(The entrance to Auschwitz)
THE MAN WHO BROKE INTO AUSCHWITZ by Denis Avey with Rob Broomby is not an easy book to review. It is a memoir of a former British soldier who decided after his capture and incarceration in a German POW camp, located next to the outskirts of Auschwitz, to switch clothing and identity with a Jewish inmate, so he could witness what went on inside the death camps. These actions take place about halfway through the memoir and from that point on the reader is riveted to Denis Avey’s story. The first third of the book recounts his early years in England and his boredom that led him to join the British army in 1939. We are taken through his training and finally his experiences fighting first against the Italians in North Africa and then once the Italians lost Tobruk the Germans led by Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Corp. It is during the battle against the Germans at Sidi Rezegh that he is captured and the essence of what he would experience is recounted.
Evaluating this type of memoir places the reviewer in a quandary. You can comment on style and language and the demeanor of the author, but based on what he has survived and overcome, is that fair? For me, Avey’s story is an emotional journey that takes him through the savagery of warfare in the Libyan dessert as a driver of a carrier vehicle with a mounted Bren gun on top. He sees his friends blown to bits by Italian and German artillery and bombers. He himself is wounded and contracts malaria and in the end winds up in a German field hospital where he miraculously recovers. The first question that must be asked is why Avey, who did not have to enlist, join the army. Avey states that “I hadn’t joined up for King and country but youthful adventure,” but what began as somewhat of a lark morphed into “a moral conflict for me at the very time I could do little about it.” (128) Avey matured as a person because of his experiences and for him morality dominated his mindset.
Avey’s survival can be explained through luck, but also a state of mind. Throughout the memoir he describes the abhorrent conditions he experienced but as he states, “my body was in a shocking state, but in my head, I wasn’t a prisoner at all. The enemy had done many things to me but they hadn’t captured my mind.” (98) After being captured in North Africa he attempted to escape a number of times and he was labeled as a “habitual troublemaker” which led to his transfer to a POW labor camp in the Polish town of Oswiecim where he noticed people who looked starved with shaved heads wearing “ill fitting striped shirts and trousers that were more like pyjamas.” (105) Avey worked on a massive factory that was being built by I.G. Farben to manufacture “buna,” or synthetic rubber. Avey realized earlier that “everywhere, in the nooks and crannies of this industrial nightmare, were poor creatures in their filthy zebra uniforms, many too weak to stand, led alone shift and carry. I knew by now this was no ordinary labour camp. They were deliberately worked to death.” (107) For Avey, the knowledge that as a British POW he was not going to be worked to death allowed him to contemplate how he could assist these Jewish inmates. He was able to get a letter out to the sister of a Jew named Ernst that allowed a package to be returned to him that assisted Ernst’s survival of what is referred to as Auschwitz III, the Nazi death camp.
Avey who became obsessed with the immorality of the Holocaust decided to change places with Ernst. This was accomplished on two separate occasions where Avey experienced the barracks, the smell from the crematoria, the beatings, and the total inhumanity that was the “Final Solution.” For Avey he wanted to bear witness to the plight of the Jews. He wanted to tell the world of their suffering and the savagery of Auschwitz I, II, and III. Throughout his experiences Avey was careful not to establish close relations with anyone, except for Hans a Dutch Jew he assisted, and Ernst, because you never knew how quickly you would be chosen for a detail to bury them. As the Russians moved in from the east, Avey and thousands of others were forced to March westward in the middle of a frozen winter. Avey broke away and miraculously made his way through Silesia, Czechoslovakia, and Germany. Finally after passing through Nuremburg he came across the American army where he was taken to an officer whose description sounded like George S. Patton.
(Head to Head with Prime Minister Gordon Brown at 10 Downing Street on January 22, 2010. In March 2010 Avey was presented with a medal as one of 27 British heroes of the Holocaust. All but two received the award posthumously)
From this point Avey describes his post war struggle with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) at a time when no one knew what it was and people were interested in talking about victory not the calamity facing soldiers who fought in the war and who were victims that people did not recognize. Avey describes his battles with nightmares, jumpiness, his inability to speak about his experiences, his violent temper, stomach pains, and loss of memory. These symptoms as well as the loss of vision in one I that grew cancerous from a beating during his incarceration plagued him for years after the war. Eventually he would overcome them and lead a very successful life, as Avery says during the day, but at night it was a different story. The most heartwarming and emotionally wrenching part of the book is the last third as he describes how a reporter Rob Broomby traced Avey’s experiences for a news story and he located Ernst’s sister, leading to a reunion with Avey. Further they uncovered a DVD of Ernst’s life in the United States after the war. Avey never knew what happened to him and this emotional catharsis allowed him to open up and went a long way in his own recovery. The book is sad in parts, uplifting at the same time, but it serves as another voice, a witness to man’s inhumanity to man, and as Avey points out by recounting his experiences hopefully people will gain an understanding of genocide and will not allow it to take place again.