Tuesday, April 3, 2012

"The Man Who Broke Into Auschwitz" by Denis Avey (2012)

This is the most unlikely, yet true, true tale of World War Two you will ever read. Denis Avey, a young Englishman, joined the service, as he says, “not out of loyalty to king and country", but a sense of seeing things first hand. Brother, did he ever! After basic training in the Rifle Corps; he had been a crack shot since an early age; he was shipped to North Africa, where he saw some of the most intense fighting of the war. The temperature at Tobruk and El Alamein often topped 138 degrees Fahrenheit.

With water; and fresh provisions; in scarce supply, the going is rough against a numerically superior Italian force, yet they manage to capture tens of thousands of the enemy, and their weaponry. Corporal Avey is wounded, after losing some of his best mates, is embarked on a ship bound for the labor camps in Italy, working for the German war industry, in violation of the Geneva Convention. On the way they are sunk, and Avey finds himself washed ashore and on the run through Greece, and later Italy, where he is recaptured.

There, the prisoners do all that they can to sabotage the work to which they are assigned. Eventually they are shipped by rail to the infamous IG Farben plant which adjoined Auschwitz, outside of Oswiecim, as the town was then known. It is there that the story really picks up speed, boggling the mind in the process. For it is here, in the labor camp adjoining the death camp, in which an idea is born that will bear witness to what went on in that hell on earth. (IG Farben still exists in several different forms today. At the close of the Second World War it was split into different corporations, such as Bayer, Hoescht, BASF, the Agfa-Gevaert Group and Cassella AG., and they are among one of the largest political contributors in world politics today.)

First off, the author notes the difference between the 3 sets of prisoners at Auschwitz. There are the POW's, who are housed separately and subject to the Geneva Convention. Although they are not required to work for the enemy, they are, in violation of the treaty, forced to do so. And that brings the POW's, mostly British and Australian, in close contact with the two other groups; the Russians, who are treated with brutality and beatings, while being slowly starved to death as they work at tasks to which they are wholly unsuited. In addition, the POW's are working in close contact with the Jewish prisoners, whom the author describes as "moving shadows, shapeless and indistinct, as if they could fade away at any moment. I couldn't tell who, or what they were." These were the prisoners who would be shot on a whim, for nothing, save the amusement of the SS.

Avey works alongside of Hans, and later Ernst, two Jewish prisoners, and does the unthinkable. He changes places with Hans for a night by shaving his own head and swapping uniforms. He has studied the shuffled walk wearing the wooden clogs that the Jews are required to wear, and blends in with the returning prisoners, not knowing if he would be randomly selected for an execution that evening; several of which occurred each night. If you moved too slowly; or quickly; you could be clubbed to death on the spot. If not by the Germans themselves, then by the hated "Capo's", or Jewish guards, who for a crust of bread in that dreadful place, traded their last ounce of dignity, in a cowardly bid to survive.

After that adventure, he is still determined to go back again to the Death Camp for one more night, and again swaps places with Hans. This time though, fate takes a hand, and Avey is set forth on the Death March from Auschwitz, when the Germans tried to salvage what slave labor they could. Soon though, the whole plan falls apart as the war winds down. Avey, as well as the German soldiers, are left wandering around Germany looking for either homes that are no longer there, or in his case, Allied troops, so that he can be repatriated to England. Sick, malnourished and wounded, with a blow to his eye; which would eventually cause its removal; Avey finally returns home. It is there that his battles really begin, as he attempts to come to terms with all that he has seen.

This book is also an account of the 70 years it took the author to come to terms with all that he had experienced in the war. For decades after the war he suffered from PTSD, before it had a name. Most doctors dismissed him with some pills and advised him to "get over it." At one point he found himself waking up, in the middle of the night, choking his wife to death as the result of a nightmare. He turned himself into the Police, but they refused to take the charges seriously, and his marriage ended soon after that.

This book marks the first time in which Mr. Avey has finally spoken about his experiences during the war. He seems to be at peace with himself, and his actions. In that sense, it is also a book of healing, and the perspective which only the passage of time can offer.

In 2002, Avey was awarded the Medal of Valor by the Prime Minister at a ceremony which took place at Number 10 Downing Street in London. Fully documented, and written in a wonderfully readable prose, this book may be one of the best written accounts of the Holocaust, as witnessed by someone who lived it on both sides of the wire. A very unusual book, written by a very unusual man, you don't want to miss this one.

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