Guy Walters – Daily Mail April 9, 2011
The story of Denis Avey is one of deep compassion and breathtaking heroism. It is a wartime story that he has kept to himself for several decades, before finally revealing the full account in a book that was published this month.
Called The Man Who Broke Into Auschwitz, the book is already a best-seller.
It tells how Mr Avey was held by the Germans in a PoW camp next to Auschwitz, and how he risked his life by swapping places with a Jewish inmate on two occasions and smuggling himself into the concentration camp to record for posterity the horrors of history’s greatest crime.
The book also tells how Avey saved the life of another Jewish inmate, called Ernst Lobethal, by supplying him with cigarettes.
Lobethal had been raised in an orphanage in Breslau in what is now Poland, and in January 1943 he was sent to Auschwitz, where he had to use all his wits to survive.
He was able to trade the cigarettes for new soles on his shoes — shoes vital to his survival in a forced ‘death’ march from the camp through snow at the end of the war.
When he was Prime Minister, Gordon Brown presented Avey with a British Hero Of The Holocaust Award at a reception at 10 Downing Street.
His name was also put forward to Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, to be made ‘Righteous Among The Nations’, an honour given to Gentiles who saved Jews during the war, held by Oskar Schindler. Avey has been dubbed a man of ‘limitless moral and physical courage’ by a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Henry Kamm, and his book carries a foreword by the renowned historian Sir Martin Gilbert.
He has given countless talks about his experiences and has appeared many times on TV and radio.
Just last week, Avey made millions pause for thought when he gave a lengthy and humbling interview to BBC Breakfast, in which he revealed his horrific experiences.
Avey’s story is reaching a huge audience — his book is being published in at least ten countries. And he is taken aback by all the attention. ‘On reflection,’ he says, ‘I can’t really believe that people would believe what I did.’
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
The World Jewish Congress has now called on Mr Avey’s publishers to verify the historical accuracy of the book. ‘We are deeply concerned about the charge that a significant part of Mr Avey’s story — ie that he supposedly smuggled himself into the Auschwitz-Buna concentration camp — is exaggerated if not completely fabricated,’ said the organisation.
It also emerged this week that Yad Vashem felt unable to honour Mr Avey with Righteous Among The Nations, because it could not back up his claims.
‘We didn’t find anyone to confirm it,’ said Irena Steinfeldt, a spokeswoman for Yad Vashem. ‘We went through several testimonies of Jewish inmates, and none of them mentioned that it happened. There was nothing to substantiate it.’
Ms Steinfeldt added: ‘We often get recommendations that show that the applicant has won an honour from a government, but that in itself is not evidence.’
Former prisoners at Auschwitz and at camp E715 — the British PoW camp next door in which Mr Avey was held — have also strongly disputed Mr Avey’s story, arguing that the swap would have been impossible. Let us look in detail at his main claim — that he smuggled himself into Auschwitz,
Born in 1919, Avey was enlisted into the Rifle Brigade in 1939 and was sent to Egypt. He was captured by the Afrika Korps in Libya in November 1940 and after a succession of PoW camps, including a year in Italy, ended up at the PoW camp E715.
There he worked as a labourer and was housed only a few hundred yards from one of the major parts of Auschwitz, known as Auschwitz III or Monowitz.
It was while he saw the horrific treatment being meted out to the Jewish inmates of Auschwitz with whom he worked in the same chemical factory that he came up with the idea of swapping place with a Jewish prisoner. His motive, he claims, was to see what was happening for himself so that he ‘could bear witness’ and help hold the Nazis to account after the war.
According to Avey, the plan relied on an enormous amount of preparation. For weeks, he says, he had studied the Jewish prisoners at the Auschwitz III camp and had learned how to imitate them. He shaved his head, smeared his face with dirt, and then found a Jewish prisoner with whom he swapped.
He says he used cigarettes as a bribe to obtain a pair of wooden clogs that were worn by the Jewish inmates and bribed a ‘kapo’ — or guard — to turn a blind eye to the swap.
One day, as the two work columns of the Jewish and the British prisoners drew close, the Jewish prisoner and Avey ducked into a nearby hut, quickly swapped their clothes, and then darted back into each other’s columns.
While he was inside Auschwitz III, Avey claimed to have seen a corpse hanging from a gibbet, endured a night in the barracks alongside groaning and screaming Jewish inmates, and breakfasted on rotten cabbage and potato peelings.
He says he returned to E715 and later swapped places with the prisoner a second time, although both decided that to risk another attempt would be tempting fate. Both knew the penalty would be death if they were caught. However, the idea that both men could have simply switched columns, twice, without being seen by German guards or spotted afterwards is implausible.
‘I don’t believe it,’ says Brian Bishop, 91, a survivor of Dunkirk who had been captured in Africa in 1942 and was at camp E715, ‘I can’t understand how he did it. To do something like that you need to have several people helping on both sides — our side and the Jewish side.’
Sam Pivnik, 84, a Polish Jew, was sent to Auschwitz aged 16 in August 1943 and held there as prisoner 135913 until January 1945. He shares similarly strong doubts. ‘Avey’s story seems to me highly unlikely,’ he says.
‘Swapping places with an Auschwitz prisoner wasn’t just risking his own life, but those of everyone else in his block; and he was taking a huge risk that he wouldn’t be informed on. It isn’t a chance that I would have taken. Prisoners in Auschwitz were so desperate, you couldn’t take the risk of trusting them.’
Auschwitz historian Dr Setkiewicz agrees with both survivors. He points out that many people would have had to have been involved in such an exchange, and it would have been extremely risky as there were many spies in the camp: ‘As there are no testimonies by other survivors, I certainly would not include this story in any book that I wrote.’
Then there is the inconsistency in Mr Avey’s accounts both of the identity of the man with whom he swapped and where the swap took place.
In his book, he writes that he swapped places with a Dutch Jewish inmate called ‘Hans’ and smuggled himself from the British PoW camp into the part of the death camp known as Auschwitz III.
However, in an interview he gave to the Daily Mail in December 2009, Mr Avey — who says he was called ‘Ginger’ when he was in the camp — claimed to have swapped with prisoner Ernst Lobethal, the man to whom he smuggled cigarettes.
In the same interview — and in a talk he gave subsequently to students at Oxford — Mr Avey said that Ernst was in Auschwitz II, or Birkenau, which is some four miles from Auschwitz III.
In his book, Mr Avey also writes of passing under the infamous ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ sign — ‘Work Sets You Free’ — as he enters Auschwitz III. As Dr Setkiewicz confirms, there was no such sign there; it was at the Auschwitz I camp some six miles away.
Mr Avey claims the clothes he borrowed from the Jewish inmate were infested with lice. This detail is doubted by former inmate Sam Pivnik. ‘We were made to be scrupulously clean at all times in Auschwitz III work-camps, and you risked a severe beating if you got dirty,’ Pivnik says.
‘The SS were terrified of typhus outbreaks and the prisoners’ uniforms, bedding and barracks were endlessly disinfected and deloused.’
Mr Avey’s claim to have broken into Auschwitz is even dismissed by Ingrid Lobet, the daughter of Ernst Lobethal. While Ms Lobet says she has no reason to doubt that Mr Avey did indeed smuggle some of the ‘the magical international currency’ of cigarettes to her father, she does not accept the story of the swap.
‘I don’t believe this happened,’ she says. ‘Where is the detail in what he saw there that can’t be gleaned from the vaguest Holocaust account?
‘The British PoWs were fed,’ she adds. ‘The Jews were not. The Jews looked starving, the British did not. Most of the Jews spoke only Yiddish. How is some starving, Yiddish-speaking Jew going to be mistaken for a British PoW while in PoW barracks?
‘Did “Ginger” memorise the switched survivor’s number in German so that he could respond to it at a roll call?’
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.
The similarity between the two tales also raises the question of why Mr Avey took so long to speak about his wartime experiences. It was in 2001 that Mr Avey’s experiences at E715 first appeared, featuring in a book called Spectator In Hell by Colin Rushton, a poet and historian.
Mr Avey revealed much that was traumatic, including an incident in which he lost an eye after being pistol-whipped by an SS officer, and the deaths of 38 PoWs in an Allied bombing raid. But he never once mentioned the swap.
On July 16, 2001, Mr Avey gave a five-hour interview to the Imperial War Museum in which he spoke about his incarceration, as well as the psychological impact of the war and his problems with nightmares. Not once in this interview did Mr Avey talk about smuggling himself into Monowitz
In September 2004 and January 2005, Avey was interviewed by the journalist Diarmuid Jeffreys for his book Hell’s Cartel. He mentioned the pistol-whipping incident but again failed to talk about the swap or about Ernst or Hans.
Only in 2009, in an interview with the BBC journalist Rob Broomby, did Mr Avey first mention that he had smuggled himself into Auschwitz III. And Rob Broomby went on to co-write the book that has now appeared.
Mr Broomby has explained that Mr Avey left it so long to tell the story because he suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder when he came back from the war.
Why, then, was he able to talk about all those other experiences of the war in the preceding years?
Professor Kenneth Waltzer, the director of the Jewish Studies Program at Michigan State University and a world authority on the Nazi concentration camps, is sceptical: ‘The pattern of sustained silence, despite interviews, and then the tumbling out of the story does indeed raise suspicions.’
Mr Avey’s former fellow PoW, Brian Bishop, is more scathing: ‘Why does he start telling this story now? I don’t understand why all these stories are coming out now. It looks like they’re waiting for everybody to die and then no one can contradict them.
As well as being traumatised, Mr Avey also claims that his reticence was born from the fact that the military authorities did not want to hear his story after the war — according to him, the mood among the authorities was one of wanting to move on and not wishing to hear about the horrors of the camp.
However, the opposite seems to be the case. In 1947, Mr Avey was approached by American prosecutors via the War Office to ask if he would like to make an affidavit of his experiences to help build a case in a war crimes trial. But he declined.
This week, Mr Avey was unable to explain the inconsistencies in his story. When asked why he did not mention the swap to the Imperial War Museum, he said: ‘I don’t know why. I didn’t choose to establish it then. But what I wrote in the book is the truth. I don’t have to defend it. I don’t mind what anybody says. I know what I’ve done.’
His co-writer, Rob Broomby, was also unable to confirm whether Mr Avey’s story of the swap was actually true. ‘It’s very difficult to verify at this stage,’ he said. ‘You’re not going to find people 70 years afterwards. It’s only when you’ve spent time with Denis that you know what he’s like.
‘This is not footnoted academic history. You have to look into the man’s eyes and know what sort of man this is.’
There are some who think it inappropriate to question the words of an elderly man — Mr Avey is now 92. But it is vital that stories such as that of Mr Avey are subjected to proper scrutiny.
As none other than the late Ernst Lobethal wrote to the New York Times in February 1994: ‘I think it is important to point out inaccuracies, lest Holocaust revisionists do it for us.’
Additional reporting by Jeremy Duns and Adrian Weale.