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The bestselling Holocaust memoir by Denis Avey should be withdrawn from publication.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

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

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 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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