Millions of men, women and children must have dreamed of escaping Auschwitz, to be anywhere but there, in the heart of darkness. But one extraordinary British prisoner of war, Denis Avey, dreamed of breaking in; to “know exactly what was happening there”, to record the names of the perpetrators and to save the lives of any that he could.
The audacity and success of his plan, kept a secret for 65 years and recounted last night to a spellbound audience (including Iain Duncan Smith MP and Michael Gove MP) at the Holocaust Educational Trust Dinner in London, was a reminder that even when humanity was at its bleakest, its capacity for heroism remained boundless.
After a remarkable wartime career with the Desert Rats, surviving a sinking ship full of POWs as well as a year in an Italian prison camp, Avey found himself transferred to the notorious I. G. Farben Industrie factory near Auschwitz (the Buna Chemical Plant), which at its peak used over 80,000 slave labourers (including many prisoners of Auschwitz Concentration Camp) to produce synthetic oil and rubber for the Nazi war effort.
The British POWs who worked at the Plant would be instantly killed if they spoke to the “stripies” (the Jewish prisoners of Auschwitz), but Avey saw their unimaginable horrors on a daily basis: summary executions and mutilations, men who within weeks were reduced through hunger and exhaustion to a slow death, a baby beaten to death with an upturned pistol (“when I saw that, I died inside”). Avey remained stoic and silent as he had to, all the while conspiring with the other POWs to sabotage the chemical processes and metalwork that he was engaged with (“ooh we did them tremendous damage” he says with a twinkle). But on one occasion Avey’s stoic silence cracked as he yelled “untermensch” at an SS guard who he saw commit an unspeakable act of wickedness; for his insolence, he was struck with a pistol across his face and remains blinded in one eye.
“Some people became immune to it all,” said Avey, “but I just became angry”. His story thereafter is so incredible as to defy précis. Determined to witness the full horrors for himself, Avey hatched a meticulous plan to swap identities with a Dutch prisoner of Auschwitz. They swapped articles of clothing over many weeks, Avey shaved his hair off with a blunt razor, he carefully studied and copied the slouched bearing of the prisoners, and – somehow – he sneaked into Auschwitz on three occasions. "Conjecture is not a word in my vocabulary," says Avey, "I had to know. I wanted names".
Avey witnessed the inhumanity of the “selections” at Auschwitz Railway Station where people were parted from their loved ones and children, sent to gas chambers or to work with the pointing of a guard’s finger; he slept on the freezing wooden bunks with men and women howling and praying for deliverance; and, by the by, he slipped some cigarettes to a prisoner he befriended (Ernst Lobethal), invaluable tokens of exchange that he hoped would enable Ernst to survive on the cruel death marches across frozen central Europe.
Avey himself eventually escaped from a death march and he managed to survive and return to England. He sought out a lieutenant to explain what he had seen and learnt but he says the man’s eyes “glazed over” and, distressed that no one would believe his travails, Avey decided never to speak of it again.
It is our tremendous privilege that Avey finally began to recount his experiences seven years ago when invited to appear on BBC Derby to talk about war pensions. “It was cathartic really,” he says. The hosts were so taken aback at the tales they were hearing, Avey tells me that they cancelled the next two shows to allow him to carry on; now his life is to be recorded in a book called The Man Who Broke into Auschwitz.
It was only once the BBC began to produce a documentary about Avey’s story that it was discovered that Ernst, the young Jewish prisoner whom Avey had befriended, had survived the death marches, having traded the Players cigarettes given to him by Avey to have his shoes re-soled. Ernst lived until 77years old in New York and before his death in 2002, he recorded the story of how a British POW he knew only as “Ginger” had saved his. When the BBC showed Avey the footage of Ernst - a "message from beyond the grave" - Avey just shook his head in silent disbelief before choking back the tears to say with characteristic understatement: “well, that’s bloody marvellous”.
Avey says he is embarrassed to be considered a hero and poignantly reflects on how he only acted on the ideals he had grown up with in rural Northern England. At 92 years old, he still travels around schools in deprived areas to teach children about his experiences and about the virtues of never turning a blind eye to acts of cruelty. We can only hope that the experience of meeting a man like Denis will inspire future generations to behave with similar courage and dignity.