Bearing witness to Nazi horror

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The men in stripes came in looking like boxers and ended up like skeletons. Denis Avey could see them wasting away in a place so evil that even nature had abandoned it, without a bee or butterfly in sight.

They were the Jewish inmates housed in the ghastliest part of Auschwitz, subjected to brutalities and atrocities that Avey, an English prisoner of war confined to another section of the camp, could barely imagine.

But then, he thought, why only imagine them? What if, somehow, he could see those horrors for himself -- see them, remember them, bear witness to the world about them?

So the then-25-year-old pondered and plotted, soon hatching a plan so audacious that, more than 65 years later, he shakes his head at its absurdity. While so many Jews and others held at the infamous extermination camp were desperate to get out, Avey was actually devising a way to sneak in.

As reckless as it seems, the attempt to infiltrate the heart of Nazi darkness was part and parcel of a remarkable wartime career that saw Avey fight in North Africa with Britain’s famous Desert Rats, suffer capture by the enemy, survive the sinking of a boat full of POWs and languish for a year in a camp in Italy before he even arrived in Nazi-occupied Poland.

Now 91, Avey is finally being recognized for his long-ago bravery, especially his role in saving the life of a Jewish internee at Auschwitz. The British government recently awarded him a medal, and Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial center in Israel, is considering whether to add Avey to its honor roll of “The Righteous Among the Nations,” non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during World War II.

It’s all a bit overwhelming for a nonagenarian who stuffed his wartime experiences behind a wall of silence for decades, after his first attempt to tell his story met with shocking indifference from his superiors.

“I don’t feel like a hero. I’m embarrassed,” he said at his home here in the peaceful northern English countryside. “I was that type of person. I had certain ideals that I grew up with.”

Avey landed in Auschwitz toward the end of 1943, thrown together with hundreds of other POWs from Britain, Australia and other nations in a facility known as the E715 work camp. Although part of the Auschwitz complex, it was some distance from the hellhole known as Auschwitz-Birkenau, which held the most notorious of the gas chambers and crematoria of Hitler’s Final Solution.

The POWs were forced to work in a factory run by IG Farben, a German conglomerate engaged in making synthetic rubber to help the Nazi war effort.

Healthier Jewish inmates were brought over to work in the factory as well, but received far harsher treatment from their German overlords. That repulsed men like Avey, who couldn’t escape knowledge of the gruesome fate that lay in store for many of their fellow workers.

“When the wind was blowing in the wrong direction, you could smell the crematoria. They were all very, very much aware of what was going on,” said Duncan Little, author of “Allies in Auschwitz,” an account of British POWs in camp E715.

“They tried to help as much as they could. For instance, the food the Nazis were giving them, which was completely unpalatable -- some of them would try to leave it in the corner so the Jewish workers could have it.”

Although contact was strictly forbidden, some POWs and Jews managed to communicate surreptitiously. Avey carved out a friendship with a young German-born Jew named Ernst, with whom he could exchange snatches of conversation if they were careful.

“You can speak German out of the side of your mouth,” Avey said, adding with a smile, “but it’s difficult.”

Ernst knew Avey, a redhead, only as “Ginger.” As their friendship developed, Ernst confided that he had a sister who had escaped to England a few years before. Avey asked for her address.

As a POW, he was entitled to write letters home. He sent a carefully worded missive to his mother, telling her about a friend whose family didn’t know he was alive and requesting that she contact the man’s sister to say “everything was OK.”

He also asked his mother to send cigarettes, which he planned to give to Ernst.

“By a miracle, the letter got through, and the cigarettes came four months later,” Avey recalled. “Two hundred cigarettes.”

They were as good as gold in the camp. Over the following weeks, Avey was able to slip a few at a time to Ernst, so the young Jewish prisoner could use them to barter for extra rations and other items.

Later, the cigarettes would save his life.

In the meantime, Avey was brewing an even more daring plan than smuggling contraband to his friend: seeing firsthand the unspeakable things being done to the Jews at Auschwitz.

“You know the word ‘conjecture’? It’s never been in my vocabulary,” he said. “I wanted to know exactly what was happening inside there. . . . I knew there had to be eventually a reckoning to all this.”

Avey persuaded a Dutch Jew at the factory to switch places with him for a night, a monumental risk that could get both of them shot. The Dutchman agreed for the sake of an evening with better rations, a more comfortable bed and a reprieve, however brief, from the unremitting horror. He and Avey were roughly the same height and build, but that, Avey said, wasn’t enough.

“I shaved my hair completely off,” he recalled. “And before that, I dirtied my face and my eyes.”

He also carefully studied and copied “the slouch,” the defeated bearing of many of the Jewish prisoners, who were starved of both food and hope.

On the agreed-upon day, the two men slipped into an unused shed and swapped clothes, timing it just right for Avey to come out and fall into line with the Jewish inmates being marched back to their own camp.

“It was weeks of planning,” he said. “It was very precise; it had to be. . . . I knew it was underwritten by a lot of luck.

“Talking about it, it sounds ridiculous. But that was the kind of chap I was. I was a nut.”

The plan worked, to a point. The Jewish prisoners he joined weren’t housed at Auschwitz-Birkenau, as Avey had hoped, but in a camp closer to the factory.

Still, he said, he knew he was entering hell when he saw the body of a hanged man dangling from a gallows just beyond the entrance gate, which bore the infamous slogan “Work Sets You Free.” Inside, as the camp orchestra played Wagner, the prisoners submitted to roll call, then awaited their rations.

“You could smell it a mile off. It was terrible cabbage soup, and that was it,” Avey said. “You had a bowl -- everyone had a metal bowl -- and they had to look after it. They used it as a pillow in some cases, rather than [let] anybody steal it.”

That night, wedged tight between two other men on a filthy bunk, Avey didn’t sleep. Inmates raved in their sleep, or screamed from nightmares. He wanted to stay awake, so he could quiz the fellows beside him.

“I . . . asked them lots of questions -- names of [guards] who had murdered people,” he said. “I wanted to know names of SS officers as well.”

The next day, Avey said, he and his Dutch doppelganger switched back.

But he hadn’t had enough. He wanted to collect more intelligence, especially about the dreaded “selection,” where the Nazis separated those who looked capable of continuing to work from those who were to be trucked to the gas chambers.

So Avey and the Dutchman traded places a second time. Once again, the plan succeeded; once again, they changed back the next day.

Incredibly, there was even a third attempt, which nearly ended in disaster. A guard caught the two men moving aside by themselves. Avey quickly spouted an innocuous excuse, which the guard accepted.

Shaken by the close shave, he and the Dutchman agreed: “That’s it.”

In January 1945, with Russian forces closing in, the Nazis evacuated Auschwitz, forcing prisoners on death marches that claimed thousands of lives.

Avey slogged on for hundreds of miles, but slipped away from the group close to the Austrian border. Eventually, he ran into American soldiers, who helped get him back to England.

To the disbelief of his family, who thought he was dead, Avey walked through the door of his home two days before V-E Day.

He reported back to his regiment in Winchester, and sought out a lieutenant to explain what, at great personal risk, he had seen and learned inside Auschwitz.

The lieutenant’s eyes, Avey said, glazed over. Stung by the indifference, Avey decided not to speak of it again.

He left the army and took up a civilian job as an engineer. Suffering from what would probably be diagnosed today as post-traumatic stress disorder, he sought out adrenaline rushes from activities such as running with the bulls in Pamplona and equestrian sports.

“I wanted desperately to get back to life,” he said. “I had nightmares for years. I was a loose cannon for years. It affected me a great deal.”

He told no one -- not his first wife, or his present wife, or their daughter -- about his wartime past.

“I knew there was something,” said his wife, Audrey. “Naturally, you ask questions. But I never got an answer.”

The dam of silence finally broke about seven years ago, when Avey was invited to appear on the BBC to talk about war pensions. The memories suddenly started tumbling out, and the TV hosts could scarcely believe the extraordinary tale they were hearing.

The BBC set to work on a documentary and was able to discover the full name of the young Jewish prisoner Avey had befriended in Auschwitz, Ernst Lobethal, and to track down his sister, still alive in central England.

Avey had no inkling that Ernst had survived the war, or that he had wound up in the United States, where, like Avey, he became an engineer. Before his death in 2001, Lobethal, who had changed his name to Ernest Lobet, videotaped his story for Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation, which now belongs to USC.

In an emotional reunion late last year, the BBC brought together Avey and Lobet’s sister, Susanne Timms. Wiping away tears, the two sat on Avey’s sofa, their hands clasped, as they watched Lobet’s video.

In it, he describes how the British POW he knew only as “Ginger” gave him 10 packs of cigarettes. (“It’s like being given Rockefeller Center.”) He traded some of the precious hoard for favors, including one that ultimately enabled him to make it through the death marches.

“The soles of my shoes had started to wear very thin, and of course there are also shoemakers in the camp,” Lobet recalled. “I had new heavy soles put on my boots for two packs of English Player’s cigarettes. And that later on came . . . to save my life on the death marches.”

Timms, 87, never expected to meet the man who saved her brother.

“He’s a wonderful man. He’s got a very strong personality,” Timms said in a telephone interview. “I only wish my brother knew before he died.”

Now, despite his years, Avey remains in vigorous health, except for a pinched nerve in his back and a bit of a wheeze after he walks.

There’s still something of the brash young soldier about him. With a cackle of laughter, he challenges a visitor less than half his age to a strength contest and describes his years of judo training, boasting impressively: “I could kill you with just one finger.”

He and his wife live with their two springer spaniels, surrounded by rolling green hills. These days, though, that tranquillity is broken constantly by phone calls from reporters, community groups and others eager for him to recount his experiences.

The man who kept his story bottled up for decades now seems happy to share it.