I will simply say that this is one of the most important books that I have ever encountered and been privileged enough to read. I have fortunately read widely about the Holocaust and the tragedies of WWII both from an historical and a personal perspective, but, I have never read anything like Avey’s account.
I have visited Yad Vashem and the Washington Holocaust Museum and the Jewish Museum in Sydney and each has been profound and moving and austere. I have read Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel and countless others. And I have been stilled by the enormity of what they endured and how they managed to convey the intensity of the horror that they experienced and over which they triumphed. I have done courses about the Holocaust, read poems about the Holocaust, seen photographs depicting the trauma and the chaos and the inhumanity.
I find myself pondering what it is that Avey has done which so distinguishes this book?
I think that the only way to explain how moved I was by this text is to use Avey’s own words, taken from the point of the book where he is explaining how he swapped clothes with a Jewish prisoner and took his place in Auschwitz, giving up the security that his Prisoner of War status afforded him:
“I lay and listened to the wheezing and groaning of the others in the dark. Someone was rambling to himself, endlessly repeating the same locked-in phrases. He was not alone. There were the screams of people reliving by night the terrors of the day, a beating, a hanging, a selection. For others it would be the loss of a wife, a mother, a child on arrival. When they awoke, the nightmares continued around them. For them there was no escape.
When you give up, you don’t even feel pain any more. Every emotion or feeling is cut away. That’s how they were. That’s how it was.
I struggled to breathe again. It was stiflingly hot and there was the putrid smell of ripening bodies. Auschwitz III was like nothing else on earth; it was hell on earth. This is what I had to come to witness but it was a ghastly, terrifying experience.”
“It was days before I was able to reflect on those hours in Auschwitz III and appreciate the utter desperation of the place. 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. It was far worse than the horror I faced in the desert war. Then I had an enemy before me and I did my duty. I was good at it and so I survived.”
I think that Avey’s text is so powerful because the impact that the bestiality that he witnessed had on him is so clear in the way he describes things:
“People talk about man’s inhumanity to man, but that wasn’t human or inhuman – it was bestial. Love and hate meant nothing there. It was indifference. I felt degraded by each mindless murder I witnessed and could do nothing about. I was living obscenity.”
This obscenity haunted Avey for over 60 years, tormenting him with nightmares, leaving him bereft of a language which could broach the horrors he had witnessed.
I loved this book. I think that Avey’s message will stay with me for ever: bad things only happen when righteous people do nothing.
Denis Avey, you are a great man and clearly deserving of a place in heaven.