The horrors of the Nazi death camps are so well documented that it seems impossible that one would agree to trade places with an inmate in Auschwitz, but one British soldier actually did. Denis Avey, in a move of unimaginable courage, decided that he sneak into Auschwitz in order to witness firsthand the atrocities there and to testify to the world after the war was over.
Denis Avey was already a prisoner of war and inhabited run-down barracks close to the infamous death camps, however the conditions he faced were luxury compared to those of his neighbors. Exchanging his prison uniform for a filthy, worn-out striped Auschwitz uniform, Avey sneaked into the death camp late at night. “I know I was taking a hell of a chance,” Avey told the BBC; “”When you think about it in today’s environment it is ludicrous, absolutely ludicrous. You wouldn’t think anyone would think or do that, but that is how I was. I had red hair and a temperament to match. Nothing would stop me.”
While his initial purpose was to be a witness to the cruelty perpetrated in the German’s largest death camp reserved mainly for Jews, what Denis saw was difficult for him to relate, even decades in the future. The screaming and crying made it impossible to sleep, the stench was unbearable, and every prisoner was a shadow of his former self and was obsessed only with survival.
Avey got to know one prisoner in particular, Ernst Lobethall, who asked if he could contact a sister in London names Susan. When Avey left Auschwitz, he became a go-between, giving Ernst chocolate, a letter and a whole carton of British cigarettes, which could be bartered for practically anything and were “like gold.” Ernst said receiving this package was like being given “Rockefeller Center” and used packs of cigarette to buy favors, including new soles for his shoes, that enabled him to survive the camp and the death marches.
Denis Avey was reunited with Ernst sister many years later, but it was too late to meet the man he had saved. Ernst Lobethall survived the war, emigrated to the U.S, married and had a family, but wasn’t able to join the reunion with Denis Avey. However, Denis and Susan wept as they watched the filmed testimony Ernst produced for the Shoah Foundation; he discussed a British prisoner who helped save his life.
To this day Denis Avey suffers from Post Traumatic Stress disorder as the direct result of the brief time he spent in Auschwitz, but he was moved to see the man he helped actually survive the war and start a family. “It was foolhardy, but that’s how I was,” confessed Denis.