The curious case of the "break into Auschwitz"

The bestselling Holocaust memoir by Denis Avey should be withdrawn from publication.

Over the weekend, the Sunday Times reported that Denis Avey, the author of the memoir The Man Who Broke Into Auschwitz, had changed important elements of his story before his bestselling book was published.

According to the article, Avey's account of how he had bravely swapped places with a Jew to enter into Auschwitz was radically different from an interview he had given to the Imperial War Museum in July 2001.

In the taped interview, Denis Avey claimed that he had gained entry to Auschwitz-Birkenau by swapping places with an unnamed "stripey" -- as British prisoners of war (POWs) called the Jewish inmates on account of their striped uniforms -- and had been accompanied by a Jew called Ernst. However, in the published book, Avey claims that he broke into Auschwitz-Monowitz (a camp about four miles from Birkenau), swapped places with a Dutch Jew called Hans, and that the man who accompanied him was not "Ernst".

One does not need to be a Holocaust historian to appreciate that these are important differences of fact.

Despite the assertion by the Sunday Times that this evidence is new, the catalogue of problems with Avey's story was highlighted by myself and my co-authors, Jeremy Duns and Adrian Weale, in the pages of the Daily Mail some seven months ago. Furthermore, we informed Avey's publishers, Hodder & Stoughton, in May of the existence of no fewer than eight differing versions Avey has given of his celebrated "swap", including the one given to the Imperial War Museum as well as accounts in the Daily Mirror and the Times.

Jeremy Duns -- whom readers of this blog will remember from the Hari affair -- wrote about these the differing versions of the story on his own blog a month ago.

Besides coming somewhat late to the feast, the Sunday Times failed to notice the smoking gun, the element which demonstrates that Denis Avey's story is questionable. In his interview for the Imperial War Museum, Avey says that he made the swap in an attempt to make contact with an Australian POW who claimed to have been incarcerated in Birkenau and forced to stoke the crematoria:

So over the days and weeks we arranged to have an 'umtausch' - an exchange. I went in to Birkenau with Ernst and this stripey got into my uniform and got into E715 for the night. And I went with him to Birkenau and slept alongside him, as was the position of this other fellow, and in this way I got the information, very surreptitiously again [...] Now he [Ernst] told me of an Australian POW that was working in Birkenau, and sure enough he did. I tried constantly to contact him. I couldn't. I don't know why - I couldn't. And you know what he did? He was an escaped POW. They picked him up just going into Switzerland in civilian clothes, and they interrogated him because of the civilian clothes, and they wanted to know how he got the clothes, how he got the map, how he got the compasses and he wouldn't tell them. He'd got my temperament and he was an Australian to boot as well. And of course he caused a lot of problems, and they beat him badly, and then they sent him to Auschwitz-Birkenau. You know what he did? He stoked the crematoria. He stoked the crematoria for twelve months. I tried to contact him after the war: I couldn't, but then I found out he'd written a book called "Stoker".

The supposed stoker to whom Avey refers is Donald Watt, who published a book about his experiences in 1995. Unfortunately for Avey, that book has been widely shown to be yet another discredited Holocaust memoir.

The work has been dismissed by Yad Vashem, by the Auschwitz Memorial and Museum, by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and, most devastatingly, by Professor Konrad Kwiet, resident historian at the Sydney Jewish Museum and the former chief historian of the Australian War Crimes Commission.

In an article published in 1997, Professor Kwiet revealed that Watt's Service and Casualty Form kept by the Australian army showed that he was discharged from Stalag 357 in April 1945, and that there was no evidence he had ever been in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Here is an extract from Kwiet's article:

The unbelievable Stoker-story has enjoyed a remarkable reception in Australia... However, Donald Watt's "memoirs" were not universally applauded. Criticism came from abroad. Members of the Research Institute of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington questioned the authenticity of Watt's testimonies. The Fritz Bauer Institut rejected the manuscript for translation into German. Yad Vashem, Israel's official documentation and research centre on the Holocaust, was asked for an expert opinion report. The Stoker-story was examined by Gideon Greif, an authority who had just published a documentation on the Jewish "Sonderkommandos" ("Wir weinten tränenlos... Augenzeugenberichte der jüdischen Sonderkommandos." Köln; Böhlau et al. 1995). He concluded that Watt "at no time had been a member of the Sonderkommandos in Auschwitz-Birkenau... The author describes a reality of the everyday life of the Sonderkommandos which never existed". In May 1996 a negative report arrived from the Museum of Auschwitz. Dr. Franciszek Piper, Director of the History Research Department, could find no record of the imprisonment of a "British subject/citizen/person of Australia" (...sic byly jeniec brytyijski z Australii...), let alone an Australian POW serving within the ranks of the Jewish "Sonderkommando".

Given this, and the various conflicting versions of Avey's supposed "swap", it is almost impossible to take The Man Who Broke Into Auschwitz at face value.

There are four bodies that need urgently to address the problems with Avey's story. First, there is Hodder & Stoughton, which told the Sunday Times: "We had no reason to doubt Mr Avey's account at the time of publication and we have no reason to doubt it now." The paperback of Avey's book is currently second in the Sunday Times's non-fiction chart.

Second, there is the Holocaust Educational Trust (HET), which has embraced Avey and promoted him. It is largely thanks to the HET that the third body in question -- the British Government -- awarded Avey a British Hero of the Holocaust medal, an award the HET campaigned to be established.

The fourth organisation that needs to ask questions is the BBC, whose employee Rob Broomby is the co-author of Avey's book. The broadcaster has been generous in giving airtime to what is essentially a commercial enterprise. Furthermore, Broomby has serious questions to answer. At what point during the writing of The Man Who Broke Into Auschwitz did he become aware that some of his co-author's claims were problematic?

There are numerous other problems with Avey's book, and not just those concerning his time as a POW. However, the passages regarding the Holocaust are what have propelled the book to the top of the charts, and it is these claims that have led to Avey being both feted and honoured.

Given that the account of Avey's story about "breaking into Auschwitz", as published in this book, varies in such a fundamental and disquieting way from his earlier telling to the Imperial War Museum, the book should be withdrawn from circulation and its claims presented to an independent body of historians for assessment.

Duns, Weale and I asked Hodder & Stoughton to do this seven months ago. The firm can no longer afford to be an ostrich. In order to protect its reputation, it must realise that telling such questionable stories about the Holocaust is a distasteful business.

Photo: Nadav Kander
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Sarah Hall's dark short stories are fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment

The displacements in Madame Zero are literal, figurative and occasionally fantastical.

There’s no story called “Madame Zero” in Sarah Hall’s new collection: the title floats enigmatically above this dark and memorable set of stories. A passing mention of “Cotard. Capgras. Madame Zero” gives a clue, but the reader has to scurry for it.

In the 1920s a patient presented herself to the French psychiatrist Joseph Capgras with what the latter identified as an unusual form of the Cotard delusion, a mental illness characterised by a radical sense of disconnection from the self. Some Cotard sufferers think parts of their body have vanished; some think they’re dead and rotting. Capgras’s patient felt that she wasn’t there at all, and gave the name Madame Zero to the non-being who had replaced her.

With this, a lot becomes clear about Hall’s second collection of short fiction. So many of these stories are about characters who have vanished, become strange to themselves or stepped out of the centres of their own lives.

The displacements are literal, figurative and, occasionally, fantastical. In the opening story, “Mrs Fox”, for which Hall won the BBC National Short Story Prize in 2013, a woman who “dreams subterranean dreams, of forests, dark corridors and burrows, roots and earth” is out for a walk with her husband one morning when she transforms into a vixen. “She turns and smiles,” Hall writes, in language whose imagery edges close to horror. “Something is wrong with her face. The bones have been re-carved. Her lips are thin and the nose is a dark blade. Teeth small and yellow. The lashes of her hazel eyes have thickened…”

The story quietly updates David Garnett’s strange little novel Lady Into Fox from 1922, but its fascination with the wild – in humans, in nature, in the borders between the two – continues a theme that runs in Hall’s work from her debut novel Haweswater (2002) to her most recent, The Wolf Border (2015).

It finds an echo in “Evie”, the collection’s final piece, in which a married woman becomes wild in a different way, exhibiting cravings, confusion and promiscuity that first baffles then arouses her husband. Her radical changes, however (“She’d walked carelessly across the tripwires of their relationship, as though through a field of mines, as if immune”), turn out to have a dreadful neurological cause.

Other stories experiment with register, style and genre. Written in downbeat medicalese, “Case Study 2” takes the form of a psychiatrist’s report on a patient: a wild boy found on the moors who turns out to have been brought up by a secretive communal cult. As the therapist begins to “re-parent” her new charge, getting him to say “I” instead of “we” and teaching him about property and possessions, Hall drip-feeds hints about the community he has left, whose slogan “All of one mind and all free” soon acquires a threatening resonance.

The points in this story about connection and selfhood give it an aspect of fable, but at root it’s a weird tale; take away the leached and wistful tone and the doctorly equivocations and we might be in The Twilight Zone. Hall has written counterfactuals and science fiction before: her novel The Carhullan Army imagined life among a group of armed feminist rebels in dystopian Britain, while The Wolf Border, written before the referendum but set in a newly independent Scotland, looks more alternative-historical by the day. 

Similar impulses power several of the stories here. “Theatre 6” portrays a Britain living under “God’s Jurisdiction”, in which the Department for the Protection of Unborn Children insists all pregnancies be carried to term. Other imaginary societies are evoked in “Later, His Ghost”, a haunting piece of cli-fi about a Britain devastated by high winds (originally published in this magazine); and in “One in Four”, a four-page chiller set in the middle of a flu pandemic. Hall is no world-building nerd, however. Her focus is always on the strangely displaced characters (harried anaesthetist, obsessed survivor, suicidal biochemist) at the stories’ heart.

A microclimate of unease also hangs over the stories in which nothing weird is visibly going on. In “Luxury Hour”, a new mother returning from the lido meets the man with whom she once had a secret affair; going home, she imagines her child “lying motionless in the bath while the minder sat on a stool, wings unfurled, monstrous”. “Goodnight Nobody” evokes the crowded inner world of Jem, an Eighties child with a ThunderCats obsession (but her mum works in a mortuary, and the neighbour’s dog has just eaten a baby…). And “Wilderness”, my favourite from this collection, conjures stark prickling fear from its description of a woman with vertigo crossing a creaking viaduct in South Africa: “The viaduct was floating free, and sailing on the wind. It was moving into the valley, into the river’s mouth. It was going to hit the hillside, and heave and tip and buckle.”

These aren’t particularly comforting stories; they’re fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment, told by or featuring characters who are frequently incomprehensible to themselves. But their poise, power and assurance are very striking indeed. 

Madame Zero
Sarah Hall
Faber & Faber, 179pp, £12.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder