Brit who broke IN to Auschwitz.
OF the many tales of courage that would eventually emerge from the horror of Auschwitz, few come close to Denis Avery's.
As a young British soldier serving out his own captivity in a prisoner of war camp close to the Nazi's greatest abomination, he did the unthinkable.
He smuggled himself into Auschwitz to witness for himself the nightmare Hitler's Germany was inflicting on a million Jews.
The young soldier, injured and captured in North Africa, had been shipped to Monowice in Poland, one of three Auschwitz subcamps where he toiled alongside imprisoned Jews for the German industrial giant, IG Farben.
But if his own slavery there was harsh, it paled into the inconsequential beside the rumours that were beginning to emerge from the main camp.
"We'd hear stuff from some of the civilian workers - and then there was the obvious stuff," says Denis, now 86.
Day and night, the terrible stench of charred flesh and burned hair from the crematoria hung in the air.
"We'd see big fellas arrive, thick-set Hungarians, and in no time at all they'd be turned into walking skeletons. When they disappeared, we'd ask what had happened to them, and someone would say 'They've gone up the chimney'.
"I wanted to know what was really happening."
In his own camp, the brutality of his German guards was a casual as it was cruel.
Denis saw another British lance corporal shot dead by an SS guard for refusing an order and he himself lost an eye trying to save a Jewish prisoner from being beaten to death. "I was working in a trench laying electric cables," he says. "All of a sudden a guard was kicking one of the prisoners to pieces, hitting him with his rifle and kicking him.
"The man was pitifully thin. I remember he was trying to stand to attention, his hat off, and he wasn't offering any resistance. The blood was pouring down his face.
"I shouted at the guard to stop, when another SS officer came up behind me with a Luger in his hand and hit me across my face. The gun's trigger guard must have hit my eye."
But it was his growing friendship with Ernst, a German Jew from Berlin, that would eventually afford Denis the opportunity to discover for himself how truly depraved his Nazis captors were.
The two men swapped clothes. Denis, driven by the need to know the truth, stepped out of his army fatigues and into the stinking rags of his Jewish friend - and on three separate occasions took himself into the hell of Auschwitz.
"I had to be very, very careful with how I walked. The Hitler Youth guards would force the Jews to adopt a slouch. If you naturally walked upright, they'd spot you in a flash.
"So my head was bowed and I hunched my shoulders. It's a weak walk, with three men abreast. It took half an hour to get back to the camp because it was so slow.
"If we had been found out, then that would have been the end of it. They would certainly have done away with Ernst, who took my place with the British men going to Monowice." Nothing could have prepared him for the hideous plight of the 200,000 inmates of Auschwitz II.
"It was like nothing on earth," says Denis. "The smell hit you first. It was ghastly. It was the smell of death and filth. A lot of the chaps couldn't control themselves, control their bowels...
"It was terribly, terribly cold in there. The only cover was a blanket which was so thin you could put your elbow through it.
"There were three wooden trestles stacked on top of each other where people slept on mattresses or just wooden boards.
"All through the night, you'd hear men rambling in the dark, just rambling voices and sometimes someone would let out a shriek or a cry."
D ENIS says he knew it was hopeless to try to rally them into escaping or to fight back against their Nazi torturers.
"None of them had any will left. They were totally broken," he says. Hidden at the back of the compound, Denis watched the Germans inflict their torment.
"The Jewish prisoners were forced to stand in the freezing cold while the guards counted them, again and again.
"No one ever escaped. They just died in the night...
"The guards kept their eye on weak prisoners and they were pulled out to go to the gas chambers.
"The guards would drag them out or hit them with a rifle so they would fall to the ground. The look on the prisoners' faces was the same one they had every day. They had nothing left."
Today he wonders whether the inmates knew how truly desperate their plight was.
Posing as his friend Ernst, he watched women and children being marched into the gas chambers.
"I always wondered if they knew," he says. "I hope not. You'd see them getting off the cattle trucks. They were told to strip and hand over all their clothes and go into the showers to wash. They were told they were getting ready to go to better camps. Except they weren't those kind of showers. They were the gas chambers."
If the Jewish prisoners realised what was happening, they didn't show it.
"They were so absorbed with themselves. Imprisonment there did that to you," says Denis. "You became totally introspective. If a chap was shot, it was almost 'So what?'
"I got like that. I saw eight deaths in a day, people being kicked and shot and beaten."
After his third infiltration, Denis never saw his friend Ernst again. The young Jewish man, who had had to return to the infamous camp, was shot and left to die during the infamous death march from Auschwitz in January 1945.
Denis, with other British PoWs, followed the same route days later.
"It was like seeing a human paper chain of bodies. Some had been shot, some had just collapsed and been abandoned," he says.
Eventually he was rescued by American troops and flown back to the UK where he spent two years in hospital recovering from the TB he had contracted in Auschwitz.
Today he lives with his memories in the gentle Derbyshire countryside. They are memories he would prefer to forget, but cannot.
"Auschwitz was an evil place. It felt evil and it tasted evil," he says. "The whole time I was there I never saw a bird or a bee or a butterfly.
"It was if though the Great Creator had turned his back on that evil place."
NIGHTMARE: Denis Avery discovered the secret of the Nazi hell camp; HORROR: Desperate inmates behind Auschwitz' wires; YOUNG HERO: Denis in 1939
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|Publication:||The Mirror (London, England)|
|Date:||Jan 24, 2005|
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