Denis Avey’s remarkable story of serving in WWII is a gripping account of combat, and a truly unique perspective on the horrors of war. Captured as a POW shortly after entering the war, Avey’s determination to bear witness to the atrocities occurring in Auschwitz prompted him to trade places with a Jewish prisoner on two separate occasions. That experience would have a deep impact not only on Avey’s life, but on the life of the man who traded places with him, Ernst. Only last year Avey was among twenty-seven men honored by the British government as a “Heroes of the Holocaust,” and was one of only two men to receive the medal while still alive.
Avey’s descriptive and thoughtful storytelling quickly propelled me through the book, which is primarily divided into three sections. In the first part of the book, Avey discusses his experiences in combat. A brazen soldier who couldn’t wait the extra time it would take to be accepted in the RAF, Avey joined the English Army, and was sent to fight the Italian army in Africa. There is so little written about ground warfare in that location, that I was mesmerized by Avey’s details of combat there.
The harsh realities of war cause Avey to quickly learn the importance of taking care of himself, or as he puts it, “looking out for number one.” One example of this, which is a particularly low point for Avey, is when he is forced to stab an Italian officer in the ribs, and then feels the dead officer’s body collapse on him. Although Avey knows its him or the other officer, the close proximity of the killing stays with him for the rest of his life. Though his mother writes him often and he saves every letter he receives, he cannot bring himself to read them for fear that he will be overcome with thoughts of home. Instead, he focuses his mind on the situation he is facing, knowing that he must have a sharp mind to return home.
The next part of the book details Avey’s new role as a POW. He is transferred to several different camps before ending up in a POW camp next to Auschwitz III. Immediately upon seeing the Jews, or stripeys, as they are called, Avey understands that they are meant to work until they are dead. After numerous odd jobs at camp, he is assigned to work a very physical job alongside the Jews, who require the POWs’ strength because the Jewish men are so fatigued. Although the POWS receive red cross packages sporadically, the minimal amount of food they receive in camp is awful and hardly sustains them. Still, the POWs’ food is far superior in abundance and substance to the Jews’ food.
Avey knows that the smell in the air is caused by the constant cremation of prisoners. The horror becomes all to clear to him one day when he asks after a Jew he had become friendly with and is told by another prisoner, “he went up the chimney.” After witnessing the Germans kill and beat so many Jews without provocation, Avey decides he wants to see for himself what occurs in their camp, in Auschwitz. By this time, Avey has become friendly with a Jew, Ernst, and poses the switch to him. Avey pays Ernst with a few cigarettes – the commodity in the camps – and is comforted knowing that Ernst will have better rations for at least one night.
As Avey pulls Ernst’s clothes on, he can feel the lice and filth in the shirt against his skin, and can smell the death that has seeped into the fibers. The switch is performed, and with the help of Ernst’s bunk mates, Avey slides in Ernst’s life for the night. Once back at Auschwitz, some men are so exhausted that they collapse on the bunk without even eating the soup of rotten cabbage. Avey is overcome with the atmosphere that night, where men scream out, no doubt due to the nightmare situation they are enduring. The experience is not as fulfilling as Avey had hoped because he is unable to learn very much about the camp, and also because Ernst does not reap the benefit Avey expected, as he becomes sick from the POWs’ food because he is so malnourished.
The third part of the book focuses on the end of the war, when Avey is finding his way home through a maze of villages, stealing whatever he can until he runs into an American unit and is transported back to Britain. Once home, he is constantly asked superficial questions such as, “How many Germans did you kill?” Because no one understands post traumatic stress disorder, and cannot comprehend the extent of the concentration camps, he is left to adjust to life all on his own -as it is not socially acceptable to speak of the experience of war, even with his own father who also served.
Ultimately, Avey reconnects with Ernst’s family and begins to retell his story with the voice he had lost for so many years. It is only then that we see the positive effect of Avey’s actions. To attempt to gain Ernst’s trust prior to the switch, Avey had written a letter to his mother asking her to communicate to Ernst’s sister in England telling her that Ernst was alive and to send him cigarettes. Ernst’s sister sends 500 cigarettes to Avey, and over several weeks, Avey passes them to Ernst. With these cigarettes, Ernst buys new soles for his shoes, a warm jacket, and good will with the guards. These things will all culminate in Ernst’s survival during the treacherous and long death marches through the snow. It is incredible to see how one man’s humanity can have such a profound impact on the life of another.
I would highly recommend this book to any WWII or history enthusiast. Anyone interested in themes of humanity and perseverance will find this true story absolutely fascinating. If you are interested in stories of the holocaust, I recommend “Night” by Elie Wiesel and “From the Holocaust to Hogan’s Heroes: The Autobiography of Robert Clary” by Robert Clary, both of which were deeply moving and informative accounts of Auschwitz with themes of hope and perseverance.