Thursday, September 23, 2010

The POW Who Sneaked into Auschwitz

One of the more obscure stories from the Holocaust era remains the unusual case of British airman Denis Avey. His story did not surface until 2003, when he was invited to speak on a BBC program about War pensions. It was on this show that he decided to let out his long guarded secret, having finally come to terms with what he saw.

His remarkable tale began early in the war, in North Africa operating behind the German front lines as an SOE commando. He was captured and put on a ship, which was torpedoed as it transported him to his POW camp. He escaped the sinking and survived a nearby depth charge attack, eventually landing on the shores of Greece only to be captured again many months later.  Just the story of his evasion, capture, escape, and re-capture place him in the category of an extraordinary soldier, but his actions after he became a POW are truly outstanding.

He was taken to a very small POW camp adjoining the infamous Nazi Death Camp known as Auschwitz. His barracks was near a work camp where the Jewish prisoners were used as slave labor building the I. G. Farbin Buna plant, as their life was slowly and methodically drained away by the industrialized death machine. Being POW's, they were protected from the evils of the Hitler's Final Solution by the Geneva Convention regulations. Their conditions, while not good, were much better than the conditions the Jewish prisoners faced. These POW's enjoyed a sideline seat for events that were largely unknown to the rest of the world until the war's end.

Being an outstanding Commando, Denis Avey naturally wanted to know more about what he saw than what his small window on the Holocaust showed him. Having heard tales of atrocities, he resolved himself to find out what was really happening in the sprawling Death Camp beside them. He befriended a Jewish man, named Mr. Lobethall, who passed them daily on his trip to work at the factory site. Eventually, he convinced the man to change uniforms with him, and take his place among the British POW's. Avey then sneaked back into Auschwitz with the Jewish workers as they returned from their daily labor. His Wehrmacht guards did not pay much attention; they did not expect anyone to actually try and sneak into the larger SS Death Camp.

The fact that he did this is remarkable in itself. What is outstanding is that he did it more than once, his ultimate goal to work his way deeper and find the rumoured gas chambers. Living a double life, he lived and worked amongst the condemmed Jews, facing summary execution or gassing if caught. He was determined find the truth and bring it to the rest of the world's attention.

He never did find the gas chambers, but he did manage to help save the life of Mr. Lobethal, whose time with the POW's allowed him to recover from the tortures of the Auschwitz. Avey also gave him better shoes and food, which helped him survive and escape during the final death march as the Russians over-ran the region in the last days of the war.

Denis Avey saw many thing which haunted him for the rest of his life. He saw daily executions and beatings. He saw mass starvation, epidemics, and endured the screams of Jewish prisoners as they lay dying in their barracks at night. He watched as three million people were slowly worked to their graves in the factories surrounding Auschwitz. He described his experience as walking into a "Hell on Earth". 

After he was freed and returned to his regiment, he attempted to tell his Lieutenant, who reacted with indifference. Disgusted by the reaction, he decided not to speak about it again and told no one, not even his family.

At least, not until that fateful interview on BBC 65 years later.

Here is his Wikipedia page.

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