Broomby is a BBC journalist who first chronicled the story of British Army veteran Avey, now 93, who was honored as a British Hero of the Holocaust in 2010. After a comfortable rural childhood, Avey enlisted in 1939, serving in Africa with the 7th Armoured Division, known as the Desert Rats, sleeping in the sand, battling malaria, and engaging in bloody combat. Captured, he escaped over the sea, floating in a packing crate, only to be recaptured in Greece. In 1944, he experienced horrors at a POW labor camp near Buna-Monowitz (aka Auschwitz III): "I felt degraded by each mindless murder I witnessed... I was living in obscenity." His curiosity prompted him to swap uniforms with a Jewish inmate in order to sneak into the Jewish sector: "I was tormented by a need to know; to see what I could." Avey recalls it as "a ghastly, terrifying experience." His memory rarely lapses, and his vivid narrative places the reader in the middle of the action. The grim descriptions of despair and anguish inside Auschwitz are followed by Avey's poignant 1945 homecoming, making this an excellent memoir of survival. (July)
Serving in the British army during World War II, Avey was captured and became one of thousands of Allied POWs used by the Germans for forced labor. While much of his memoir with BBC journalist Broomby recounts his combat experiences and postwar struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder, Avey's focus is on laboring at I.G. Farben's Buna Works. Memoirs either tell only what the memoirist saw and heard firsthand or else relate details he or she could not have known at the time. This memoir seems more in the latter style, as historical context that Avey didn't know at the time, such as strategic details of campaigns, appears in his story. By presenting a linear narrative, his memoir may perforce have lost some of the chaos of how things actually happened. It is at its most gripping in the section in which he claims to have interacted with Jewish prisoners and somehow switched places with one to see for himself the Auschwitz death camp, a central part of the book that has been disputed since its publication in the UK. VERDICT While valuable for those interested in the experiences of combat and being a POW, the content should be used with caution owing to the doubts raised about the author's veracity.—Frederic Krome, Univ. of Cincinnati Clermont Coll.
Submerged memories of a remarkable encounter in Auschwitz drove an aged British World War II veteran to reveal his plainspoken, moving story—assisted by BBC journalist Broomby.
Avey admits he did not join the army in 1939 "for King and Country," but rather for adventure; as a strapping farm boy, he proved a crack rifleman and a natural-born leader. After ordeals fighting Mussolini's forces in Libya and General Rommel's forces in North Africa, he was taken prisoner in 1944 and transported to Auschwitz, where he was enlisted to help build a massive rubber factory by the IG Farben company. Though English prisoners were treated fairly well, they toiled alongside a separate group of miserable, starved wretches the English called "stripeys," because of their tattered pajama-like outfits, hardly human "moving shadows" who were barely strong enough to lift anything—the Jews. Gradually, Avey befriended several of the crew, including a man named Ernst and learned that the Jews were simply worked to death (unlike the Englishmen), then vaporized "up the chimney," sending out the sickly sweet odor Avey had noticed. "The scales were lifted from my eyes," he writes, and he arranged with another Jewish prisoner, Hans, to switch clothing so that Avey could infiltrate the Jewish barracks for a night and Hans could eat and rest in the British prisoners' camp. It was a perilous ploy, but it worked, and Avey was duly horrified by the brutal conditions and life-saving mechanisms. He wrote to his mother in coded language about the camp details and to contact Ernst's sister in England. Upon liberation, both Avey and Ernst were force-marched west, but neither knew what happened to the other. The author's post-traumatic torment after the war—when no one wanted to listen to the truth so that the young soldier simply sealed up—underscores the importance of treatment for soldiers and prisoners.
A unique war story from a brave man.