A British soldier’s account of Auschwitz

2011-08-31 00:00

THERE are two points to consider about this book. The first is that it is a moving and gripping story. However, the second is: is it true? If not, from being moving it becomes curiously offensive. There could be a long debate around why this is so, but the existence of the question has to alter perceptions of both book and author.

It was published earlier this year in Britain, after Denis Avey told his story in a BBC interview, which was supposed to be about pensions for former prisoners of war. He had been held in a POW camp at Auschwitz, where British prisoners worked on the construction of an I. G. Farben ­factory.

Avey told how he had made contact with Jewish labour-camp inmates who were also working there, helped one to get in touch with his sister in England — and that is demonstrably true — and then twice exchanged positions with another who was held in the camp at Auschwitz III, Buna-Monowitz.

The first part of the book deals with Avey’s war service until his capture at Sidi-Rezegh. He was then shipped off back to Europe, torpedoed off Greece, escaped a couple of times and ended up at Auschwitz. The style is lively enough, but it would merely be another war memoir, of interest to military historians, if it wasn’t for what follows.

Avey says he did the swop, with a Dutch Jew who he only knew as Hans, so that he could experience what was really going on in the concentration camp, and so that Hans could at least have a couple of nights of better food and marginally greater ­comfort. He didn’t in fact see much — he wasn’t in the extermination camp which was some way away, but in the labour camp. But it is an amazing and, as I said, gripping, account.

According to Avey, post­traumatic stress kept him silent for many years, until his BBC interview, given when he was already in his nineties.

Some authorities on the Nazi death camps and some survivors say his account is demonstrably untrue, and point to inaccuracies. It would seem to be impossible to prove or disprove, and readers’ reactions will depend on which they consider to be the more likely — true or false?

BOOK REVIEW

The Man Who Broke into Auschwitz

Denis Avey with Rob Broomby

Hodder & Stoughton

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