I think the only way I can really understand my feelings is by putting them into writing, which means that if you think you might want to read this book, you may want to skip this post, because I am going to go into far greater detail about what happens in the book than I normally do. You have been warned! 🙂
I’ll admit it, I was drawn by the cover & the title. How could you not be?! Imagine it – you’re a POW & you break into Auschwitz & live to tell about it…WOW! What a scary experience & what a story!
Well, of course I had to buy it & read it & what a conversation starter this book was! Not long after starting to read The Man Who Broke Into Auschwitz my OH & I were on a train to London. While on the train 2 people specifically asked me about the book (but I couldn’t say too much, I had only just started) & I saw the couple on the next seats over, diagonally from me, pointing at the book & talking about it. Then, once we had met up with the people we were meeting that day several other people commented on it as it was sitting on the table in the coffee shop. It’s just that kind of book!
Avey begins the story with a prologue talking briefly about his visit to meet Gordon Brown at Downing Street, when he was honoured as one of 27 Heroes of the Holocaust before flashing back to Mid-1944 to give a “taster” of things to come. The story then flashes back to Avey before his war began, before he had enlisted. Avey then talks about his training in Winchester and then Tidworth & having met the film star David Niven (who had also enlisted, but was an officer).
Flash forward to May 1940 & Avey& 99 other men are marched to Tidworth Train Station where they board a train for Liverpool & eventually onto the Otranto where they sailed to Africa. Avey paints a vivid picture of life onboard the ship, life full of normal duties (for Avey it was Latrine cleaning), boxing matches & watching out for Uboats. After 13 days at sea they landed at Cape Town, disembarked for a couple of days of fun, then sailed north for Egypt. The next 6+ chapters are spent describing Avey’s part of the war in Africa against the Italians, and then the Germans, travelling around the African desert. He describes at great length his time in Africa & while it is interesting, you are left wondering if it really was necessary to have almost 7 chapters reliving the war in Africa in a book that is supposed to be about Auschwitz? I know I kept thinking “Come on, get on with it already”, which is such a shame because it really is interesting, but its not what the title implies that the book is about.
Eventually Avey is captured – the only living member of his brigade & taken prisoner by the Germans. He’s kept in a camp hospital where he is treated for shrapnel wounds, then eventually placed on board a ship when the British began advancing on Benghazi. The ship was packed with POW’s in the hold & headed who knew where. Through the course of the night the ship was hit & Avey jumped overboard to save his life, eventually washing up on the shores of Southern Greece. Avey is eventually captured & placed in another POW camp before they are all loaded onto another ship & sent to Italy. While in the Italian POW camp Avey escapes a couple of times, but each time is caught until eventually a year later he and the other prisoners are loaded onto a cattle train & are transported to Austria. After months of hard labour in a coal mine Avey is once again moved, this time to a POW camp in the outskirts of the town of Oswiecim, to a camp which had originally been built for The Hitler Youth.
Finally, 105 pages into a 259 page book Avey has arrived at Auschwitz, at Auschwitz III Monowicz, and this is where my real misgivings about this book began! Avey is now in Camp E715, on the edge of the IG Farben factory, where Jewish slave labour is being employed to build the Buna-werke (synthetic rubber factory). (IG Farben were one of the worst perpetrators of using Jewish prisoners & POW’s as slaves to build their factories, literally working the Jews to death, for which the company was disbanded after the war & it’s managing directors & leaders imprisoned). Here, Avey mentions that he & the other prisoners refer to the Jews in the concentration camp as “Stripeys” – I think this is a horrible term & unfortunately Avey uses it a lot through the rest of the book. That one little phrase turned me off him & made me start to seriously dislike Avey.
Avey describes life in the camp with the Jews, being forced to work alongside them, as slaves building the buna-werke. Food is scarce, life is harsh, they can smell the crematoria, witness the Jews getting beaten to death. It is a veritable “Hell on Earth”, as Avey describes it. When Avey questions one Jewish prisoner where one of them has gone he is told “He has gone up the chimney”. Avey writes: “Each day I saw Jews being killed on the factory site. Some were kicked and beaten to death, others simply collapsed and died in dirt of exhaustion and hunger.” “….They weren’t fed enough to survive. …..At the Buna-werke they sucked the life and labour from each exhausted man and when he was spent, he was sent to be killed.”
Not long after his arrival Avey meets a couple of jewish prisoners named Hans (if that was his real name, as apparently no one told anyone their real names inside the camps) & Ernst Lobethal. Ernst has a sister, Susanne, who was lucky enough to have secured escape from Germany in the kindertransport & she is living out the war in Birmingham. Through the Red Cross Avey writes a letter home, telling his mother, in a kind of code, what life is like in the POW camp & tells her about Susanne, asking her to contact Susanne, to ask Susanne to send cigarettes for her brother. Cigarettes (and anything else with a perceived value) are a very valuable commodity & Avey believes he can use the cigarettes to save Ernst.
So, you’re probably wondering when is he going to break into Auschwitz – yeah, so was I! The thing is, this is a really good book up to this point, but by now I was starting to feel as though I had bought into a fraud. Also, at this point Avey is really starting to get annoying. Its all Me this & me that, I did this & I did that & personally I was starting to find it all rather self-congratulatory – I get that this is Avey’s story, but did no one else do anything remarkable at all in the time Avey was a prisoner?
Soon Avey is obsessed with the idea of bearing witness to what is happening to the Jewish prisoners & hatches his plan to swap places with one of the prisoners, to, as it were, “break into Auschwitz”. So, despite the fact that Avey continually says you cannot trust anyone inside the POW camp, or the IG Farben site, he forges ahead with his plan. In the meantime, a package arrives from England – cigarettes from Susanne, for Ernst. Avey smuggles the cigarettes to Ernst & then the day arrives that he and Hans make the swap. After a day of forced labour Avey slips into a hut where he had hidden some clogs (where did he get the clogs?) & swaps uniforms with Hans before slipping into the line of Jewish prisoners on their way back to Auschwitz for the night. After witnessing unbelievable cruelty Avey & the prisoners pass through the gates of Auschwitz, under the sign “Arbeit macht frei” – “work sets you free”.
They arrive back at the camp and Avey is hidden away by 2 of the other prisoners. He manages stilted conversation with them, as he speaks rudimentary German & they don’t speak any English. Soon dinner arrives, Avey refuses to eat & then they all go to sleep. The next morning Hans & Avey swap back again. That’s pretty much it. What did Avey bear witness to? What did he see that he didn’t already know about? NOTHING! Absolutely nothing. Avey purports he went back into Auschwitz a second time & again bore witness. In total he supposedly spent 2 nights in Auschwitz, but he did nothing other than sleep. The whole thing just seemed too far fetched to me. What was the point?
More months pass & the end of the war is coming – the allies are bombing Poland & the Germans. One day a bomb drops on the camp killing several POW’s & Avey is the only one who digs the rubble (according to him he was the only one who did) off the soldiers searching for survivors. This was another fine example of Avey’s (or at least as I saw it) bragging & by now I just wanted to throw the book into the nearest bin. As we all know, the war eventually ended, Avey was liberated & returned to the UK & returned to his life. Admittedly Avey had a hard life after the war – extended illness as a result of the time in the various camps & a severe case of what is now known as PTSD.
Flash forward 60+ years & Avey is being interviewed by the BBC for a story about his time as a POW & they eventually track down Susanne & through her, Ernst, who survived the camps & became a US Citizen. Ernst unfortunately has died a few years before, but he has left behind a recording about his life & he talks about Avey (or Ginger, as he called himself while in the camps), the cigarettes & how he managed to survive the death camps when millions did not.
That, for me was the redeeming grace of this story. I really wish they had left out the bit about Avey breaking into Auschwitz – it cannot be proved, and I really don’t understand how it can be said that it added anything to the story (except to maybe sell a few hundred extra copies because of the nature of the title & the picture on the cover), but maybe that was the point after all? It’s a shame, because Avey does deserve to be lauded for what he did, for what can be proven (there is a lot of controversy over Avey’s claims because he was interviewed many times before this BBC interview & never once mentioned breaking into Auschwitz)
After publication many questions started to be asked based on what can & cannot be verified about Avey’s story. One historian states that Avey’s story was problematic partly because it was impossible to prove or disprove. “Theoretically it is possible to do such a thing, but for practical reasons it would be extremely difficult,” he said. The World Jewish Congress has asked his publishers to verify the historical accuracy of the book, which they have refused. Avey has since suggested that those who consider his story too fantastic to be true may have – “a bad (or evil) heart”
Hmm…still not sure what to think!