Military Wiki
Denis Avey
Born 1919 (age 101–102)
Place of birth Essex
Allegiance  United Kingdom
Service/branch Flag of the British Army.svg British Army
Unit 7th Armoured Division

Second World War

Awards British Hero of the Holocaust
Other work Engineer

Denis Avey (born in Essex in 1919) is a British veteran of the Second World War who was held as a prisoner of war at a camp adjacent to Monowitz. Whilst there he saved the life of Jewish prisoner Ernst Lobethal, by smuggling cigarettes to him.[1] For this he was made a British Hero of the Holocaust in 2010.[2] He has also claimed that he exchanged uniforms with a Jewish prisoner in order to smuggle himself into that prisoner's camp in order to gain information about the treatment of inmates: this claim has been challenged.[3][4] His memoir The Man who Broke into Auschwitz written with Rob Broomby, was published in 2011.

Life (until retirement)[]

Avey was born in Essex, outside of London, in 1919. As a boy he learned boxing, was head boy at school and studied at Leyton technical college. He joined the army in 1939 at the age of 20, and fought in the desert campaigns of North Africa in the 7th Armoured Division, known as the "Desert Rats". He was captured by the Germans while attacking Rommel's forces near Tobruk, Libya, and saw his best friend killed next to him.[5] He escaped to Greece by crossing the Mediterranean Sea floating on top of a packing crate, but was recaptured after landing.[6]

After being retaken prisoner, he was moved to a POW camp E715A for British soldiers near Monowitz, a German Industrial complex, close to Auschwitz, where he was kept imprisoned from 1943 until January 1945. During his time in the camp he managed to befriend a Jewish inmate of Auschwitz III, Ernst Lobethal. He obtained cigarettes from Ernst's sister, who had escaped from Germany to Britain on a Kindertransport before the war, which he secretly passed to Ernst. Avey also says that on two separate occasions he exchanged uniforms with a Jewish inmate and smuggled himself into that inmate's camp with a view to obtaining information about the treatment of inmates. The name identity of the other prisoner and the name of the camp vary in different accounts.[3][7][8] Avey was evacuated from the camp at the end of the war and assumed that Ernst had died when he had been evacuated on a death march. Avey made his way back to England where he briefly met Ernst's sister Susanne. He says that when he tried to report his experience in Auschwitz III he encountered indifference from his commanding officer and that when prosecutors sought his testimony for the Nuremberg Trials they were unable to trace him. After this he kept silent about his experiences, suffering from Posttraumatic Stress Disorder.[9] He married twice and pursued a career in engineering, which culminated in him building a factory near Newcastle. He retired to Bradwell in Derbyshire.


After retirement he became active amongst ex-POWs seeking compensation for wartime imprisonment[10] and began to talk about these experiences. In 2001 he described these in an interview with the Imperial War Museum in London, where he stated that he had obtained cigarettes for Ernst and also gave the name of Ernst's sister Susanne. He also stated that he had exchanged uniforms with a bunkmate of Ernst and entered Birkenau in the company of Ernst. He states that whilst there Ernst told him about an Australian working in Birkenau whom Avey subsequently identified as Donald Watt.[11] (reels 7 and 8) (Watt subsequently wrote a book about his experiences, which is now recognized as fraudulent.)[12] Avey stated that he acquired details about events in Birkenau which he sent home to his mother and sister in a code and that his mother sent two letters regarding this to the War Office which were never acknowledged.[13] He was interviewed on BBC Radio Derby in 2003. In 2005 Daily Mirror reported that Avey claimed to have swapped uniforms with Ernst and entered Birkenau where he witnessed prisoners being sent to the gas chambers.[14]

In May 2009 the British Government announced the establishment of the British Hero of the Holocaust award. That autumn Rob Broomby, a reporter from the BBC, who had known of Avey's story for some years, was able to trace sister Susanne in Birmingham. He discovered that Ernst had survived the death march and emigrated to the United States where he lived to the age of 77 and informed Avey of Ernst's survival.[9] Broomby also discovered that before his death Ernst had recorded a video testimony of his experiences in Auschwitz III in which he mentions the British soldier whom he knew as 'Ginger' who obtained cigarettes. This 'Ginger' was Avey. In November BBC Television broadcast a documentary which included an emotional reunion between Avey and Susanne and in which Avey sees Ernst's video testimony for the first time and realises that his cigarettes saved his life.[15] Although Lobethal - now Lobet - makes no mention on the video of having swapped uniforms with Avey the documentary also included Avey's account of an exchange with an unnamed prisoner. An article by Broomby published at the time of the first broadcast suggested that he and the BBC had accepted the ‘break-in’ story as also confirmed.[9] Denis Avey was then received by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day.[16] and in 2010 he was named a British Hero of the Holocaust by the British Government[17] for having saved Ernst's life by smuggling him cigarettes.[18] The following week he signed a book contract with Hodder and Stoughton.[19] The book appeared in April 2011 with a foreword by Sir Martin Gilbert. In the book Avey exchanges with a Dutch Jew called Hans and enters Auschwitz III/Monowitz. The book was endorsed by the Holocaust Educational Trust.[20] and went on to be a best-seller and has been translated into a number of languages.


Prior to publication of his book reaction from the mainstream media to his story was favourable, but after publication Guy Walters, writing in the Daily Mail, questioned whether Avey had carried out an exchange.[21] Walters pointed to the difficulty of doing this without being caught, the absence of confirmation from witnesses and the length of Avey's silence when his declared motive for entering the camp had been to report about his findings after the war. Avey's fellow POW, Brian Bishop stated that he did not believe Avey's account.[21][22] Nicholas Hellen in the Sunday Times drew attention to differences between Avey's 2001 interview and his book.[23] Jeremy Duns demonstrated that in his 2001 interview with Lyn Smith Avey's memories of Auschwitz included detail which he could only have acquired through reading long after the war.[24] Yad Vashem considered Avey for the honour Righteous among the Nations but said it was unable to grant the award because it was unable to substantiate his account of the prisoner swap.[25][26]

Lyn Smith defended Avey in the face of these doubts saying "It's pitiful what happened to him" and included Avey in her book Heroes of the Holocaust.[27] Avey's publisher added an appendix to the paperback edition of The Man who Broke into Auschwitz, responding to some of the questions raised. They accepted that in his interview with Smith Avey had been somewhat confused but that this was understandable given the stress that he had suffered and that he was then only beginning to unburden himself after decades of silence. They said that Avey had heard about a prisoner from New Zealand who was reported as working with a British prisoner on certain jobs and that the British prisoner also worked in the boiler room in the Auschwitz Stammlage and that when Avey came across Watt's book he assumed that Watt was the prisoner from New Zealand.[26] In April 2012 the BBC broadcast a second programme detailing the controversy.[28] Walters subsequently, in 2013, characterised Avey's claims as 'junk history' [29]

See also[]

Access to Sources[]

Avey's 2001 interview with Lyn Smith is available online - see link below - and may also be heard in the 'Explore History' section of the Imperial War Museum, London.[30] during museum opening hours, without pre-booking. His account of entering Auschwitz is on reels 7 and 8, but is not mentioned in the index. The full text of Nicholas Hellen's article may be read through NewsBank.[31]


  3. 3.0 3.1
  4. "Witness to Auschwitz" BBC, radio broadcast
  5. Smith, David. Denis Avey, Herald ScotlandMarch 27, 2011
  6. "The Man Who Broke into Auschwitz: A True Story of World War II", Publishers Weekly review
  7. Broomby, Rob (29 November 2009). "The man who smuggled himself into Auschwitz". BBC News. Retrieved 1 December 2009. , includes video interview with Avey
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2
  10. All information from Denis Avey's autobiography 'The Man who Broke into Auschwitz.'
  13. Interview with Denis Avey, Imperial War Museum, London, UK, July 16, 2001
  15. BBC", 2010.pdf p.5
  17. "Britons honoured for holocaust heroism". The Telegraph. 9 March 2010. Archived from the original on 9 March 2010. Retrieved 9 March 2010. 
  18. In 2010 he was made a British Hero of the Holocaust.
  21. 21.0 21.1
  26. 26.0 26.1 Full text of updated Notes section to Avey's book
  27. "Holocaust historian defends man who broke into Auschwitz", The Jewish Chronicle, Nov. 17, 2011
  28. "Witness to Auschwitz" BBC video documentary, April 2012
  29. "For historians, books by the likes of Avey and Watt are seen as ‘junk history’ — pages that sate the appetite, but do not provide any historical nutrition."

External links[]

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