BOOK REVIEW News Weekly
An unusual story of World War II
, May 25, 2013
THE MAN WHO BROKE INTO AUSCHWITZ
by Denis Avey, with Rob Broomby
Foreword by Sir Martin Gilbert
(London: Hodder and Stoughton)
Paperback: 304 pages
Reviewed by Michael E. Daniel
Interest in the Holocaust has not abated, as evidenced by the large number of films, documentaries and memoirs of survivors. However, Denis Avey’s memoir of World War II is almost unique. It is written by a British prisoner-of-war (POW), who on two separate occasions smuggled himself into Auschwitz, by swapping places with a Jewish inmate.
Denis Avey, with the assistance of BBC reporter and author Rob Broomby, and with a foreword by eminent historian Sir Martin Gilbert, recounts his eventful life during the war, focussing especially on his time in captivity as a POW in occupied Poland.
He was born in 1919, but says little about his childhood and passes swiftly on to when he joined the British Army at the outbreak of World War II.
He details the battles in which he took part as part of Operation Compass, the British-led military campaign which succeeded in driving the Italians from North Africa. The campaign lasted from early December 1940 until early February 1941, and marked the first occasion on which Australian troops saw combat during the war.
Avey saw action in the Battle of Bardia and the first Allied capture of Tobruk, during which he was wounded and sent to South Africa to recuperate. He returned to North Africa of his own volition, just after the Germans had launched their campaign in North Africa. It was during an attack upon Tobruk that Avey was captured.
While being transported to Italy, the ship in which he was imprisoned was torpedoed. Believing the ship was sinking, he and a number of other prisoners escaped. While most of the other prisoners who abandoned ship drowned, Avey managed to survive by clinging to flotsam. Eventually he landed on the Greek coast, only to end up being arrested. Years later he discovered the subsequent fate of the ship — it had remained afloat!
After being interned in POW camps in Italy, he and other prisoners were transferred to camps controlled by the Germans. Prisoners whom the Germans deemed to be incorrigible were sent to a special POW labour camp in occupied Poland, called E715, adjacent to Buna-Monowitz, the concentration camp known as Auschwitz III. While there, the POWs were forced to perform hard labour, although they experienced a better diet and treatment than did the slave labourers.
Nevertheless, Avey’s descriptions of the treatment meted out to “incorrigible” prisoners such as himself suggests that the Germans treated them more harshly than other British POWs. For example, on one occasion he stood up to a German guard, who then beat him so ferociously that he sustained terrible injuries including the loss of one eye.
Avey’s narrative then focuses on the friendship he made with two Jewish prisoners, Ernst Lobethal and “Hans”, who were working on a building site near the British POW camp. Had any Jewish prisoners been caught speaking to Allied soldiers, they would almost certainly have been killed instantly, most likely by being bludgeoned to death or shot in front of other prisoners.
Not only did Avey manage to speak to Ernst and Hans, but he was able to arrange on two occasions to swap places overnight with Hans. This involved considerable organisation, particularly in changing clothes without being detected by SS guards.
Avey describes in stark details the cruelty meted out to Jewish inmates, who were being worked to death. During the times he spent in the Auschwitz complex, Avey, lacking the protection of POW status, could all too easily have shared the fate of the many Jews sent to the gas chambers.
Avey tells how he managed to contact Ernst’s sister, Susanna, who had fled Germany for England just before the outbreak of World War II, and to obtain cigarettes from her, which he then smuggled to Ernst.
Years later, Avey heard Ernst’s oral recount of his incarceration in Auschwitz and learnt that Ernst had been able to barter the cigarettes in exchange for food and soles for his shoes, which helped him stay alive.
Eventually, Ernst managed to emigrate to the United States, where he died only a few years before Avey made contact with other members of his family.
For decades Avey, now 94, was reluctant to speak about his wartime experiences; but after his retirement he gradually disclosed his story, especially when he became more actively involved with other ex-POWs in seeking compensation. After hearing of his story, BBC journalist Rob Broomby collaborated in the writing of the book. Part of his assistance included successfully tracking down Ernst’s sister.
The Man Who Broke Into Auschwitz has been the subject of considerable controversy in the United Kingdom, with some experts questioning the authenticity of Avey’s claim that he exchanged uniforms with a Jewish prisoner, particularly since Ernst Lobel’s oral account makes no reference to it. However, historian Lyn Smith, in her work Heroes of the Holocaust: Ordinary Britons Who Risked Their Lives to Make a Difference (London: Ebury Publishing, 2012), defends Avey’s account.
This is a fascinating record of the heroic action of a soldier. Faced with almost impossible odds, and at great risk to himself, he reached out to assist those even less fortunate than himself. This memoir is a book that this reviewer found hard to put down.