1945 and go on the Death March with the concentration camp prisoners. The British POWs were marched out separately on January 21, 1945.
He found his way to Allied lines and was transported back home. Two days before VE Day, he arrived at his parents’ Essex farm half-dead with exhaustion and sickness. They had not expected to see him again.
If Avey’s story still sounds implausible, there is no doubt about the help he gave to Lobethall. Last year the BBC screened a moving documentary, during which Avey learnt for the first time that his old friend had survived the war and died in New York in 2001. Before his death, Lobethall recorded a video testimony for Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation, during which he emotionally recounts how his life was saved by Avey’s initiative and Susana’s cigarettes. This is the only moment that I see Avey’s steely façade falter.
“I was hospitalised for two years after the war,” Avey continues. “In 1947, I went to the military authorities to submit my information about Auschwitz. Their eyes glazed over. I wasn’t taken seriously. I was shocked, especially after the risks I’d taken. I felt completely disillusioned, and traumatised as well. So from then on I bottled it up, and tried to piece my life back together.”
My comment: He waited until 1947 to speak up? Sgt. Charles Coward was captured in May 1940 and sent to Monowitz in December 1943. He testified at the Nuremberg International Military Tribunal regarding his observations about Monowitz.
Sir Martin Gilbert says: “By 1947, the trials of Nazi war criminals had been and gone. The war was over and people just wanted to get on with their lives. There was a whole mind-set of not really wanting to know what had happened any more. Many people had stories that nobody was interested in. It must have been very painful.”
Readjusting to normal life was hard. Avey became addicted to adrenalin, racing fast cars, travelling to Spain for the running of the bulls. He was plagued by nightmares and flashbacks. Even today he shows signs of trauma. He always carries an expensive gold watch, so that “if ever I find myself in a fix again, I’ve got something to fall back on”.
Sixty-five years after the liberation of Auschwitz, when eyewitnesses are dying out and Holocaust denial is burgeoning, Denis Avey’s extraordinary tale has finally found its moment. “I’m talking to you so it will do some good,” he says fiercely, pounding his fingers on the table for emphasis. “That’s all I’ve ever wanted.”
My comment: Avey is doing more harm than good. His mixed up story is playing right into the hands of the Holocaust deniers. He couldn’t have traded places with a Jewish prisoner, and sneaked into the Auschwitz main camp because the Jews who worked at Monowitz were not housed there in 1943. If he actually sneaked into the barracks at Monowitz, he would not have learned anything about the gas chambers because the gas chambers were in the Auschwitz II camp, also known as Birkenau.
Update March 9, 2010: Today I heard Denis Avey speak to a BBC reporter about his story. He said that he was in the POW camp at Auschwitz for 18 months, working 12 hours a day, seven days a week. Even the Jewish prisoners got Saturday afternoons and Sundays off, but according to Avey, the POWs had to work seven days a week. When did they have time to play soccer?
Avey explained how he lost his eye. He says that he swore in German at a guard who was beating a prisoner, and used the word Untermensch, which in English means subhuman, or an inferior person. An SS officer who was walking by then hit Avey in the face with his Luger pistol.
According to what I’ve read about the way POWs were treated during World War II, the Germans were very careful to follow the Geneva Convention with regard to Allied POWs because there were 400,000 German POWs in Allied hands and they didn’t want them to be treated badly in retaliation. Besides that, SS officers were administrators at the concentration camps; they weren’t standing around waiting for a British POW to swear at a guard.