Books: “The Man who Broke Into Auschwitz”

August 26, 2011

DENIS AVEY/BBC photo

The title of the book is misleading. Denis Avey, a British soldier during World War II, didn’t break into Auschwitz. He was a POW there, so he was already within the walls, as it were. He and the other inmates had been put to work building an enormous industrial plant in which a German company planned to manufacture synthetic rubber and methanol. From the first, Avey was deeply disturbed by the condition of the Jewish prisoners – the “stripeys” he called them because of their pajama-like uniforms. He was so distressed in fact, that he became obsessed with the need to see for himself the section of the Auschwitz complex where the Jewish inmates lived. If he survived the prison himself, Avey wanted to be a witness.

AVEY with Prime Minister GORDON BROWN/BBC

So compelling was this need in Avey’s mind that on two occasions he swapped clothing with a Jewish inmate and shuffled off with the other Jewish prisoners at the end of the work day. What he found was at least as bad as he had imagined.

That part of Avey’s story is recounted in “The Man who Broke into Auschwitz,” which he co-wrote with Rob Broomby, a BBC reporter who worked very hard to help Avey reconstruct the experience 60 years after the fact.

Before he was sent to Auschwitz, Avey had seen plenty of combat in North Africa. He was part of the force that first drove the Italian army out of Egypt and across Libya and then went on the defensive when Erwin Rommel brought his Afrika Korps into the fray and reversed the tide of battle for a time.

ERWIN ROMMEL

Avey, who explains that he went to war in the first place for adventure, not for King and country, was a brash sort whose chutzpah both got him into scrapes and enabled him to survive on both the battlefield and in prison. Once he was captured, he escaped several times including one final time during a forced march eastward in the dead of winter when the Nazis abandoned Auschwitz in order to elude the advancing allies.

On one occasion, Avey watched while an SS officer repeatedly beat a Jewish inmate until the young man died. Avey was already frustrated by both the fact that the Nazis were deliberately working the Jews to death and by the knowledge that he couldn’t do anything about it. When that young man died, Avey shouted a crude German insult at the officer, who responded by cold cocking Avey with the butt of a hand gun. The injury cost Avey his sight and eventually the eye itself.

But the worst injury he suffered was psychological. When he finally returned home, his own family – including his father, who had also enlisted – didn’t want to discuss the war at all, and others wanted to hear only about derring-do on the battlefield. No one was interested in, or capable of confronting, the truth about the concentration camp.

Avey himself stopped talking about it for decades, and he suffered nightmares and other signs of post traumatic stress disorder – a problem that was not recognized and therefore not treated at the time.

There is much more to this story, including the unexpected outcome of a small favor Avey was able to do for one Jewish inmate, but that’s best read in the pages of Avey’s book. It was largely because of Broomby’s work that Avey was eventually able to talk openly, and write, about what he experienced. The two men have performed an important service, because it is critical that knowledge of what the Nazis did be kept alive in the public consciousness.

That’s true both because of the crimes committed by the Third Reich and its collaborators but also because such atrocities have been committed again and again since then – the difference being only one of scale.

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2 Responses to “Books: “The Man who Broke Into Auschwitz””

  1. shoreacres Says:

    What a remarkable story. Often the human tendency is to look away, to prefer not seeing. That Avey would go to such lengths to become a witness to events is – well, amazing.

    It must have been so painful for him to discover others didn’t want to hear the stories of what he had seen. It’s natural for anyone who’s experienced any sort of trauma to want to tell the story over and again. For a week or two after my mother died, I told the story to anyone who would listen, including grocery store clerks. People tell stories of auto accidents, illnesses, job firings, broken legs – it’s part of the healing process. Thank heaven he finally found a way to do so.

    I have no idea what possesses people who claim the concentration camps didn’t exist – unless it’s just another way of avoiding those other, more recent atrocities you allude to.

    • charlespaolino Says:

      I think there are many reasons for the denials, including persistent anti-Semitism. Interestingly, Dwight Eisenhower anticipated this and ordered the troops that liberated the camps to photograph everything they could so that no one could ever say it hadn’t happened. Also, the Nazis kept detailed records of what they had done, and a lot of that data survived, although they tried to destroy it when the allied forces swept through Eastern Europe. I’m old enough to have known several people who were prisoners in those camps. I don’t think they imagined it.

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