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The bestselling Holocaust memoir by Denis Avey should be withdrawn from publication.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

© THE TRUSTEES OF THE BRITISH MUSEUM
Show Hide image

How Native American culture fought back against the colonisers

The British Museum's new exhibition reveals the resilience of First Nations culture.

In the Great Court of the British Museum stand two enormous cedar totem poles, acquired in the early years of the 20th century from the north-west coast of North America. One was made by the Haida peoples and the other by the Nisga’a, two of the nations that make up the many-layered society stretching through Alaska, British Columbia and Washington State in the lands which, today, are called the United States and Canada. These peoples, whose history dates back at least 9,000 years, have been remarkably resilient in withstanding European and Russian incursion from the 18th century onward. Besides the Haida and Nisga’a, there are the Tlingit and Kwakwaka’wakw, the Tsimshian, the Coast Salish, Nuu-chah-nulth and Makah groups.

Now, for the first time, the British Museum is bringing together objects from these cultures in an exhibition that showcases one of the world’s most recognisable artistic traditions, and demonstrates how cultural identity can endure even in the most terrible circumstances. First Nation rights and identity are still very much under threat, as protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota show.

The exhibition takes its title from the legendary Thunderbird, who uses his strength and power to hunt whales – a skill he is said to have given to some of these communities. His legend persists into the present day. The Thunderbird can be seen here on a club collected by Captain Cook in the 18th century, and on a 1983 print made by the contemporary Kwakwaka’wakw artist Tony Hunt.

The objects on display are set in cases painted with a pale green wash to evoke the colour of fresh cedar bark. Some – such as the totem poles in the Great Court – evoke the power and majesty of these societies, while others are domestic items that combine beauty and usefulness in equal measure. In the first category are two potlatch “coppers”, shield-shaped plaques about a metre in height, made from what was an exotic and valuable metal. The potlatch is a ceremony, often days long, of feasting, dancing and giving of gifts. Such copper plaques, patterned with spruce gum in the sinuous “formline” design, which is as distinctive to the north-west coast as intricate knotting is to the Celtic tradition, were a significant part of the ceremony.

Equally intricately worked is a basket made of cedar twigs and cedar bark, used to catch fish. The bark on the basket is wrapped in an alternating sequence around the twigs: a technique that brings not only beauty but strength to what is, in effect, a delicate net. From these two objects alone, one can begin to grasp the sophistication of life on the Pacific north-west coast. The people of these cultures built highly complex and rich societies, all without the benefit of agriculture – evidence of the bounty of the bays and islands. In this lush geography, artists and craftsmen made works that are a source of wonder today: look for the joins at the corners of the elaborately decorated Haida box on display and you won’t find any. The chests are made from a single plank of red cedar, which is steamed until pliable; the two ends are then pegged together. They can be used for the storage of clothing, also as drums, or for cooking – or even for burial. They are a good symbol for the adaptability of the cultures of the north-west coast.

The new exhibition is laid out over a single room. One side of the room spans the earliest stone tools and historic weapons made in the region, up to objects from the time of Captain James Cook’s arrival in the 1770s; the other features art and regalia from the museum’s collections, including contemporary work and examples from the modern era. The latter addresses what might plainly be called cultural genocide: the often willed destruction of First Nation populations, in both Canada and the United States, by disease; by the residential school system, under which children were taken away from their families to be “educated” out of their culture and beliefs; and by the attempted eradication of languages and religious practices.

One of these banned practices was the potlatch itself, outlawed in Canada from 1880 until 1951 – long enough for a culture to vanish. Yet it survived, the curator Jago Cooper told me, as a result of “people going into museums and studying, or grabbing a grandparent and asking questions. People were incredibly industrious when it came to restoring their culture.” The show opens with a video of a vibrant potlatch.

There is evidence of that restoration and revival in the regalia worn by Chief Alver Tait in 2003 when the Nisga’a totem pole was first raised in the British Museum after decades of storage. He and his wife, Lillian, performed a spirit dance “to bring life back to the ancestors in the totem pole because they had been resting for so long”.

Much of the material here has been seen less frequently than it might be. In Missing Continents at the British Museum, a BBC Radio 4 programme made last year (and still available on iPlayer), the artist Antony Gormley, a former British Museum trustee, argued that the cultures of Africa, Oceania and the Americas are overshadowed there by those of Europe and Mesopotamia, which take the lion’s share of permanent displays at the institution.

Temporary shows such as “Where the Thunderbird Lives” allow a glimpse of the museum’s hidden holdings, some of them simply too fragile to be seen very often, or for very long. At least one of the objects, a gorgeous yellow cedar cloak, collected in the last years of the 18th century on George Vancouver’s North Pacific voyage and painted with an oystercatcher and two skate figure images, is a “once in a lifetime” object – it can’t be exposed to light for long, so now’s your chance to see it. We don’t know who made it. Some of the others, such as the “welcome figure”, carved with open arms, can’t even be attributed to a specific culture. That is, of course, true of many items in the museum’s vast collection: we don’t know who made the Sutton Hoo Helmet, or carved the Rosetta Stone.

The past cannot be changed: it can, however, be acknowledged, as this exhibition gracefully does – for in the work of the contemporary artists here, one sees, in diverse ways, the continuation of their ancestors’ traditions. What looks like a traditional Tlingit spruce root twinned basket is made of glass, by the contemporary Tlingit artist Preston Singletary; a copper pendant echoes the great potlatch coppers but the image printed on its face shows a detail from a US$5 bill (this was made by the Tlingit artist Alison Bremner). Ownership of culture and definitions of culture are questions more hotly debated than ever before. “Where the Thunderbird Lives” is a thoughtful – and beautiful – addition to that debate. 

“Where the Thunderbird Lives: Cultural Resilience on the North-west Coast of North America” opens on 23 February and is at the British Museum, London WC1, until 27 August. Details: britishmuseum.org

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit