11 January 1919|
|Died||16 July 2015
Bakewell, Derbyshire, England
|Buried at||St. Barnabas Church, Bradwell, Derbyshire|
|Unit||7th Armoured Division|
|Awards||British Hero of the Holocaust|
Denis Avey (11 January 1919 – 16 July 2015) was a British veteran of the Second World War who was held as a prisoner of war at a camp adjacent to Monowitz. Whilst there he saved the life of Jewish prisoner Ernst Lobethal, by smuggling cigarettes to him. For this he was made a British Hero of the Holocaust in 2010. He also claimed that he exchanged uniforms with a Jewish prisoner to smuggle himself into Monowitz to gain information about the treatment of inmates: this claim was challenged. His memoir The Man who Broke into Auschwitz written with Rob Broomby, was published in 2011.
Life (until retirement)
Avey was born in Essex, outside of London, in 1919. As a boy he learned boxing, was head boy at school and studied at Leyton technical college. He joined the army in 1939 at the age of 20, and fought in the desert campaigns of North Africa in the 7th Armoured Division, known as the "Desert Rats". He was captured by the Germans while attacking Rommel's forces near Tobruk, Libya, and saw his best friend killed next to him. He escaped to Greece by crossing the Mediterranean Sea floating on top of a packing crate, but was recaptured after landing.
After being retaken prisoner, he was moved to a POW camp E715A for British soldiers near Monowitz, a German industrial complex, close to Auschwitz, where he was kept imprisoned from 1943 until January 1945. During his time in the camp he managed to befriend a Jewish inmate of Auschwitz III, Ernst Lobethal. He obtained cigarettes from Ernst's sister, who had escaped from Germany to Britain on a Kindertransport before the war, which he secretly passed to Ernst. Avey also says that on two separate occasions he exchanged uniforms with a Jewish inmate and smuggled himself into that inmate's camp with a view to obtaining information about the treatment of inmates. He explained to The Daily Telegraph during an interview that he was the type that needed to see things for himself:
“My mates didn’t want me to do it but they agreed because they realised I was going to do it, and that was that. I had watched people being murdered literally every day and I knew someone would have to answer for it. I wanted to get in and identify the people responsible.”
The name identity of the other prisoner and the name of the camp vary in different accounts. Avey escaped during the "death marches" in April 1945 which followed the Nazis' evacuation of Auschwitz. Although suffering from tuberculosis, he "saw a chance to escape and seized it, he states." Avey also estimates that around 15,000 prisoners died on the way. “The road was littered with corpses.” He eventually ran into Americans who helped get him back to England and his family, who thought he was dead.
After the war, he assumed that Ernst had died when he had been evacuated on a death march. Avey made his way back to England where he briefly met Ernst's sister Susanne. He says that when he tried to report his experience in Auschwitz III he encountered indifference from his commanding officer and that when prosecutors sought his testimony for the Nuremberg Trials they were unable to trace him. After this he kept silent about his experiences, suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder. Avey explains: "The sad irony was that I went in there to find out the truth, so I could tell everybody about the horrors of the Nazi regime. But I was so traumatised at my whole experience of the Auschwitz camps it took me 60 years to be able to recount the horrors I saw."
He married twice and pursued a career in engineering, which culminated in him building a factory near Newcastle. He retired to Bradwell, Derbyshire.
After retirement he became active amongst ex-POWs seeking compensation for wartime imprisonment and began to talk about these experiences. In 2001 he described these in an interview with the Imperial War Museum in London, where he stated that he had obtained cigarettes for Ernst and also gave the name of Ernst's sister Susanne. He also stated that he had exchanged uniforms with a bunkmate of Ernst and entered Birkenau in the company of Ernst. He states that whilst there Ernst told him about an Australian working in Birkenau whom Avey subsequently identified as Donald J. Watt. (reels 7 and 8) (Watt subsequently wrote a book about his experiences, which is now recognised as fraudulent.) Avey stated that he acquired details about events in Birkenau which he sent home to his mother and sister in a code and that his mother sent two letters regarding this to the War Office which were never acknowledged. He was interviewed on BBC Radio Derby in 2003. In 2005 the Daily Mirror reported that Avey claimed to have swapped uniforms with Ernst and entered Birkenau where he witnessed prisoners being sent to the gas chambers.
In May 2009 the British Government announced the establishment of the British Hero of the Holocaust award. That autumn Rob Broomby, a reporter from the BBC, who had known of Avey's story for some years, was able to trace sister Susanne in Birmingham. He discovered that Ernst had survived the death march and emigrated to the United States where he lived to the age of 77 and informed Avey of Ernst's survival. Broomby also discovered that before his death Ernst had recorded a video testimony of his experiences in Auschwitz III in which he mentions the British soldier whom he knew as "Ginger" who obtained cigarettes. This "Ginger" was Avey. In November BBC Television broadcast a documentary which included an emotional reunion between Avey and Susanne and in which Avey sees Ernst's video testimony for the first time and realises that his cigarettes saved his life.
Although Lobethal – now Lobet – makes no mention on the video of having swapped uniforms with Avey the documentary also included Avey's account of an exchange with an unnamed prisoner. An article by Broomby published at the time of the first broadcast suggested that he and the BBC had accepted the "break-in" story as also confirmed. Denis Avey was then received by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day. and in 2010 he was named a British Hero of the Holocaust by the British Government for having saved Ernst's life by smuggling him cigarettes. The following week he signed a book contract with Hodder and Stoughton. The book appeared in April 2011 with a foreword by Sir Martin Gilbert. In the book Avey exchanges with a Dutch Jew called Hans and enters Auschwitz III/Monowitz. The book was endorsed by the Holocaust Educational Trust, and went on to be a best-seller and has been translated into a number of languages.
Prior to publication of his book reaction from the mainstream media to his story was favourable, but after publication Guy Walters, writing in the Daily Mail, questioned whether Avey had carried out an exchange. Walters pointed to the difficulty of doing this without being caught, the absence of confirmation from witnesses and the length of Avey's silence when his declared motive for entering the camp had been to report about his findings after the war. Avey's fellow POW, Brian Bishop stated that he did not believe Avey's account. Nicholas Hellen in the Sunday Times drew attention to differences between Avey's 2001 interview and his book. Jeremy Duns demonstrated that in his 2001 interview with Lyn Smith Avey's memories of Auschwitz included detail which he could only have acquired through reading long after the war. Yad Vashem considered Avey for the honour Righteous among the Nations, but said it was unable to grant the award because it was unable to substantiate his account of the prisoner swap.
Lyn Smith defended Avey in the face of these doubts saying "It's pitiful what happened to him" and included Avey in her book Heroes of the Holocaust. Avey's publisher added an appendix to the paperback edition of The Man who Broke into Auschwitz, responding to some of the questions raised. They accepted that, in his interview with Smith, Avey had been somewhat confused, but this was understandable given the stress suffered and that he was only then beginning to unburden himself after decades of silence. They added that Avey had heard about an ex prisoner from New Zealand, who was reported as working with a British inmate on certain jobs and that this British prisoner also worked in the boiler room of the Auschwitz Stammlager; when Avey came across Watt's book he assumed that Watt was that ex prisoner from New Zealand. In April 2012 the BBC broadcast a second programme detailing the controversy.
In The Auschwitz Goalkeeper, Ron Jones, who was imprisoned in the same camp as Avey, expressed disbelief that the latter would have been able to pass himself off as a starving Jewish prisoner. In her 2014 PhD thesis, Sabrina Semmelroth questioned Avey's claim to have entered the Monowitz Camp and pointed out, in a note to a paperback edition in German language, Avey's motive for entering the camp may have been an attempt to contact Karl Sperber, a British-Jewish POW. She observes that, while this motive isn't given in the main text, it is exactly the same as that given by Charles Coward, in his account of having smuggled himself into the prison. In November 2014 Avey was reported as too ill to respond to further enquiries. He died on 16 July 2015 at Newholme Hospital in Bakewell, Derbyshire.
- Charles Coward and Arthur Dodd: Inmates of E715A.
- Leon Greenman: British inmate of Monowitz.
- Irma Grese: Nazi Guard "The Hyena of Auschwitz".
- Witold Pilecki: Polish resistance fighter who voluntarily entered Auschwitz, and Witold's Report.
- Victor Perez: Boxer and inmate of Monowitz.
Access to sources
Avey's 2001 interview with Lyn Smith is available online – see link below – and may also be heard in the "Explore History" section of the Imperial War Museum, London, during museum opening hours, without pre-booking. His account of entering Auschwitz is on reels 7 and 8, but is not mentioned in the index. The full text of Nicholas Hellen's article may be read through NewsBank.
- Broomby, Rob (16 March 2010). "How a BBC investigation found genuine ‘Hero of the Holocaust’" (PDF). Ariel: 5. Retrieved 20 September 2014.
- Harrison, Keith (19 October 2012). "Qualification of Award of British Hero of the Holocaust Award 2010". whatdotheyknow.com. Retrieved 20 September 2014.
- Walters, Guy (17 November 2011). "The curious case of the 'break into Auschwitz'". New Statesman. Retrieved 20 September 2014.
- Graham, Alison (2014). "Witness to Auschwitz". Radio Times. Retrieved 20 September 2014.
- Smith, David (27 March 2011). "Horrifying story of a hero of the death camp". Herald Scotland. Retrieved 20 September 2014.
- "Nonfiction Book Review: The Man Who Broke into Auschwitz: A True Story of World War II by Denis Avey with Rob Broomby". Publishers Weekly. 1 June 2014. Retrieved 20 September 2014.
- "Denis Avey, Auschwitz witness - obituary", The Daily Telegraph, 27 August 2015
- Broomby, Rob (29 November 2009). "The man who smuggled himself into Auschwitz". BBC News. Retrieved 1 December 2009., includes video interview with Avey
- Dolan, Andy. "How British PoW swapped uniforms to sneak IN to Auschwitz so his Jewish pal could slip out". Daily Mail (London). Retrieved 20 September 2014.
- "The British PoW who broke into Auschwitz — and survived", The Sunday Times, 25 February 2010
- Broomby, Rob (29 November 2009). "The man who smuggled himself into Auschwitz". BBC News. Retrieved 20 September 2014.
- All information from Denis Avey's autobiography The Man who Broke into Auschwitz.
- Lyn E., Smith (16 July 2001). "Denis George Avey interview (22065)". Imperial War Museum. Retrieved 20 September 2014.
- http://data.ccarnet.org/journal/601sj.html[dead link]
- Kerr, Jane (24 January 2005). "Brit who broke IN to Auschwitz". Free Online Library. Retrieved 20 September 2014.
- Rosen, Robyn (22 January 2010). "Brown signs Holocaust memorial book". The Jewish Chronicle. Retrieved 20 September 2014.
- "Britons honoured for holocaust heroism". London: The Telegraph. 9 March 2010. Archived from the original on 9 March 2010. Retrieved 9 March 2010.
- In 2010 he was made a British Hero of the Holocaust.
- Turnbull, Jane (17 March 2010). "Denis Avey's story pre-empted by Hodder". janeturnbull.co.uk. Retrieved 20 September 2014.
- "Buy newly launched book: The Man Who Broke into Auschwitz by Denis Avey with Rob Broomby". Holocaust Educational Trust. 5 April 2011. Retrieved 20 September 2014.
- Walters, Guy (8 April 2011). "Did this British PoW really smuggle himself into Auschwitz to expose the Holocaust... or is his account pure fantasy and an insult to millions who died there?". Daily Mail (London).
- "Auschwitz-Birkenau - Contact". Państwowe Muzeum Auschwitz-Birkenau w Oświęcimiu. 2014. Retrieved 20 September 2014.
- Hellen, Nicholas (13 November 2011). "Hero of Holocaust changed key elements of his story". The Sunday Times. Retrieved 20 September 2014.
- Duns, Jeremy (October 2011). "Unbelievable stories". jeremyduns.blogspot.co.uk. Retrieved 20 September 2014.
- "Veteran defends disputed story of Auschwitz heroics". Reuters. 26 April 2011.
- "Full text of updated Notes section to Avey's book" (PDF). Hodder & Stoughton. 2014. Retrieved 20 September 2014.
- Round, Simon (17 November 2011). "Holocaust historian defends man who broke into Auschwitz". The Jewish Chronicle. Retrieved 20 September 2014.
- on YouTube BBC video documentary, April 2012
- Denis Avey
- "Explore History - Imperial War Museum". Time Out London. 13 April 2010. Retrieved 20 September 2014.
- "Home". NewsBank. 2014. Retrieved 20 September 2014.
- Audio Avey's 2001 interview with Lyn Smith
- Video: Avey discussing his new book, BBC, 26 April 2011, 4.5 minutes
- Video: on YouTube, with Rob Broomby, 4 minutes
- Video: Denis Avey and Rob Broomby address the Oxford University Chabad Society, 1 hr. 12 mins.
- British P.O.W. Tells Oxford Students of Auschwitz Horrors
- Auschwitz hero Denis Avey in line for Israeli honour
- British POW Denis Avey, "Why I smuggled myself into Auschwitz" – Lecture