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.
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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.”
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.