Authors: Denis Avey
Tags: #World War; 1939-1945
with ROB BROOMBY
First published in Great Britain in 2011 by Hodder & Stoughton
An Hachette UK company
Copyright © Denis Avey 2011
Foreword Copyright © Martin Gilbert 2011
The right of Denis Avey to be identified as the Author of the Work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
A CIP catalogue record for this title is available from the British Library
ISBN 978 1 444 71416 6
Epub ISBN 978 1 444 71418 0
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To the memory of Ernie Lobet,
and a man I know only as Hans.
This is a most important book, and a timely reminder of the dangers that face any society once intolerance and racism take hold. Denis Avey, who is now ninety-three, wants his book to be a reminder that Fascism and genocide have not disappeared – as he has said, ‘It could happen here’. It could indeed happen anywhere where the veneer of civilization is allowed to wear off, or is torn off by ill will and destructive urges.
It is good that Denis Avey now feels able to tell his story. Many of those who went through the traumas of the war years, including Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, found, as he did, that in 1945 ‘no one wanted to listen’. Sixty-five years later, a British prime minister, Gordon Brown, welcomed him to 10 Downing Street to hear his story, to commend his courage, and to give him a medal inscribed ‘In Service of Humanity’.
It takes courage to be a witness. To this day, Denis Avey recalls with horror, among so many other horrors, a Jewish boy ‘standing to attention, drenched in blood, being beaten around the head.’ This book should be read by all those who want an eyewitness account of the nightmare that was the slave labour camp at Buna-Monowitz, just outside Auschwitz, where the Jewish prisoners in particular were subjected to the harshest of treatments, and killed once they were too weak to work for their SS taskmasters.
Denis Avey’s experiences of the Nazi treatment of the Jews are disturbing – as they should be, for the human mind finds it hard to enter into a world dominated by cruelty, and where a small
gesture like that of Denis Avey towards a Dutch Jewish prisoner is a rare shaft of light and comfort. He also tells us of his time before being made a prisoner of war: fighting in the Western Desert. Here too he tells a powerful tale without flinching from the horrors, and the death of his friend Les, ‘blasted to kingdom come’ next to him. ‘Les was the chap with twinkling eyes. I had come all the way from Liverpool with him, I had danced with his sister Marjorie, sat round the kitchen table with his folks, laughed at their jokes and shared their food.’ And now his first reaction, on finding ‘half of poor old Les all over me’, was ‘Thank God it wasn’t me.’ That reaction still troubles him today.
The honesty of this book heightens its impact. The description of Buna-Monowitz is stark, and true. By swapping his British army uniform with a Jewish prisoner’s striped rags and going into the Jewish section of that vast slave labour camp zone, he became a witness. ‘I had to see for myself what was going on,’ he writes. Our knowledge of one of the worst corners of the SS kingdom is enhanced because he did so. This book is a tribute both to Denis Avey, and to those whose story he was determined to tell – at the risk of his life.
Sir Martin Gilbert
8 February 2011
22 January 2010
microphone was thrust in front of me as I climbed out of the taxi by the fortified gates of Downing Street. What could I tell them? I was there because of something I did in the war – not my fighting in the Western Desert, not my being captured by the Germans, but because of what happened in Auschwitz.
Back in 1945 no one had wanted to listen, so I stopped talking about it for the best part of sixty years. My first wife saw the worst of it. I would wake up covered in sweat with the sheets soaked, haunted by the same dream. I can still see that poor lad now, standing to attention, drenched in blood and being beaten around the head. I relive it every day, even now, nearly seventy years later. When I met my second wife Audrey she knew something was wrong and she knew it was to do with Auschwitz, but still I couldn’t speak to her about it for decades. These days I can’t stop going over it and she thinks I’m trapped in the past, that I should move on, look forward. That’s not easy at my age.
The polished door of 10 Downing Street that I had seen so often on the news framing the country’s leaders opened and I stepped inside. In the hallway they took my coat and ushered me up the stairs, past the framed portraits of former prime ministers. At one point I faced a photograph of Churchill himself, and thought to myself that it was a surprisingly small picture for such a giant of a leader. I paused for breath, leaning on my metal
walking stick, before going on past the post-war premiers with Thatcher, Major and Blair towards the top.
I flopped into a chair – I was ninety-one and I needed time to recover from the climb. I looked around in awe at the grandeur of the Terracotta Room with its high ceilings and chandeliers. I knew that prime minister Gordon Brown had announced that morning that he would give evidence before the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war and with the general election coming I wondered whether he would have time to meet me.
The mood changed in a flash. The prime minister came into the room, headed straight for me and took my hand. He spoke very softly, almost in a whisper. The room was now full of people but it still felt like an intensely private moment. ‘We’re very, very proud of you. It’s a privilege for us to have you here,’ he said. I was touched.
His wife Sarah introduced herself to me. I didn’t know what to do so I kissed her hand and said she was more beautiful than on the television. She was, but I still shouldn’t have said so. It was the kind of indiscretion that, luckily, a ninety-one-year-old can get away with. I quickly moved to safer ground by adding, ‘I liked the speech you made the other day.’ She smiled and thanked me.
The press photographers and TV crews wanted their shots of the two of us together. I thought the prime minister was having a rough time politically and I told him I didn’t like the way his colleagues were stabbing him in the back, and that if he needed a minder I was ready. He smiled and said he’d bear it in mind. ‘I wouldn’t do your job for a gold clock,’ I said. I may not have voted for him, but he was a decent man and I was impressed by his sincerity.
Gordon Brown’s attention was intense and undivided and for a while it felt as if it excluded all the other people in the room. I have a glass eye – another legacy of Auschwitz – and I struggled to focus on him with my good one. Mr Brown is also partially
sighted and we sat so close together as we talked, our foreheads were almost touching.
He spoke of ‘courage’ and ‘bravery’ and I started to tell him about Auschwitz, IG Farben, the SS, all of it, the details tumbling out in no particular order. At one point I struggled to find a word and ‘
’ – the German for prisoner was what came out. ‘That happens to me when I remember those days,’ a concentration camp survivor in the party said.
To be honoured as one of twenty-seven British ‘Heroes of the Holocaust’ soon after that was humbling. Most were honoured posthumously. Only two of us were still alive; the other was Sir Nicholas Winton, who had saved more than six hundred children from Czechoslovakia. I emerged with a solid silver medal bearing the words ‘In Service of Humanity.’ On my way out, I told a journalist that I could now die a happy man. It’s taken me almost seventy years to be able to say that.
Now that I can talk about those terrible times, I feel as if a load is slowly lifting. I can think back clearly to the heart of it, the moment of the exchange.
I knew we had to be quick. I waited, hidden in the little hut. I couldn’t even be sure that he would come, but he did and as he ducked inside I pulled off my tunic. He closed the door on the turmoil of that hideous construction site and shuffled out of his grimy striped uniform. He threw the thin garments to me and I pulled them on without hesitation. Then I watched as he dragged on my British army battledress, casting looks over his shoulder at the door as he did it.
He was a Dutch Jew and I knew him as Hans. With that simple exchange between the two of us I had given away the protection of the Geneva Convention: I’d given my uniform, my lifeline, my
best chance of surviving that dreadful place, to another man. From now on, wearing his clothes, I would be treated the way he had been treated. If I was caught, the guards would have shot me out of hand as an imposter. No question at all.
It was the middle of 1944 when I entered Auschwitz III of my own free will.
never joined up to fight for King and Country, though I was patriotic enough. No, I enlisted for the sheer hell of it, for the adventure. I had no idea how much hell there would be.
There was no sense of heroic departure when I went off to war. We left Liverpool on the troopship
on a bright August morning in 1940 with no idea where we were headed.
I looked at the Royal Liver Building, across the broadening strip of brown Mersey water and wondered whether I would ever see the green Liver birds crowning it again. Liverpool had not seen much bombing then. It would get its share a month after I left, but for now it was largely a peaceful city. I was twenty-one years old and I felt indestructible. If I lose a limb, I promised myself, I am not coming home. I was a red-headed soldier with a temperament to match and it would get me into lots of trouble but that is just how I was.