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The bestselling Holocaust memoir by Denis Avey should be withdrawn from publication.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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"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge