A few weeks ago, the BBC had a remarkable story of Denis Avey, a British POW held in Auschwitz who twice traded places with a Jewish Prisoner to witness first hand what was happening in the Death factory adjacent to his POW camp.
I find the story chilling, although at some level unbelievable. The concept of willing breaking into a concentration camp sounds too similar to the fictional book/movie “Boy in the Striped Pyjamas”, which presents a totally implausible view of life in a Concentration Camp.
The other element in the story, that he successfully smuggled goods to Jewish prisoners sounds too similar to the story of “The Girl With the Apple” which also turned out to be fiction.
I tried to find other sources that covered Denis Avey’s story, but so far I have only found links to the same BBC article. If the article is true, it serves as an important testament to the goodness that is possible in the midst of the worst evil imaginable.
Here are some extracts from the article:
When millions would have done anything to get out, one remarkable British soldier smuggled himself into Auschwitz to witness the horror so he could tell others the truth.
Denis Avey is a remarkable man by any measure. A courageous and determined soldier in World War II, he was captured by the Germans and imprisoned in a camp connected to the Germans' largest concentration camp, Auschwitz.
He describes Auschwitz as "hell on earth" and says he would lie awake at night listening to the ramblings and screams of prisoners.
"It was pretty ghastly at night, you got this terrible stench," he says.
He talked to Jewish prisoners but says they rarely spoke of their previous life. Instead they were focused on the hell they were living and the work they were forced to do in factories outside the camp.
He says he would ask where people he'd met previously had gone and he would be told they'd "gone up the chimney".
"It was so impersonal. Auschwitz was evil, everything about it was wrong."
He also witnessed the brutality meted out to the prisoners, saying people were shot daily. He was determined to help, especially when he met Jewish prisoner Ernst Lobethall.
Mr Lobethall told him he had a sister Susana who had escaped to England as a child, on the eve of war. Back in his own camp, Mr Avey contacted her via a coded letter to his mother.
He arranged for cigarettes, chocolate and a letter from Susana to be sent to him and smuggled them to his friend. Cigarettes were more valuable than gold in the camp and he hoped he would be able to trade them for favours to ease his plight - and he was right.
Mr Lobethall traded two packs of Players cigarettes in return for getting his shoes resoled. It helped save his life when thousands perished or were murdered on the notorious death marches out of the camps in winter in 1945.
But before he died Mr Lobethall recorded his survival story on video for the Shoah Foundation, which video the testimonies of Holocaust survivors and witnesses. In it he spoke of his friendship with a British soldier in Auschwitz who he simply called "Ginger". It was Denis.
He also recalled how the cigarettes, chocolate and a letter from his sister in England were smuggled to him in the midst of war.
"It was like being given the Rockefeller Centre," he says in the video.
Mr Avey traded places twice and slept overnight in Auschwitz. He tried a third time but he was almost caught and the plan was aborted.
He suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder when he came back from the war and has only recently been able to speak about what he did and what he saw.
He admits some may find it hard to believe and acknowledges it was "foolhardy".
"But that is how I was," he simply says.