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April 27, 2011

Learning about the Holocaust from the Denis Avey story

Filed under: Holocaust — Tags: , , , , — furtherglory @ 10:12 am

In doing a search on Denis Avey, whose Holocaust story has been in the news a lot lately, I came across a video of Denis, and also an article about how Christian youth groups can use the Denis Avey story to learn about the Holocaust, while at the same time, learning about the Christian religion.

Here is a quote from the article, which you can read here:

The Bible tells us that Jesus did exactly what Denis did. He chose to put himself in a dangerous situation and swap places with those who were going to die. But unlike Denis, Jesus actually died on our behalf. [...]  Theologians call this trading of places ‘Substitutionary Atonement’. It’s a complicated way of saying something very simple: Jesus died in our place.

The most interesting part of the article is the suggestion for a game that could be played by youth groups to learn about the Holocaust.  Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t approve of role-playing games about the Holocaust.

Here is a quote from the article which describes a Holocaust game for youth groups:

Game: Sweetie Smuggling
In order to lighten the mood and to keep the group active and interested, you could play the following game.

Promote two people in the group to become ‘guards’ and station them outside of the room. Tell the rest of the group that they are ‘prisoners’. The aim of the game is for the prisoners to smuggle as many sweets (candy) past the guards as possible, and the guards to confiscate as many items as possible. The winning side is the one with the most items at the end.

One by one, the prisoners have to choose if they want to smuggle an item, then walk out of the room past the guards. If they are carrying an item, it should not be visible. This should lead to some very creative hiding items on people. The two guards are only allowed to ‘search’ half the number of people in the group. For example, if you have a group of ten prisoners, the guards can only search five of them. This way, the guards must choose carefully who they want to search.

Obviously it is not a good idea for the young people to physically search each other, so an adult should keep an eye on who has an item, and make sure they are honest when challenged by the guards. If the guards catch someone smuggling, then they confiscate the item. If a prisoner makes it through with an item, then they get to keep it. If a prisoner is accused of smuggling but is not carrying an item, then they can go free.

When the game is finished, get everyone sitting down again and tell the story of Denis Avey.

You can hear Denis Avey describe his Auschwitz experience in a video here.

The video starts with an advertisement, so wait for Denis, who begins by explaining the selection process at the Auschwitz II camp, which was not the camp that Denis allegedly sneaked into.  Then we immediately see a photo of elderly women in the barracks at the Auschwitz II camp, who survived the selections for the gas chamber.

Next, we see an old photo of the Arbeit Macht Frei gate at the entrance into the Auschwitz I camp, which also has nothing to do with his story of trading places with a Jewish prisoner at the Auschwitz III camp.

Finally, we are told in the video that it was Auschwitz III where British prisoners were held.  You can read about the POW camp where Denis Avey was a prisoner here. The POW camp was very close to the barracks where the Jewish workers lived at Auschwitz III.  After Denis explains that the SS guards at Auschwitz III were “shooting from the hip for nothing at all,” we see a photo of child survivors at the Auschwitz II extermination camp.

Towards the end of the Denis Avey video, there is a photo of a man who appears to be near death.  The word “Why?” is printed on this photo, which was taken by the British at the Bergen-Belsen camp.  Why is this man dying?  Because the Nazis did not have a typhus vaccine.  The photo on the video is the one shown below.

Iconic photo of man dying of typhus at Bergen-Belsen

We are told in the video that Denis Avey observed what the Nazis were doing to destroy the Jews and other victim groups.  Avey allegedly learned this at the Auschwitz III camp where the Jews and the British POWs were working in factories. There are no photos of Auschwitz III shown; instead we see lots of recent footage of the Auschwitz II camp, aka Birkenau.  You can read about the Auschwitz III camp, aka Monowitz, here.

This crazy mixed up video about Denis Avey, and the games that are suggested for youth groups, only serve to trivialize the Holocaust.  What’s next?  A Denis Avey video game?  I previously blogged about the Sonderkommando Revolt video game, which was withdrawn in December 2010 before it went on the market and another video game about Bergen-Belsen.

I tried to buy a copy of Denis Avey’s book at my local Barnes and Noble store, but  I was told that the book had not been published yet. It will not be available until July.  So I went online and located a website that has an excerpt at  http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/8391302/Denis-Avey-The-Man-Who-Broke-Into-Auschwitz.html

Here is a quote from The Man Who Broke into Auschwitz:

There was a sign with that cruel promise: Arbeit macht frei – “Work sets you free”. This was Auschwitz III-Monowitz.

This is a huge mistake by Denis Avey.  This sign was not on the Auschwitz III Monowitz gate, but rather on the Auschwitz main camp gate, as shown in the photo below.

Gate into the Auschwitz main camp

Denis Avey stayed for two nights in the barracks of the Auschwitz III camp.  The barracks are shown in the photo below.

Barracks at Auschwitz III

Avey tried to question the prisoners but all they would tell him is something about the “Frauenhaus,” which was their name for the brothel where the prostitutes stayed.  According to this excerpt from the book, the prisoners at Monowitz did not tell him about the gas chambers.

Avey described the soup, which he said was made from rotten cabbage and potato peels.  He said that he didn’t eat the soup, so how does he know that the cabbage was rotten.

Avey wrote that “Breakfast was odd-tasting black bread smeared with rancid margarine. I couldn’t eat it.”  Again, how does he know that the margarine was rancid if he didn’t eat it.  The prisoners were given whole grain bread instead of fluffy white bread because “black bread” is nutritious.  During World War II, everyone ate margarine because butter was scarce and very expensive.

14 Comments »

  1. Further Glory, the U.S. edition isn’t out yet. I think you should be able to order the U.K. edition – shop around, it was £9 on Amazon.co.uk for a while and I think I even saw it £5 somewhere (I held my nose and paid the full £20 so I could comment on it from the day of publication). The story was criticised by Guy Walters in the Daily Mail and a rebuttal appeared briefly on Avey’s agent’s website. Google ‘Jane+Turnbull+rebuttal” and click on ‘cached’. You will see there that the “Arbeit Macht Frei’ sign was considered a vital piece of corroborative evidence because two other people, Freddie Knoller and Primo Levi described such a sign in Auschwitz III. This appears on p.236 whch I was able to access online before the book was published.

    Comment by Ethelred — April 28, 2011 @ 12:31 am

  2. Hi there, thanks for linking to my post about using Dennis Avey’s story to teach the Christian faith.

    Rachel is correct in her comments above; the goal was certainly not to trivialise the holocaust. I also take the point about critical thinking, something I am very keen to encourage (even in a faith environment). The session was designed primarily to raise the subject of the holocaust with the young people – a subject that is rarely mentioned or noticed outside of history classes – and to help them reflect on how it can relate to their faith.

    You state in your post: “Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t approve of role-playing games about the Holocaust.”
    I feel I need to clarify that the game was designed simply as an activity to get young people thinking about the idea of smuggling goods. It is not framed in the context of the holocaust and it is certainly not asking anyone to role-play the events that happened there.

    However, I do understand that it is an extremely emotive subject and perhaps having a game (however remotely linked) in the middle of such a heavy subject may seem to trivialise the issues. That was not the intention.

    Anyway, thanks for the post. I wasn’t aware of some of the criticism of Dennis’ story so you have made me think too!

    Comment by Jon Jolly — April 28, 2011 @ 12:22 am

    • The verse which comes to my mind when I consider Holocaust narratives is ‘Be ye wise as serpents and hamless as doves’

      Comment by Ethelred — April 28, 2011 @ 12:59 am

  3. Great comment, Rachel. Totally agree with your statement about lack of critical thinking skills.
    By the way, I took an effort and watch “Schindler’s List” again. There is an episode, when the family was swallowing their jewelry pieces wrapped in crumb. The children are shown as swallowing some solid size rings. Did Irene Zisblatt plagiarize her story from that movie? Well, she is talking about the relatively small diamonds, but in the movie, one could see the large size rings with the gemstones being swallowed by young teenagers. How would they pass through esophagus and rectum of those children? If they would really swallow such large rings with gemstones, I doubt they would make it to Auschwitz, and would probably die in great pain in few hours.
    “Schindler’s List” is bogus movie.

    Comment by Gasan — April 27, 2011 @ 9:12 pm

    • Gasan — As a matter of fact, Irene Zisblatt writes in her “memoir” that it was after seeing the movie “Shindler’s List” that she realized that she also was ‘obligated’ to tell her story. She says she sat in the empty theater after the film ended, overwhelmed with a sense of responsibility. It hit her so hard, yada, yada.

      Isn’t that interesting? She was probably thinking of how she could write of swallowing diamonds. But she doesn’t say that in her book, so it’s not something she wants people to know.

      Comment by Skeptic — April 28, 2011 @ 8:03 pm

    • It gets harder to watch these movies once you have read a few books and done some research and thinking, eh? :-)

      I’d certainly be too angry to watch Schindler’s List again right now, but I am starting to understand how some Germans got so upset they loudly protested when this movie was first shown in Germany. Or why some Germans protested against the lies that were spread in films like “Murder Mills”.

      Comment by Rachel Bartlett — April 29, 2011 @ 2:03 pm

  4. While I think it pointless to try and “disprove” Avey’s tale – for example while prisoners may have had their heads shaven on arrival they probably didn’t stay shaven, liberation photos from Dachau and Mauthausen show prisoners with hair from stubble to normal length.

    However Mr Avey did not mention is visit to Auschwitz in earlier accounts – for example in the book Spectator in Hell where he provided an interview. The details he gave in the interview were suspect in at least some points. I have cut and paste it here

    http://forum.axishistory.com/viewtopic.php?f=6&t=176662

    I think we are on reasonable grounds to say Mr Avey’s account is highly improbable.

    Comment by littlegreyrabbit — April 27, 2011 @ 5:28 pm

    • I read the article on the Axis History Forum. He claims that he bribed a guard with 50 cigarettes. The guard must have been a Kapo because there is no reason that a German soldier would not have had plenty of cigarettes.

      There is no information in any of his accounts that I have read so far that he could not have obtained by reading books about Auschwitz. He does not reveal any details that prove that he was there. On the contrary, the details that he gives disprove his story. For example, the detail about the Arbeit Macht Frei gate, a photo of which I have just added to my blog.

      Comment by furtherglory — April 27, 2011 @ 5:45 pm

      • I may not have made myself clear. This is from Spectator in Hell [no mention of breaking into Auschwitz]

        pages 205-208
        Denis Avey
        Denis Avey told of his time in E715, the same camp that
        Arthur Dodd endured. Originally enlisting with the Rifle
        Brigade, his Army number was 6914761 and eventual POW
        number 220543. Denis will never forget one dangerous but
        nevertheless humorous moment when, after a full day’s work
        at I. G. Farben, the men were marched back to their camp and
        halted outside the wire, to be counted and searched yet again.
        Denis was standing next to a Cockney friend, Phil Hagen,
        when a thorough search of the Londoner revealed a scrawny
        chicken, feathers and all, hidden between his legs inside his
        trousers! Immediately, as always, there was an abundance of
        shouting and threatening with guns. Denis, Hagen and the
        other chap were taken out of the line, beaten up and thrown
        into a bunker. As they spent a freezing night without food
        or water they pondered their fate. The following morning in
        the Hauptman’s office they feared the worst as the question
        rang out, ‘Where did you get this chicken?’ Denis will never
        forget Hagen’s classic retort, ‘I was working very hard when
        this chicken attacked me and I had no option but to kill it in
        self-defence!’ Then followed the silence of a lifetime for the
        three Brits before the Hauptman collapsed with laughter,
        the guards following suit seconds later. This turn of events
        saved the lads a long period of suffering in the bunker and
        possibly also the life of the Polish civilian who had supplied
        the chicken, for Denis is sure they would have found him
        had the enquiry proceeded.
        Moments of humour were few and far between in this
        hell-hole, where inhumanities were on a scale friends
        and families would find impossible to appreciate. One
        brutality Denis witnessed that will remain with him
        forever was a female SS officer attempting to extract the
        last dregs of life from a male Jewish carcass. She punched
        the pathetic figure to the ground with her fist and, picking
        up a substantial rock, crashed it down on his head.
        This elimination of life from a tormented body was an
        everyday occurrence and these bestial acts, together with
        the memory of the repulsive stench of burning flesh, still
        bring depression and nausea to Denis Avey.
        Since representing London schoolboys in 1931, soccer
        had always been a passion for Denis and playing for the
        South African team from Camp E715 was a great form
        of escape, albeit momentarily. There were too few South
        African soldiers to form a team and their numbers were
        supplemented by the English. The team went on to win the
        international tournament.
        Whilst in Monowitz, Denis saw a copy of an SS
        Headquarters edict and subsequently managed to obtain
        a newspaper, the Beobaelten Zeitung, which reported this
        edict in detail. It read, ‘When we achieve ultimate victory
        all British POWs will be executed. We shall invade England
        and all males aged between sixteen and sixty-five will be
        transported to Europe in order to rebuild the ruined cities.
        We shall exterminate all females over child bearing age. We
        shall govern the country from Whitehall and our victorious
        soldiers will be allowed to impregnate all suitable females
        with good Aryan blood.’
        After the war Denis spent two years in hospital, a time
        punctuated with surgery for systemic tuberculosis in his lungs,
        throat and stomach. In addition, complications arising from a
        blow from a Luger pistol during his stay at Monowitz resulted
        in the loss of an eye. The incident leading up to this great
        personal loss occurred when Denis was working in a trench
        laying cables with Jews working in very close attendance.
        Suddenly a German guard started hitting a ‘Stripee’ with
        his rifle butt and kicked him viciously again and again. The
        prisoner was pitifully thin and was trying to stand to attention,
        his hat off, and not offering any resistance whatsoever. The
        blood was literally pouring down his face as Denis shouted at
        the guard to stop. An SS Officer came up behind the British
        POW with a Luger in his hand and hit Denis across the face,
        the gun’s trigger guard catching his eye.
        Like many other POWs, Denis is bitter because, despite
        the magnificent effort given to obtain victory and freedom
        for millions, these heroes were merely given a cheap demob
        suit, a woefully inadequate war pension, and were pitched
        into civilian life without counselling.
        Auschwitz was absolute evil and it bred evil. There were no
        bees, nor butterflies nor flowers; it was as though nature had
        gone on strike. To Denis Avey it seemed the great architect
        of life had turned his back entirely on the whole place. On
        incarceration in this hell hole working for the German war
        effort, his philosophy was that of Oscar Wilde, ‘stone walls do
        not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage’; he would quote this
        to his workmates and sabotage became their common focus.
        Coming from an engineering background Avey could recognise
        the Achilles heel of any equipment – no big bangs, just subtlety
        and long term goals, in order to save their necks.
        Although hospitalisation prevented him answering the
        call to give evidence at the Nuremburg War Crimes trial
        in 1947, it did highlight the degree of damage one could
        sustain whilst working for the Germans at this Hell on
        Earth. Eventually Denis Avey received a cheque from the
        British government on account of ‘compensation for Nazi
        persecution’. He was so deeply disgusted with the miserly
        amount of 204 pounds sterling that he sent the cheque
        straight back to the government.

        [Sorry about the length]

        Comment by littlegreyrabbit — April 28, 2011 @ 12:20 am

        • This quote from Spectator in Hell explains the bestiality in the Auschwitz III camp: “On incarceration in this hell hole working for the German war effort, [...] sabotage became their common focus.” The severe punishment of the prisoners was intended to stop sabotage in the factories. I heard a survivor of Auschwitz III give a talk to students in which he told about being punished for sabotage by being hung upside down by his heels.

          This quote from Spectator in Hell hints that Avey and his fellow prisoners engaged in sabotage: “Coming from an engineering background Avey could recognise the Achilles heel of any equipment – no big bangs, just subtlety and long term goals, in order to save their necks.”

          This quote is also interesting: “There were no bees, nor butterflies nor flowers; it was as though nature had gone on strike.” When I visited the Auschwitz main camp for the first time in 1998, I was surprised to see rose bushes there. I asked my guide if these flowers were there at the time that the camp was in operation and she told me that there were lots of flowers there at that time, not just a few rose bushes. A priest who was an inmate at Dachau, and later wrote a book, complained about all the flowers in the camp which created work for the prisoners who had to maintain the grounds. I get the impression that, if there had been flowers at Auschwitz III, Dennis Avey would have complained about that.

          As for the “SS Headquarters edict,” I don’t think that the SS had the authority to make such an edict. Himmler was the Reichsfuehrer-SS and I don’t think that he would not have written such an edict.

          In any case, Dennis Avey did get to play soccer. I’m surprised that he had no complaint about that, since it seems that he complained about everything.

          As for the “female SS officer” who beat a prisoner to death with a rock, what did the prisoner do to make her so angry? Are we supposed to believe that a German woman killed a Jewish prisoner for no reason? I’m surprised that there was a female SS person at Auschwitz III since, as far as I know, there were no female prisoners there. To my knowledge, the women in the SS auxilliary did not have authority over male prisoners.

          Comment by furtherglory — April 28, 2011 @ 7:01 am

  5. I don’t think the goal is trivializing the Holocaust. Replacing history classes with games and emotionalizing movies ensures that students will emerge from schools with strong feelings about an issue, and zero knowledge or critical thinking skills, and they will be convinced they know something because they have “seen these horrible photos”.

    I recently tried to watch “A film unfinished” and had to give up because of the annoying tone and distracting soundtrack :-( — but 5 years ago, I would have fallen for that.

    Comment by Rachel Bartlett — April 27, 2011 @ 1:02 pm

  6. This video seems to be a part of a counter attack by Avey’s supporters in response to various doubters. An article which came out yesterday (27th) through Reuters states that “Hodder & Stoughton issued a point-by-point rebuttal of the Daily Mail article by Guy Walters” (Walters having questioned Avey‘s story in the Daily Mail which sells over 2 million copies a day). However I can’t find any such rebuttal.

    I didn’t see any advertisement at the beginning – our wonderful BBC is funded by the licence fee and isn’t supposed to carry advertisements, even though this whole clip seems like a plug for Avey’s book, which is published by a commercial publisher rather than the BBC. Given the widespread scepticism about Avey’s story I had thought the BBC would just hope for this whole thing to be forgotten and am surprised they are bringing it up again. However it’s put out by BBC Derbyshire – Avey’s local station – and I wonder if it’s in fact a local initiative not approved by head office.

    As a British National brought up to take pride in the BBC and the fact that it is (supposedly) respected around the world as a source of accurate information I am shaken and shocked by the Avey affair. However apart from putting out unsubstantiated testimony as fact, and using emotive images which don’t match the spoken commentary they seem to be guilty of plain carelessness in describing the camp where Avey stayed was held as Auschwitz III – it is in fact E715POW. Perhaps the last simply reflects a lesser standard of checking at local level.

    I have just read Laurence Rees book ‘Auschwitz’ published in 2005 by BBC books and now realise that Avey’s wasn’t the first sensational and uncorroborated testimony they have put out as fact. Rees gives testimony from Alice Lok Cahana and her escape from a gas chamber on the day of the Sonderkommando revolt. Rees describes this as ‘her most unlikely escape’ and a ‘monumentally unlikely piece of luck‘ I saw nothing in the book to indicate that this ‘unlikely’ quality caused Rees to seek verification of her story.

    Comment by Ethelred — April 27, 2011 @ 11:40 am

    • The E175 camp was located near the town of Auschwitz, and very close to the Auschwitz III camp where the POWs worked along side Jewish prisoners. The video says he was held AT the Auschwitz III camp, but the correct way to describe the location is that he was held NEAR the Auschwitz III camp.

      I read the book by Rees when it came out in 2005. Alice is one of the survivors who is featured in Steven Spielberg’s documentary “The Last Days.” He might have included her story in his book because she is well known.

      Every survivor of Auschwitz has to have a story that explains why they weren’t gassed.

      I noticed that, in the BBC Derbyshire video, Dennis Avey says that he shaved his head before he traded places with a Jewish prisoner. So all the other prisoners in the E175 camp would have been aware of his adventure in the Jewish barracks at Auschwitz III. Unfortunately all of them are dead now, and he has no witnesses to corroborate his story.

      If Avey did, in fact, sneak into the Auschwitz III camp barracks, he would not have learned anything about the gas chambers because the gas chambers were in Auschwitz II and Auschwitz I.

      By the way, I admire your command of the English language. People in America are losing the ability to speak English properly.

      Comment by furtherglory — April 27, 2011 @ 12:16 pm

      • Good point about Avey’s shaven head. In the book none of his fellow POWs notice that someone has taken his place for the night, apart from two who knew in advance and had been sworn to secrecy. This is rather different from Charles Coward’s story where the ‘exchangee’ is treated as an honoured guest by the whole barracks.

        I use what used to be known as ‘BBC English’- a curious uncle of the evolving world English/American language!

        Comment by Ethelred — April 27, 2011 @ 1:06 pm


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