Wednesday, March 03, 2010

The man who broke into Auschwitz

It's a tale of remarkable, arguably almost insane courage. British WWII vet Dennis Avey relates the story now at age 91 of how he broke out of his POW camp and switched places with a Jewish prisoner in Auschwitz, just to bear witness to the crimes of the Nazis.
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.
Avey shaved his head and blackened his face. 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.
“I joined the Stripeys and marched into Monowitz, a predominantly Jewish camp. 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. There was an SS officer there, weeding out the weaklings for the gas. 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.”
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.”
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.” 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.”
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.
“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.”

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