The chilling slogan at the entrance to Auschwitz III -- Arbeit Macht Frei (work will make you free) -- is ingrained on former English soldier Denis Avey’s memory, years after he disguised himself in the uniform of an inmate and sneaked into the infamous death camp.
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The experience haunted his sleep for decades. So too, did the image of a baby being punched to death in its mother’s arms, and a skinny lad beaten to a pulp by a SS officer for being Jewish. Avey, enraged, called the officer subhuman and took a pistol-whipping to the head for it. This was Avey fighting back against the injustice he could do little to stop as a British POW based next to Auschwitz, and why he risked his life to bear witness to the killing factories of the Third Reich.
He recalls bunking down with other inmates in their horrendous sleeping quarters at night: “I struggled to breathe. It was stiflingly hot and there was the putrid smell of ripening bodies. Auschwitz III was like nothing else on earth; it was hell on earth. This is what I had come to witness, but it was a ghastly, terrifying experience.”
Avey is a natural raconteur who maintains a sense of proportion in describing his story of the journey from civilisation to the most horrific place on earth: “It was the worst thing you could do to a man, I realised. Take everything away from him -- his possessions, his pride, his self-esteem -- and then kill him. Kill him slowly.”
Born in an Essex village in 1919, Avey’s tale begins joining the army in 1939, fighting in the desert campaigns of North Africa before being captured in an attack on Rommel’s forces near Tobruk in which his best friend was killed.
On his return home after the war he suffered post-traumatic stress, and felt tremendous guilt for being captured and forced to do manual labour in Auschwitz that directly helped the Nazis. British civilian society simply did not understand the atrocities of war. The reason he is now telling his remarkably honest story after six decades is his belief that the horror he lived through could happen again.
Thankfully, Avey has found a measure of peace in old age. While working on construction of the IG Farben factory near Auschwitz, he smuggled cigarettes and food to Ernst, a Jewish prisoner whose sister had escaped to England before the war. Avey did not believe that Ernst could possibly survive the terrible death march westwards from Auschwitz in the winter of 1945. But Avey’s efforts were to make the difference between life and death. Ernst miraculously survived, a fact that Avey discovered only 60 years later, after the detective work of the BBC’s Rob Broomby, who tracked down Ernst’s remaining family.
Denis Avey is a hero.