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July 3, 2011

Book Report: The Man Who Broke into Auschwitz

I have just finished reading Denis Avey’s book The Man Who Broke into Auschwitz and I now believe that he might have actually stayed for two nights in the Jewish barracks at the prison camp called Auschwitz III, aka Monowitz.  However, the title of his book should be “The Man Who Allegedly Slept Two Nights in Monowitz.”  He didn’t break into Auschwitz, but he could have sneaked into the Jewish barracks at the Auschwitz III prison camp which was just outside the southern border of the huge Monowitz factory site.

Monowitz factories where Denis Avey worked

The Buna Werke near the village of Monowitz was a huge factory complex for making synthetic rubber; it was built in May 1942, six kilometers from the main Auschwitz camp, by the German company called IG Farbenindustrie (IG Farben).

At first, the Monowitz prison camp was one of the 40 sub-camps of the main Auschwitz camp, but in November 1943, the Monowitz sub-camp became Auschwitz III with its own sub-camps.

Today, a solid concrete fence surrounds the former Buna Werke, which is off limits to tourists. The old fence is the first thing that you see, as you are driving into the town of Auschwitz from the Krakow airport. The fence stretches for miles, and behind it, are factories, built by the Germans, that are still being used today.

Caution: Spoilers ahead.  Stop reading now if you plan to purchase this book and read it yourself.

The section of the book about Avey’s time in a POW camp at Monowitz doesn’t begin until Chapter 9.  Before that, Avey tells about his war experience and how he was captured.  This part of the book establishes what kind of man he was, and gives you an idea of why he “broke into Auschwitz.”  Avey was very brave, but also reckless and foolhardy.

There are several photos in the book which show Avey as a young man.  He was 25 years old, and very handsome, when he “broke into Auschwitz.” He still looks remarkably good for a man of 92.

His book will probably be made into a movie and the actor who plays the part should be someone who looks like Van Johnson, a famous actor in the 1940s.  I can’t think of any current actor who has the looks and charisma of Van Johnson, so the part will probably go to an unknown actor.  But I digress.

Denis Avey was a British POW in the E715 camp, which was located across the road that runs along the southern border of the huge Monowitz factory site.  The distance from the E715 camp to the Jewish barracks at Monowitz is measured in yards, not miles.

Two maps are included in Avey’s book: one map shows that the POW camp was about 500 yards from the Monowitz barracks for the Jewish workers.

The Auschwitz II camp, aka Birkenau, was the “death camp” where four gas chambers were located. Birkenau is 7 miles east of the former Monowitz prison camp.  Auschwitz I, the main camp, is about 5 miles east of  the Monowitz factories.

This quote is from page 168 of the American edition of Avey’s book:

On 18 January 1945 the Jews were marched out of Auschwitz III-Monowitz for the last time.  The camp, just a few hundred yards along the track from E715, was abandoned except for some of the sick who were left behind.

One of the maps in the book shows that the barracks for the sick prisoners made up about 20% of the Jewish barracks.  Yet throughout the book, Avey mentions that there was a daily selection at Monowitz, and the prisoners, who were too sick to continue working, were immediately sent to the gas chamber.  Why did they need a large section of barracks for the sick if the sick prisoners were immediately gassed?

On page 140, Avey describes the scene when he entered the Monowitz prison camp:

It was still light when we passed through the gate and I saw the sign bearing the cruel promise “Arbeit Macht Frei” — work sets you free.

I didn’t know that the irony of those words would scream across the decades. This was Auschwitz III–Monowitz.

Rob Broomby co-wrote the book with Avey.  On page 235, we learn that Broomby questioned whether the “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign was actually on the Monowitz gate.

This quote is from page 235 of the American edition:

As Rob’s research continued it threw up some interesting questions about the nature of memory. He kept asking me if I was certain I had seen that Arbeit Macht Frei sign at the gates to Auschwitz III Monowitz.  I was, but he said some experts had questioned it and nothing survives at the site today to testify one way or the other. The sign everyone knows these days is at the gates of the main camp, Auschwitz I. After more than sixty years it is that one which is emblazoned on the collective memory although many camps had them. Rob said the most influential account of life in the camp — that of survivor and writer Primo Levi — mentioned the sign at Auschwitz III more than once but the head of Research at Auschwitz wasn’t convinced.

From Avey’s book, I learned that the Jewish prisoners wore “crude wooden clogs” when they worked at the Monowitz factories.  I think most people would picture “clogs” as looking like the wooden shoes that are made in Holland.  Years ago, I visited a Museum in the town of Dachau which displayed shoes worn by the Dachau prisoners; they were regular style shoes made with cloth uppers and wooden soles. When I visited the Museum at Bergen-Belsen in 2001, I saw a pair of shoes with leather uppers and wooden soles, which had allegedly been worn by a Jewish prisoner.  The prisoners at Bergen-Belsen worked to salvage usable leather from a huge pile of worn-out shoes in the camp; the leather was then nailed to a wooden sole to make new shoes for the prisoners.

Shoes with wooden soles worn by Jewish prisoners

This small detail is important because Avey  did not mention that Ernst Lobethal, the man whose life he had saved, had worn wooden clogs.  On page 125, Avey describes Lobethal’s clothing:

This lad was around nineteen and somehow different. I noticed right away that his zebra striped uniform was thicker than most, not quite so worn out, maybe even cleaner than the others.

Avey was cautious at first because Lobethal seemed to be “one of the favored few.” Lobethal didn’t do heavy manual labor in the camp; he had some sort of privileged position.  Lobethal wore better clothes than the others, according to Avey, but Avey did not write anything about Lobethal’s shoes.

Lobethal’s life was saved because he used the cigarettes, that Avey obtained from Lobethal’s sister, to have his shoes resoled before going on the 38-mile march out of the camp to Gleiwitz, a camp in the Greater German Reich, on January 18, 1945.  This implies that Lobethal did not wear crude wooden clogs.

Avey wrote that there was a shoe repair place at Monowitz.  But why was this needed if almost all of the prisoners wore wooden clogs?  Were the “clogs” really shoes with leather or cloth uppers and wooden soles?

In any case, Denis Avey was rejected by Yad Vashem for the honor of being a Righteous Gentile; he did not get a tree planted in his honor in Israel because his claim of saving a Jew was not allowed. After all, Lobethal might have made it for 38 miles on his old soles, although in his Shoah testimony, Lobethal himself credited the new soles with saving his life.

Avey’s book does settle one question that is very controversial: Did the Germans march the Jewish prisoners out of Auschwitz as a means of killing them or did they march them out because they needed workers for their factories in Germany?

On page 170, Avey wrote:

The Germans had marched off their Jewish prisoners, thinking they could wring some more work out of them.

Avey and the other British POWs marched out of their camp on Jan. 21st, three days after the Jewish prisoners started their march.  At the beginning of their march, the POWs were on the same route taken by the Jewish prisoners. Avey mentioned that they were walking for miles on the frozen bodies of the dead Jewish prisoners before the route changed.

Avey wrote on page 173:

We didn’t know what they had planned for us. After all, we had witnessed Auschwitz.

So the Germans weren’t worried about allowing witnesses to live?

What had the British POWs and the Jewish prisoners at Monowitz actually witnessed?  Did they see the gas chambers?  SS judge Georg Konrad Morgen testified at the Nuremberg IMT that there was a gas chamber at Monowitz.  You can read about it here on my web site.

Avey wrote about the Allied bombing of the Monowitz factories.  He wrote about an air raid shelter; the POWs did not want to go inside this shelter because they had heard rumors about the gas chambers, and they were afraid the air raid shelter might be a gas chamber in disguise.

Air raid shelter at Monowitz looked like a gas chamber

On page 167, Avey wrote that the Red Cross packages could not get through due to the Allied bombing.  On the next page, he wrote about a Russian air raid.

POW camp E715 had previously been a camp for Russian POWs.  Avey wrote that there were rumors that the Russians had been gassed to make room for the British POWs.

On page 175, Avey wrote, regarding how he survived the march out of Auschwitz:

I forced the most appalling things down my gullet on that march and each time I convinced myself that it was a Christmas dinner. It’s how I survived.

Yet, when Avey sneaked into the Jewish barracks at Monowitz for the first time, he didn’t eat the evening meal, nor breakfast, according to his book.  He went directly to his bunk and stayed out of sight.  Maybe Avey knew that he would have been caught if he had gone through the chow line.  Primo Levi wrote that the Jewish prisoners had to show their tattoo before they could get their food.  We know that either Rob Broomby or Denis Avey had read Primo Levi’s books so they didn’t make the mistake of claiming in their book that Avey went through the chow line while he was in the Jewish barracks on his first trip.

This quote, about his second trip to the Jewish barracks, is from page 147:

Breakfast was odd-tasting black bread smeared with something I took to be rancid margarine.  We passed between tables picking it up as we went by. There was no going back.  I kept my head down, took it and passed on.  I was hungry but I still couldn’t eat it.

If Avey didn’t eat the bread, how did he determine that it was odd-tasting?  The Jewish prisoners were allowed to pick up bread as they “passed between tables”?  How did the SS guards prevent the starving prisoners from taking more than their share?

On page 146, Avey wrote that there wasn’t much to see in the Monowitz barracks.  Regarding why he sneaked into the Jewish barracks, he wrote:

I had wanted to know more about the selections, the gas chambers, but now I understood that I was in the wrong place for that.  The camps were separate but inextricably linked.  These people were being driven on relentlessly; falter or weaken and they were sent on to the gas chambers.  There were many parts, but it had one machine.

On page 160, Avey wrote that he was disappointed by his first trip to the Jewish barracks at Monowitz.

He wrote:

The selections took place there but the mechanized slaughter was happening elsewhere.

I have been watching the Casey Anthony trial on TV and I keep hearing the defense lawyers say: “Objection, assuming facts not in evidence.”  This would be a good sub-title for Avey’s book:  “The Man Who Broke into Auschwitz, Assuming Facts not in Evidence.”  He didn’t find out anything about the gas chambers; he just assumed that they existed and that the prisoners who disappeared were killed by “mechanized slaughter.”  The actual sub-title of the book is A True Story of World War II.

Avey decided to make a second trip to the Jewish barracks at Monowitz since he had not learned much on his first trip. Regarding the second trip, he wrote:

Once inside I took to the bunk and stayed there.  I knew I wasn’t going to be eating their food.

So that’s why he didn’t get caught.  He didn’t risk being asked to show his tattoo before being served any food.

I did learn one thing about the Jewish barracks that I didn’t know before.  Three prisoners slept in one bed, but they slept across the bed, not with their heads at the head of the bed and their feet at the foot.  Avey was over six feet tall, so his legs were hanging over, but the Jewish prisoners were much shorter and sleeping cross-wise gave them more room in the bed.

I also learned that the British POWs were given white bread.  The Germans were following the Geneva Convention to the letter.  POWs were supposed to be given their native diet which meant white bread for the British instead of the nutritious black bread that the Jewish prisoners ate.  The Jews were given “cabbage soup” according to Denis Avey.  If you’ve ever cooked cabbage, you know that it cooks down to nothing, so a bowl of  cooked cabbage provides very concentrated nutrition.  Cabbage is a source of Vitamin C.  Himmler, who was a health nut, would have known that Vitamin C is essential and he would have fed the prisoners cabbage for that reason.

Avey follows the obligatory formula for a Holocaust-related book: he mentions the obligatory story of the killing of a baby by an SS man.  He wrote that he saw an SS man punch a baby in the face with all his might.  The typical baby-killing story involves an SS man smashing a baby against a train or truck or wall.  Baby-atrocity stories are part of an old tradition that was started by the British in World War I when they told the lie about German soldiers “cutting off the hands of the babies in Belgium.”

The formula for a Holocaust-related book also includes some mention of at least one of the famous evil Nazis.  Avey mentions seeing Irma Grese who was a famous guard at Birkenau, but somehow she turned up at Monowitz and was included in his book.

The cover of the American edition of Avey’s book is plain black with gold letters on the spine.  However, the paper book jacket has a scary-looking photo of the gate house at the entrance into the Auschwitz II camp, aka Birkenau.  The cover photo is inappropriate because Denis Avey was in a POW camp that was seven miles from Birkenau.  Avey’s story has nothing whatsoever to do with the Birkenau death camp.  The photo looks like a recent photo that has been converted from a color photo into black and white and darkened to make it look ominous. I previously blogged about photos of the Birkenau gate house here.

The background of the book jacket is black with the title in red and gold letters. Is this supposed to suggest the red-gold-and-black German flag that the German people are now ashamed to fly?

I would suggest that an appropriate cover picture would be a sepia tone photo of Denis as a young man, or several old photos, including one of the soccer team in the POW camp.  The part about him sneaking into the Jewish barracks at Monowitz is a small part of the book.  His exploits during World War II should be high-lighted instead.

Red arrow points to Avey on the soccer team in POW camp

April 10, 2011

New book: The Man Who Broke into Auschwitz by Denis Avey — is it an insult to the millions who died there?

Filed under: Holocaust — Tags: , , — furtherglory @ 11:49 am

According to a news article in the Daily Mail which you can read here, there is some doubt about the truth of the story told by Denis Avey in his new book, The Man Who Broke into Auschwitz, which was recently published in ten countries and is already a best seller. Some people are calling his story an insult to the millions who died in the gas chambers at Auschwitz.

Back on March 4, 2010, I wrote about Avey’s story; you can read my blog post here.

This quote from the Daily Mail news article caught my attention:

What is also troubling is that the story of Mr Avey’s swap is almost identical to that told by another former POW at camp E715 called Charles Coward.

In a post-war trial, Coward gave testimony — now widely discredited by Holocaust scholars — in which he claimed to have smuggled himself into Auschwitz by swapping places with a Jewish inmate. This tall tale is included in a book about Coward’s exploits which is called The Password Is Courage and billed on the jacket as The Man Who Broke Into Auschwitz — the very same title as Avey’s book.

The chance that two British POWs both independently thought up the life-endangering idea to swap places with an inmate of Auschwitz for the night stretches credibility to breaking point.

I have not read Avey’s book and when I first heard about his story, I was confused because I thought that he was claiming that he had sneaked into Auschwitz I, the main camp, which was about six miles from the Auschwitz III camp, aka Monowitz, where Avery was working when he was a POW.

Now it is clear that his claim is that he sneaked into the barracks at Monowitz, the Auschwitz III camp, where he learned all about the gas chambers from the Jewish prisoners.  What threw me off at first was that Avery described the camp as having the “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign, which was on the gate at the Auschwitz I camp, but not on the Monowitz gate.

Sgt. Charles Coward had been captured by the Germans in May 1940 but he was not sent to the E715 POW camp near Monowitz until December 1943. While he was a prisoner at E715, Coward smuggled out news about what was happening at Monowitz in letters to the British War Office and informed Swiss representatives of the Red Cross, who paid two visits to E715 in the summer 1944.

Coward testified at the Nuremberg International Military Tribunal regarding his observations about Monowitz.  This quote is from his testimony:

DR. DRISCHEL (counsel for Defendant Ambros): Witness, it is remarkable that you state in your affidavit that for a few cigarettes you saw the gas chambers in Auschwitz and the crematoria. Can you tell its where that was in the city of Auschwitz?

COWARD: To my best belief the gas chamber and crematorium, as it was known, was about 50 yards from a railway station at the far end of, I think the name was Monowitz.

DR. DRISCHEL: Did I understand you to say that you saw the gas chambers in Monowitz?

COWARD: No, not actually in Monowitz, no. Where the station was at Auschwitz, you see – I very likely misunderstood your question. At Auschwitz there was a railway station, you see, and about 50 to 100 yards from Auschwitz there was a siding where they used to bring the civilians, you see; and about 20 yards on the other side of this siding was where this particular guard took me and showed me the place.

The “siding” that Coward mentioned was called the Judenrampe or Jewish ramp in English.  The Judenrampe was an actual ramp, that is, a platform made out of wood, on which the Jews disembarked from the trains.

Railroad tracks at Auschwitz where the Judenrampe was formerly located

The Judenrampe, where the Jews got off the transport trains was “some distance from the railroad station” in the words of Sgt. Coward. The wooden ramp has since been torn down, but the tracks are still there. In May 1944, the railroad tracks were extended into the Birkenau camp when the transports of Jews from Hungary began to arrive, and the Judenrampe was no longer used.

When I visited Auschwitz in 2005, I saw some old abandoned buildings, to the left of the tracks, which might be the location that Sgt. Charles Coward was talking about when he testified about the gas chamber that was “20 yards from the siding.” The photo below, taken in October 2005, shows one of these old buildings.

Abandoned building near the former Judenrampe

Today, there is no claim by the Auschwitz Museum that these buildings once housed a gas chamber. However, an SS judge named Dr. Georg Konrad Morgen testified in defense of the SS at the Nuremberg IMT.  He claimed that there was a gas chamber at Monowitz but the SS was not involved.  You can read about his testimony here on my web site.

Here is another quote from the Daily Mail news article:

The trouble is that increasing numbers of people don’t believe him. They include former Auschwitz prisoners, historians and Jewish organisations — and they all doubt very much that he broke into Auschwitz.

This week Dr Piotr Setkiewicz, the head historian at Auschwitz, said that he did not believe Mr Avey’s story of the swap. He said that his fear was the story could provide ammunition for Holocaust deniers who are keen to exploit implausible memoirs in order to ‘prove’ that the Holocaust did not take place.

Don’t worry about Avey’s book.  It will soon be classified as a novel and made into a movie.  Just because a book is in the Holocaust fiction genre is no reason to throw it out.    The basic premise of the book is that a British POW  traded places with a Jewish prisoner in order to learn about the gas chambers.  What’s wrong with that?

March 4, 2010

British POW sneaked into Auschwitz? Not bloody likely!

Filed under: Holocaust, World War II — Tags: , , , , , — furtherglory @ 6:05 am

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.

British Prisoners of War at E715 POW camp at Auschwitz –  Photo Credit: Alan Howitt

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.

Football team in British POW camp at Auschwitz

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)

Jewish prisoners working in a factory at Monowitz

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.

Barracks at Monowitz, July 1942 – Prisoners moved in September 1942

[....]

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?

The Arbeit Macht Frei sign was on the gate into the main Auschwitz camp

The Arbeit Macht Frei sign was on the gate into the main Auschwitz camp

The “Arbeit Macht Frei” 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 (sic) 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 (sic) 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 (sic) 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 could not 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.

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