There are essentially two story highlights in Denis Avey and Rob Broomby’s “The Man Who Broke into Auschwitz”, both set in E715A, a camp for Allied prisoners of war (POW) situated next to Auschwitz, and both narrated autobiographically by Avey, a British POW: The first is Avey smuggling a letter, a bar of chocolates, and cigarettes to a Jewish inmate, Ernst Lobethal, after obtaining them from Lobethal’s sister in the United Kingdom; and the second is Avey exchanging uniforms with another Jewish inmate to sneak into Auschwitz III on two non-consecutive nights in order to find out more and to eventually report the conditions there. It was therefore a shame that the somewhat exaggerated title focused on the second highlight, even though it was the first which felt much more compelling, which felt more personal and even more authentic.
In other words, the title does not quite do the overall book justice. Yet while many of the criticisms on veracity and accuracy are well-taken, “The Man Who Broke into Auschwitz” – which marries Avey’s personal experiences with his wartime observations and post-war integration as well as with broader geopolitical developments – flows well and is well-organised. And it is also important to remember the horrors of war and the trauma Avey has been through. He first details his first-hand observations of war: The awful living and hygiene conditions, his relationships with commanders and fellow soldiers, the patrols and contact with the enemy, and concluding with his first stab-and-kill encounter. And as he fights against the Italians and the Germans, witnessing deaths and injuries, his capture shifts the narrative to the POW experience shuttling around different camps, which are marked by equally foul conditions and the absence of time-stamps.
Towards the end of the book, Avey summarises his story too in the context of an interview with a television crew present. He said: “We skimmed rapidly over the fighting, my capture, and escape from the torpedoed ship. Then it was on to the Italian POW camp and my transfer first to Germany and then eventually to [E715A] to work with the slave labourers from Auschwitz”.
100 pages in, in 1944, Avey settles into E715A, where he first contrasts the British POW experience with that of the Russians the Jews – the “stripeys” dressed in “zebra uniforms” – and his harrowing descriptions of the Jewish camps brought me back to my 2014 visit to Poland. He reflected on his time in Auschwitz III: “It was the worst thing you could do to a man, I realised. Take everything away from him – his possessions, his pride, his self-esteem – and then kill him. Kill him slowly. Man’s inhumanity to man doesn’t begin to describe it”. This is also when and where the two aforementioned story highlights transpire, and Avey’s post-war experience led to the emotional climax of the book, when he meets the sister of Lobethal and watches the testimony of Lobethal, which corroborates most of what Avey shares. This highlight is also what the book rightfully emphasises, with a stunning thematic mix of empathy, perseverance, and good fortune.