Another Auschwitz myth unravels

This weekend another Auschwitz fable is crumbling as (for once) mainstream journalists dare to employ some of the analytical tools of forensic scepticism that in parts of Europe have seen writers, researchers, publishers and even lawyers jailed for daring to disbelieve.

For once, an element of Auschwitz “history” has proved just too unbelievable.

This is the tale of Denis Avey, a British prisoner of war who claimed to have briefly taken the place of an Auschwitz-Birkenau prisoner, thus qualifying simultaneously for the titles of “Holocaust survivor” and “righteous Gentile”.  Avey’s book The Man Who Broke Into Auschwitz has been published by the respected British firm Hodder & Stoughton, with a foreword by the venerated Churchill biographer and “Holocaust expert” Sir Martin Gilbert, who writes: “This is a most important book, and a timely reminder of the dangers that face any society once intolerance and racism take hold.”  It has been heavily promoted by the BBC and is now in the UK bestseller lists.

Yet his account was demolished months ago by historian and novelist Guy Walters in the Daily Mail, and Walters returns to the topic in a New Statesman blog this week. This follows a piece by Nicholas Hellen in the Sunday Times on 13th November under the headline “Hero of Holocaust changed his story: doubt hangs over a Briton’s account of his time at Auschwitz”.

The Sunday Times piece is only accessible in full to subscribers, but I can quote the opening paragraphs:

The British prisoner of war who wrote a bestseller about how he broke into Auschwitz changed key elements of his story before the book was published, new evidence reveals.

Denis Avey, 93, was made a British hero of the Holocaust after twice swapping places with a Jewish prisoner so that he could tell the world about the atrocities.

But 10 years before his book, The Man who Broke into Auschwitz, became an international phenomenon this year, he recorded five hours of tapes, which are lodged at the Imperial War Museum in London. There are significant differences between the taped account and the published one.

Most crucially, the camp that Avey smuggled himself into disguised as a Jewish prisoner has changed, as has the identity of the prisoner with whom he exchanged places. In the taped account, Avey claims to have swapped with a prisoner in Auschwitz-Birkenau – the extermination camp that has become synonymous with the Holocaust.

However, in the published account, Avey says the camp he broke into was actually Auschwitz-Monowitz, also known as Auschwitz III, which was a labour camp, not an extermination camp.

Avey now faces awkward questions about why the changes were made.

This earlier Avey account – inconsistent with his published account – can still be heard at the online archive of the Imperial War Museum.

The Jewish Chronicle has published a cautious defence of the Avey story, but the state-funded Holocaust Educational Trust is (not before time) in the dock for promoting what seems to be a “manifestly obvious” fraud.  Also embarrassed are British government ministers who gave Avey a medal as a “British Hero of the Holocaust”, as reported by the Jewish Chronicle in March 2010. They can hardly ask for its return….

"Holocaust hero" Denis Avey with then Prime Minister Gordon Brown in March 2010