The opening words of his book read “The Man who Broke into Auschwitz is the true story of a British Soldier who marched willingly into Buna Monowitz, the concentration camp known as Auschwitz 3”.
In the summer of 1944, Denis Avey was being held in a POW (Prisoner of War Camp), E715, near Auschwitz 3. He had heard of the brutality meted out to the prisoners there and he was determined to witness what he could.
He hatched a plan to swap places with a Jewish inmate and smuggled himself into a sector of the camp. He spent the night there on 2 occasions and first experienced at first hand the cruelty of a place where slave workers had been sentenced to death through labour.
In July 2015, Denis Avey formerly of the 7th Armoured Division in the British Army sadly passed away aged 96. For over 5 decades following the end of the war, Avey remained largely silent over his time during the British North African campaign fighting Rommel’s armies. He rarely spoke of his subsequent capture and the time spent as a British Prisoner of War in the Polish town of Oświęcim (Auschwitz in German).
I was fortunate enough to meet Dennis Avey on a number of occasions and particularly over 2 talks in 2011 and 2012 as Avey presented his book to students and scholars. I took this opportunity to speak to him about his time in as a prisoner, writes Michael Challoner of the Auschwitz Study Group.
I had read Denis Avey’s book with great interest. He had settled in a neighbouring town after the war, in Derbyshire middle England, only an hour’s drive from where I lived. The timely release of his book coincided with my research of the subsidiary camps of Auschwitz in Oświęcim.
Around 8 camps consisting of over 400 wooden barracks similar to those you see at the Birkenau Museum would have existed in the area where Avey lived and worked during the war. He would have easily been able to hide amongst the several thousands of prisoners who toiled frantically for the failing German war effort. And yet, most of the headlines were submitting doubt to his incredible story.
When I spoke to Denis Avey for the first time, there was a worldwide controversy surrounding his story. He had been captured by the Germans during the North African campaign. He had been sent to camp E715 (A British POW camp) in Monowitz just 10 minutes’ drive from Auschwitz 1 and 15 minutes from Auschwitz 2 where over 10,000 Hungarian Jews were being gassed every day in the middle of 1944. His story has since been given more credibility by the testimony of the Jewish prisoner he allegedly swapped places with at the time. You can find more details about this by researching Ernst Lobethal who verifies the large part of their relationship.
I was aware of this controversy, and Avey himself addressed these issues during the talks promoting his book. However, this was something I was not primarily interested in.
Avey had been imprisoned in the village of Monowitz, a geographical area I would go on to study for a further 5 years. Auschwitz 3 was the largest single consistent spatial area in the Auschwitz network that consisted of 3 main camps, 45 sub-camps and over 10 subsidiary camps.
The possibility of speaking with him excited me greatly. This was the same camp that the famous Italian writer Primo Levi had toiled and suffered in at the same time. I asked Avey if he minded me making notes on our talks. He was happy for me to do so although at the time, I could not tell him how I wished to use them in the future. This is the first time I have published our dialogue.
ASG: It’s an honour to meet you. Your book (co-written by Rob Broomby) came at a time I began to research the IG Farben work camps in detail. I still can’t comprehend the scale of this site. It is one of the largest industrial sites I have ever visited, certainly in UK scales.
DA: (interjected) All we saw was (masses) of people.
ASG: In the camp or….
DA: Everywhere, the only time we were alone would be at night in the barracks and that was in the company of several men. We were never alone so to speak….
ASG: So solitary was relative?
DA: We never had privacy.
ASG: There were at least 8 camps around Monowitz, you were probably in the most lenient. It’s hard for me to say that to you, but if you consider the fate of the Jewish prisoners or the Russian prisoners of war, they were earmarked for death. You were POW’s partly protected (by the Geneva Convention).
DA: We knew we were a little more protected, I saw death daily but we still felt death was close to us. When you see death close up, you feel it closer to yourself. We never knew what the Germans had in store for us.
ASG: But there was a difference between the Jewish prisoners and yourself.
DA: (Inaudible) Of course what we saw to those in the uniforms (prisoner uniforms) disgusted everyone but fear hit us all. Not many of them (Jewish prisoners) spoke English. It was hard to communicate, and we were both (subject) to death if we displeased the (Nazis).
That’s why I decided to see closer how our (friends) were being killed.
ASG: What do you remember of the surroundings of the camp? I am particularly interested in the camp featuresa
DA: (Asks for my clarification) Grey everywhere. That’s what I saw. Fences, wire, factories, prisoners.
ASG: There is a lot of greenery around the former camps now.
DA: We didn’t see anything but mud. Mud and grey.
ASG: What was grey?
DA: (Ponders) The atmosphere felt grey. In the mornings, there was a mist in the camp. The walk to work, watchtowers and (sentry) guards paraded). There was no grass to be seen.
ASG: Ah ok, watchtowers. I have seen several brick watchtowers around the former camp of E715. They are still there.
DA: Maybe they were brick.
ASG: Outside the camp, there is one large brick tower.
DA: I remember wooden towers too.
ASG: Yes that was possible.
DA: Wherever we looked, we saw guns and dogs, we always walked to work with a purpose to show the Germans we were not beaten. We looked straight ahead. We were proud soldiers.
ASG: I have walked from the area of E715 to the Buna Factory - about a 20 minute walk. A photo exists from 1943 (possibly 1944) of Monowitz only a few minutes east that’s shows a wooden watch tower…
DA: Wooden watch towers were everywhere. In the camp, outside the camp. I even saw them being constructed but probably not there the following day.
ASG: You mean they were temporary constructions.
DA: (Asks for clarification) Most probably they were put there if there was a short amount of work to do. And then moved. They looked like they were lamented with sand bags.
ASG: Did you get to see much of the IG Farben plant?
DA: On the rare occasion I was on the vantage point of towers, I saw the area of the camp, the trains…
ASG: The trains at the Dwory (I explain the train line at Monowitz).
DA: There were trains, and a horizon of construction.
ASG: Well, construction carried on until late 1944…
DA: All we saw was construction. Camp fence (the camp posts) were everywhere in piles.
ASG: Do you mean the grey poles?
DA: The prison (camp) poles were everywhere. Like the camp would stretch for miles beyond what we could see. It was a horizon of construction. We knew very early on we were in a place of significance.
ASG: Well, we know now that there were several prisoner camps assigned to work at IG Farben.
DA: Correct. As I said construction everywhere, it never seemed to be complete but the areas of inactivity allowed us to smoke occasionally. We had plenty of opportunities to smoke. It seemed very disorganised. Our (masters) wanted to seem they were working us hard but were rarely did. The days were long but we didn’t do much
ASG: Did you feel you were in an important place as far as the Allies were concerned at the time?
DA: We didn’t think in those terms. We thought about escape sometimes, morale and how not to be seen. That was important.
Denis Avey was speaking with Michael Challoner of the Auschwitz Study Group.
Thanks to Denis Avey and his family for allowing me the chance to speak to him about his incredible story. You can buy his book on Amazon and all good retail outlets.