When Denis Avey went off to war in 1940, it wasn’t so much to fight for King and Country as for ‘the sheer hell of it.’
He was aged 21 and, like many young men, felt indestructible ... but as he set sail from Liverpool on a bright August morning he had no idea just how much ‘hell’ he would go through.
Nothing and nobody can prepare a decent man for the ‘pure evil’ that was Auschwitz III slave labour camp so why would a British soldier march willingly into that ‘hell on earth’?
Avey, now aged 93, came back from the Second World War with a unique and remarkable story of daring and bravery but it has taken him nearly 70 years to put it into words.
It was certainly worth the wait because few of us would have the courage to swap places with a Jewish prisoner and sneak our way into Auschwitz in order to experience first-hand the horrors of the holocaust.
Avey’s gripping account of his two visits to the camp where he witnessed ‘man’s inhumanity to man’ is both disturbing and heartbreaking.
Immediately after the war, no-one seemed capable of comprehending his story and for decades he came close to a mental breakdown, visiting the past only in his thoughts and his nightmares.
But eventually the dam of memories and emotions was breached and Avey felt able to recount his experiences, offering us a unique insight into the mind of an ordinary man whose moral and physical courage are inspirational.
In the summer of 1944, Rifleman Avey was being held in a British POW labour camp near Auschwitz III after being captured in Italy.
He was set to work in a giant, satanic chemicals factory manufacturing synthetic rubber for the German war effort. It was there he saw for the first time the ‘stripeys,’ tattered, pyjama-clad Jewish prisoners, strange slow-moving figures with grey faces and all marks of humanity stripped from them.
After hearing rumours of gassing and mass cremation of the Jewish prisoners, he became determined to find out for himself what was going on in Auschwitz III and organised an ‘umtausch,’ or exchange, with a Dutch Jew he knew simply as Hans.
At long last Avey had a cause ... he would discover the cruelty of a place where slave workers were sentenced to death through labour and Hans would have a brief respite in the relative security and comfort of a British camp.
Astonishingly, he survived to witness the aftermath of the Death March where thousands of prisoners were murdered by the Nazis as the Soviet Army advanced. After his own long trek right across central Europe, he was repatriated to Britain.
Avey’s story is both shocking and immensely powerful, and a stark reminder of one of the darkest chapters in world history.
Lest we forget...
(Hodder, paperback, £8.99)