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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

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