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Bearing witness to Nazi horror

While others were desperate to get out of the death camp at Auschwitz, a POW risked his life to get in. He needed to see what was happening, knowing that one day there would be a reckoning.

April 03, 2010|By Henry Chu
  • Denis Avey, left, meets this year with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown at 10 Downing St. A Jewish Auschwitz inmate credited Avey's gift of cigarettes with saving his life.
Denis Avey, left, meets this year with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown… (Luke MacGregor / Associated…)

Reporting from Bradwell, England — The men in stripes came in looking like boxers and ended up like skeletons. Denis Avey could see them wasting away in a place so evil that even nature had abandoned it, without a bee or butterfly in sight.

They were the Jewish inmates housed in the ghastliest part of Auschwitz, subjected to brutalities and atrocities that Avey, an English prisoner of war confined to another section of the camp, could barely imagine.

But then, he thought, why only imagine them? What if, somehow, he could see those horrors for himself -- see them, remember them, bear witness to the world about them?

So the then-25-year-old pondered and plotted, soon hatching a plan so audacious that, more than 65 years later, he shakes his head at its absurdity. While so many Jews and others held at the infamous extermination camp were desperate to get out, Avey was actually devising a way to sneak in.

As reckless as it seems, the attempt to infiltrate the heart of Nazi darkness was part and parcel of a remarkable wartime career that saw Avey fight in North Africa with Britain's famous Desert Rats, suffer capture by the enemy, survive the sinking of a boat full of POWs and languish for a year in a camp in Italy before he even arrived in Nazi-occupied Poland.

Now 91, Avey is finally being recognized for his long-ago bravery, especially his role in saving the life of a Jewish internee at Auschwitz. The British government recently awarded him a medal, and Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial center in Israel, is considering whether to add Avey to its honor roll of "The Righteous Among the Nations," non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during World War II.

It's all a bit overwhelming for a nonagenarian who stuffed his wartime experiences behind a wall of silence for decades, after his first attempt to tell his story met with shocking indifference from his superiors.

"I don't feel like a hero. I'm embarrassed," he said at his home here in the peaceful northern English countryside. "I was that type of person. I had certain ideals that I grew up with."

Avey landed in Auschwitz toward the end of 1943, thrown together with hundreds of other POWs from Britain, Australia and other nations in a facility known as the E715 work camp. Although part of the Auschwitz complex, it was some distance from the hellhole known as Auschwitz-Birkenau, which held the most notorious of the gas chambers and crematoria of Hitler's Final Solution.

The POWs were forced to work in a factory run by IG Farben, a German conglomerate engaged in making synthetic rubber to help the Nazi war effort.

Healthier Jewish inmates were brought over to work in the factory as well, but received far harsher treatment from their German overlords. That repulsed men like Avey, who couldn't escape knowledge of the gruesome fate that lay in store for many of their fellow workers.

"When the wind was blowing in the wrong direction, you could smell the crematoria. They were all very, very much aware of what was going on," said Duncan Little, author of "Allies in Auschwitz," an account of British POWs in camp E715.

"They tried to help as much as they could. For instance, the food the Nazis were giving them, which was completely unpalatable -- some of them would try to leave it in the corner so the Jewish workers could have it."

Although contact was strictly forbidden, some POWs and Jews managed to communicate surreptitiously. Avey carved out a friendship with a young German-born Jew named Ernst, with whom he could exchange snatches of conversation if they were careful.

"You can speak German out of the side of your mouth," Avey said, adding with a smile, "but it's difficult."

Ernst knew Avey, a redhead, only as "Ginger." As their friendship developed, Ernst confided that he had a sister who had escaped to England a few years before. Avey asked for her address.

As a POW, he was entitled to write letters home. He sent a carefully worded missive to his mother, telling her about a friend whose family didn't know he was alive and requesting that she contact the man's sister to say "everything was OK."

He also asked his mother to send cigarettes, which he planned to give to Ernst.

"By a miracle, the letter got through, and the cigarettes came four months later," Avey recalled. "Two hundred cigarettes."

They were as good as gold in the camp. Over the following weeks, Avey was able to slip a few at a time to Ernst, so the young Jewish prisoner could use them to barter for extra rations and other items.

Later, the cigarettes would save his life.

In the meantime, Avey was brewing an even more daring plan than smuggling contraband to his friend: seeing firsthand the unspeakable things being done to the Jews at Auschwitz.

"You know the word 'conjecture'? It's never been in my vocabulary," he said. "I wanted to know exactly what was happening inside there. . . . I knew there had to be eventually a reckoning to all this."

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