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The bestselling Holocaust memoir by Denis Avey should be withdrawn from publication.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

Donmar Warehouse
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Limehouse raises the question of when party loyalty becomes political irresponsibility

Labour's “Gang of Four” are brought to life brilliantly at the Donmar Warehouse.

A star of the Labour Party right wing, exiled from the shadow cabinet for deviating from the dominant orthodoxy, rants about how a decent but weak Labour leader, with an election-losing anti-European, anti-nuclear manifesto, risks letting the prime minister get away with whatever she wants.

Laughter shows that the audience gets what the dramatist Steve Waters is up to. Limehouse takes place on 25 January 1981, when a gentle veteran, Michael Foot, seems to be leading Labour to such sure oblivion at the next election that Dr David Owen has summoned his fellow moderates Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers and (just back from a stint running Europe) Roy Jenkins to Sunday lunch in his kitchen in east London. This meeting led the “Gang of Four”, as they became known, to make a statement of estrangement from Labour that heralded the creation of the Social Democratic Party.

Waters was inspired by a New Statesman interview in which Rodgers wondered if the left-right divide under Jeremy Corbyn might justify a similar evacuation of the pragmatists now. The debates that the play stages – fidelity to party and national tribes against a fear of political and historical irrelevance – feel hotly topical.

Williams, considering an offer to abandon Labour and teach at Harvard, faced then the dilemma of an Ed Balls or Tristram Hunt now. And Labour members today who fantasise about a new progressive grouping might reflect that, while the SDP briefly seemed a plausible alternative to Thatcherism (winning 7.8 million votes at the 1983 election), the middle-class revolution was squeezed externally by two-party domination and internally by disputes over leadership and direction.

But, for all the parallel relevance, the success of Limehouse ultimately depends on the convincing re-creation of an era and its people. Enjoyable period details include the luxury macaroni cheese to a recipe by Delia Smith that Debbie Owen, Delia’s literary agent, chops and fries on stage to fuel her husband’s discussions with his three wary comrades. Waters also skilfully uses the mechanics of a pre-digital world – having to go out for newspapers, going upstairs to answer a phone – to get one character out of the way to allow others to talk about them.

As a good playwright should, Waters votes for each character in turn. Owen, though teased for vanity and temper, is allowed a long speech that honours his status as one of the most memorable orators in modern British politics. Tom Goodman-Hill samples Owen’s confident baritone without going the whole Rory Bremner.

Playing Jenkins, a man celebrated for both a speech defect and rococo cadences, Roger Allam has no choice but to deliver the voice perfectly, which he does. Waters carefully gives the character an early riff about the “crepuscular greyness” of Brussels, allowing Allam to establish the w-sounds and extravagant adjectives. Actor and playwright also challenge the assumption that for Jenkins both to love fine wine and to advocate social justice was inevitably a contradiction.

Debra Gillett refreshingly avoids the scattiness that caricaturists attribute to Williams, stressing instead her large brain and deep soul, in a portrayal that increases the sense of shame that the Tories should lead Labour 2-0 in the score of female prime ministers. As Rodgers (in Beatles terms, the Ringo of the confab four), Paul Chahidi touchingly suggests a politician who knows that he will always be a bag-man but still agonises over whose luggage to carry.

Unfolding over 100 minutes, Polly Findlay’s production has a lovely rhythm, staging the delayed entrances of Jenkins and Williams for maximum impact. Biodramas about the living or recently dead can be hobbled by a need to negotiate objections of tact or fact. Politicians, however, often purchase even the rudest cartoons of themselves for the loo wall, and the real Owen, Williams and Rodgers laughed warmly during, and strongly applauded after, the first night.

At an impromptu press conference afterwards, a genial and generous Owen astutely observed that what at the time was “a very happy day in our house” has been dramatised as tragicomedy. But, regardless of whether Marx was right about history repeating itself the second time as farce, the possibility that farce is being repeated in Labour Party history has encouraged a compelling play that is sublimely enjoyable but also deeply serious – on the question of when loyalty to party can become disloyalty to political responsibility.

“Limehouse” runs until 15 April

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution