by Alex Massie
Sometimes it's useful to be reminded that our generation has it pretty damned lucky. A remarkable story, even by the standards of a war full of remarkable stories. From the Times today:
Denis Avey, even at the age of 91, cuts a formidable figure. More than 6ft tall, with a severe short back and sides and a piercing glare, he combines the panache of Errol Flynn with the dignity of age. This is the former Desert Rat, who, in 1944, broke into yes, into Auschwitz, and he looks exactly as I expected. He removes his monocle for the camera, and one of his pupils slips sideways before realigning. It is a glass eye. I ask him about it. He tells me that in 1944, he cursed an SS officer who was beating a Jew in the camp. He received a blow with a pistol butt and his eye was knocked in.
[Having been captured in North Africa,] Avey was a troublesome prisoner. In the summer of 1943 he was deported to Auschwitz, in Poland, and interned in a small PoW camp on the periphery of the IG Farben factory. The main Jewish camps were several miles to the west. “I’d lost my liberty, but none of my spirit,” he says. “I was still determined to give as good as I got.”
But he knew immediately that this was a different order of prison. “The Stripeys that’s what we called the Jewish prisoners were in a terrible state. Within months they were reduced to waifs and then they disappeared. The stench from the crematoria was appalling, civilians from as far away as Katowice were complaining. Everybody knew what was going on. Everybody knew.”
Remarkably, Avey was able to think beyond the war. “I knew in my gut that these swine would eventually be held to account,” he says. “Evidence would be vital. Of course, sneaking into the Jewish camp was a ludicrous idea. It was like breaking into Hell. But that’s the sort of chap I was. Reckless.”
[...] Avey shaved his head and blackened his face. At the allocated time, he and the Dutch Jew sneaked into a disused shed. There they swapped uniforms and exchanged places. Avey affected a slouch and a cough, so that his English accent would be disguised should he be required to speak.
“I joined the Stripeys and marched into Monowitz, a predominantly Jewish camp. As we passed beneath the Arbeit Macht Frei [work makes you free] sign, everyone stood up straight and tried to look as healthy as they could. There was an SS officer there, weeding out the weaklings for the gas. Overhead was a gallows, which had a corpse hanging from it, as a deterrent. An orchestra was playing Wagner to accompany our march. It was chilling.”
They were herded through the camp, carrying the bodies of those who had died that day. “I saw the Frauenhaus the Germans’ brothel of Jewish girls and the infirmary, which sent its patients to the gas after two weeks. I committed everything to memory. We were lined up in the Appellplatz for a roll call, which lasted almost two hours. Then we were given some rotten cabbage soup and went to sleep in lice-infested bunks, three to a bed.”
The night was even worse than the daytime. “As it grew dark, the place was filled with howls and shrieks. Many people had lost their minds. It was a living hell. Everyone was clutching their wooden bowls under their heads, to stop them getting stolen.” Lobethall had bribed Avey’s bedfellows with cigarettes. “They gave me all the details,” he says, “the names of the SS, the gas chambers, the crematoria, everything. After that, they fell asleep. But I lay awake all night.”
The whole thing, as you can see, is worth a few minutes of your time and a reflection that, despite everything and the daily temptations to think differently, this is a vastly better, happier, gentler world than that into which our grandparents were born and subsequently fought.