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British P.O.W. Tells Oxford Students of Auschwitz Horrors

British P.O.W. Tells Oxford Students of Auschwitz Horrors

British P.O.W. and Holocaust witness Denis Avey shares his experiences with audience members at the Oxford Chabad Society.
British P.O.W. and Holocaust witness Denis Avey shares his experiences with audience members at the Oxford Chabad Society.

Denis Avey, the 91-year-old British prisoner of war who smuggled himself into Auschwitz and managed to save two Jewish prisoners from death at the hands of the Nazis, riveted a crowd of more than 150 Oxford University students with a personal tale that only last year became public.

Speaking at the Chabad-Lubavitch Society’s David Slager Jewish Student Centre to mark 65 years since the liberation of Auschwitz, Avey described the location’s complex of concentration and extermination camps where more than 1 million people, most of them Jewish, lost their lives during the Holocaust. While he was there – originally at a camp for foreign P.O.W.s – some 200,000 people were worked to death, he said.

It took Avey more than 60 years to be able to speak about the horrors he witnessed, and his address at the Chabad House was only his third public discussion of the topic since his liberation. He recounted his experiences for the BBC late last year.

As a prisoner of war, he told the students, he could smell the stench of the crematoriums at the extermination camps not far away. Avey, who is not Jewish, chose to put his own life in danger by exchanging his uniform for the clothing of a Jewish prisoner in order to witness first-hand the horrors that had become an open secret.

“Everyone knew what was going on in Auschwitz,” he said. “You could smell the stench of the crematoriums for miles away.”

Before smuggling himself in, he befriended a Jewish inmate who helped him save Ernst Lobethall, a German Jew from the town of Breslau. Avey arranged for the delivery of 200 cigarettes and chocolates from his sister in London and then passed them on to Lobethall. Lobethall, in turn, traded the valuable commodities for shoes, enabling him to survive the infamous death march from Auschwitz to Bergen Belsen near the end of the war.

Avey also revealed that he once witnessed the beating of a Jewish prisoner. Avey shouted an insult to the guard, who stopped beating the Jewish prisoner and turned on Avey, striking him with his gun.

The attack severely damaged one of Avey’s eyes, which he had a doctor remove after the war and replace it with a prosthetic.

“There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t see in front of me the faces of the Jews whom I met in Auschwitz,” he said, “most of whom were gassed and cremated by the Nazis.”

Anita Lasker Wallfisch
Anita Lasker Wallfisch

Avey is “someone with enormous courage and a great inspiration to today’s younger generation of students,” said Rabbi Eli Backman, director of the Chabad Oxford Society, who introduced the speaker. His message is to “not stand by in the face of anti-Semitism and evil.”

“I am gratified that after so long, this story is finally becoming known,” said Avey. “I want to do my bit in ensuring that the horrors of which I was an eyewitness are known, and stand as a warning to posterity.”

After Avey’s speech, Anita Lasker Wallfisch, a Jewish survivor of Auschwitz, shared her story. She was a cellist in the camp’s women’s orchestra that was forced to serenade SS officers.

Oxford music student Ben Hebert said the event was powerful.

“I will live with this for all time,” he said, “and when I am old I will be able to tell another generation. Mr. Avey and Mrs. Wallfisch both taught me more about the humanity of the Holocaust” than the “grotesquely incalculable” statistics in history books.

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susan sleiner Orpington Kent, u.k. February 23, 2010

Denis Avery This wonderfull gentleman has been on British t.v. His story is amazing. G-d bless you, sir. Reply

jan schulman Oxnard, CA February 22, 2010

amazing story makes my stomach and my heart hurt to think of all the horrors. if every individual had done what this man had done, so many more would have been saved. who would thihk that shoes or chocolate could save a life? until you do without, you can't know. thank you for your humanity Mr. Avey. You have lived a long life; may you have many more years of good living. Reply

Michael Chernick Los Angeles, CA via February 22, 2010

Denis Avey May he live forever in as many hearts and minds as possible Reply

Sarah Oakland, CA via February 16, 2010

"more than 150 Oxford University students with a personal tale that only last year became public."

Everything is "newsworthy" in our modern media culture except something like this. Maybe it's not just wanting to hide the facts but not wanting to remind themselves how much they DIDN'T do. Reply

Veronica Levin Melbourne, Australia via February 15, 2010

Denis Avey A Truly Rightious Gentile. A Life Well Lived. We should all aspire to try to do 1% of what this man did. Reply

Lisa Kesselman Phoenix via February 14, 2010

G_d helps those who help others I found your article about brave Mr. Avey to be very inspiring. Mr. Avey selflessly gave, including his time, health, valuables (chocolate and cigs during WW 2, even loss of his eye) for the well-being of others. Those two Jewish prisoners could;ve just as easily been my own relatives. I thank you Mr. Avey for your acts of compassion and for sharing your story,, and pray that G_d continues to keep you in good health for many more years to come. And thank you also for your story, Mrs. Wallfisch. does good work! Reply

Rev Rick Ogletree Statesboro, GA/USA February 11, 2010

The Denis Avey Article The story about Mr. Ivey's love for the Jews is soul-stirring. My family and I, as well as many other of our Christian friends, also love the Jews. We commend Mr. Avey for his bravery and for his service to his heaenly Father. I thank you for making this story known to me. I will pray for Mr. Avey, and for all of you at Chabad. Reply

rabbi wineberg NY February 11, 2010

Thanks for the info As always something meaningful relevant and inspirational from Reply

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