A Journey to Hell and Back: Conversation with Denis Avey | HistoryNet
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A Journey to Hell and Back: Conversation with Denis Avey

By Gene Santoro
9/13/2017 • World War II Magazine

After 65 years of silence, 92-year-old Denis Avey tells an astounding story in The Man Who Broke Into Auschwitz. In summer 1941, the Desert Rat was wounded and captured in North Africa. He spent four years in POW camps—including work camp E715 at Auschwitz. There he fraternized with “stripeys” (Jewish prisoners), sabotaged the work, and risked his life by swapping places with one of the prisoners to sneak into a subcamp in the Auschwitz complex known as Monowitz, or Auschwitz III, to see the conditions firsthand. But fierce controversy has broken out in the United Kingdom, where his book was first released. Some Auschwitz survivors say his tale is impossible, and Avey’s documented “memories” have been inconsistent. His response to critics: “I don’t care. I know what I did.”

Your key to survival was to focus on yourself. Why?

I was “individual,” as I call it, because I didn’t want to involve other people and be responsible for them at that time. My thinking was individual; it had to be. I had to stay positive.

By trying to escape, for example.

By myself, yes. I told no one else of my plans. I didn’t want to involve anyone else. I could only take these risks for myself. You could end up in punishment camps, as I did. After them, when I first saw the POW camp near Auschwitz in 1943, I thought, “Wooden huts! Electric lights! Running water! I’ll have some fun here!” The next day, I discovered the pretty countryside vanished after a mile and a half ’s march. There was a vast building site, chimneys and steam cranes belching smoke, barrage balloons bobbing. In we marched to work.

So why would an “individual” risk his life to get inside Auschwitz?

Conjecture was never in my vocabulary at all. I had to see for myself what was going on, not take anybody’s word.

What was Monowitz’s purpose?

Hitler desperately wanted Buna [synthetic] rubber. In 1941, Himmler began to build a factory just outside Auschwitz, employing German civilian labor as well as stripeys and POWs. There were all these levels of security: SS, Wehrmacht, Hitlerjugend, a few others. Although we weren’t allowed to speak to the stripeys— we got shot if we communicated with them—we found ways to talk briefly. Many of them said to me,“When you get back to England, please tell them about us, about this horrific treatment.” I said, “Definitely, yes.”

How much did you know about what was happening to Jews at Monowitz?

We knew exactly. We saw stripeys being shot and mutilated for no cause—at least seven or eight every day. I saw an SS officer punch a crying baby in the face and kill it in its mother’s arms. Can you imagine a human being doing that? We got the stench of the crematoria daily. We knew people were being gassed. Every night lorries went out from Monowitz with stripeys that had been “selected”—that was their word for it. They were being sent into the gas chambers and burnt. I used to say to the stripeys, “What happened to so-and so, I haven’t seen him today.”“Oh, he went up the chimney last night.” That was the attitude. Most people were inured to the treatment going on.

How did you feel about it?

I saw it as bullying, which I’ve always hated. So I lost my temper time and time again. Fortunately I had a mantra that kept me away from death: I didn’t inter cede. Otherwise I’d have been shot many times. As it was, I lost my eye later because I called an SS man I saw murdering a boy an Untermensch—the worst insult imaginable. But I knew there’d have to be an answer about this camp after the war, so I had to see exactly what was going on.

So you decided to sneak into Monowitz. How did you prepare for that?

It took weeks and weeks of study. If I got anything wrong, I wouldn’t be protected by the Geneva Convention: I was dead. So was Hans, whose place I would take. [Swapping places was necessitated by the Nazis’ meticulous head counts.] He was a Dutch Jew the same height as me. We discussed it for weeks before he agreed.

What did you learn?

When you were marched in their line through the main gates, you had to stand up absolutely straight and look as if you could do work tomorrow, otherwise you were selected and burnt. We went in to what they called the Appellplatz—that’s the counting area—where you have to stand while the Kapo [a prisoner promoted to guard duties] counts, and the SS count. If it’s correct, the Kapo shouts the number, then shouts,“Caps off!” and you stand to attention. If my hair had been long, I’d have been recognized. I put dirt on my face and was thin, so nobody would notice me. I could speak German, but I coughed and spluttered purposely if I was questioned by a German so they wouldn’t recognize my English accent. How to use the latrine, precisely: change your clogs, dump everything into the big container—all the steps. These were among the many things I had to learn. I did it all perfectly. But I have to say, it was 150 percent luck.

How did you work the swap?

I had two chappies on my side of the fence and two chappies on the other side, all well rewarded in cigarettes and food. Hans went to my place [in Avey’s clothing, guided by two POWs]. The Jewish chappies took me into their sleeping area, and we spoke all night in low voices almost continuously, not like the bits and pieces we could manage during the day. I wanted names of Kapos and SS officers I had seen mutilating and killing people, and many other details. I got them.

What was spending the night there like?

Absolutely ghastly. You got the smell of death, decaying bodies, disease. The sounds of nightmares—but also the prayers they were singing. The soup— you could smell it a mile off, made of cabbage leaves and potato peelings, maybe. They got a bit of bread in the morning, horrid black bread smeared with rancid oleo. We got white bread and eggs and Red Cross parcels. They got less than 1,000 calories a day. Compared to them, we were privileged. And I was down to about 110 pounds.

How did you leave your work camp?

We were bombed by the Russians. It was minus 30 degrees centigrade, snow on the ground. The Germans marched the stripeys out three days before us. Twelve thousand, I think, from Monowitz. Another 20,000 came from the main camps after. Only 10,000 made it 60 kilo meters. The rest died of frostbite and exertion: they couldn’t go more than six or eight kilometers before they dropped. We were marched out three days later, and their bodies were all along the road. I estimate that we ultimately marched just over 900 miles, through Poland, Czechoslovakia, Bavaria, and up to the American lines north of Nuremberg.

You escaped and found your way to the Allies. How did you get home?

Eventually I was flown in a Lancaster to a camp in England. I got a marvelous shower and new uniform, left a note with my name and number, and caught a train to my little village. My uncle took me home in his horse-drawn coal cart.My mother was very glad to see me, but my old friends were all gone. My mental system was all a-sea. I couldn’t stand the stupid questions people kept asking me: How many Germans did you kill? They didn’t want to know anything about POWs or what I went through. Everything was empty.

Were you ever debriefed?

I was taken into an office and asked to report on my POW life. I started in, but I could see the glazed-eye look. They didn’t believe me. So I walked out and never spoke about it again. Even my dear mother never knew I was at Auschwitz.

 

Originally published in the December 2011 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.

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