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Reviewed by Tom Tunney, 27/3/12

The 1954 John Castle biography of Charles Coward, The Password is Courage, is one of my favourite POW memoirs. I have written a detailed long review of it elsewhere on this site. One memorable sequence in the book details how Coward claims to have smuggled himself into the Jewish accommodation compound in Auschwitz in a fruitless bid to find a British ship's doctor who he had been told was held there.

Now over 50 years on from The Password is Courage, another British POW held at work camp E 715 claims to have done almost exactly the same thing in a book which is notable for making no mention at all of Charles Coward!

My first thought on learning of this book's existence was to take issue with its disingenuous and truly terrible title. Logically the book should have been called The Other British POW Who Broke into Auschwitz.

On one level, this is a book which tells us more about the modern British publishing industry and TV media than it does about World War Two. The book is a money-making, marketing opportunity and a TV tie-in before it's a serious piece of research. The title unashamedly sensationalizes the subject of the Auschwitz concentration camp and it also instantly positions Denis Avey as an intrepid, extraordinary and truly unique adventurer, rather than just one of the 1,000-plus British POWs held at the nearby British work camp E 715 from late 1943.

And it's success depends on the ignorance of the book-buying public, most of whom have never heard of Charles Coward and presumably have only the haziest knowledge of World War Two, the grim lot of the 100,000-plus British Army Other Ranks POWs forced to work for the Third Reich and the 1,000 plus who by chance ended up working next to the Auschwitz extermination camp.

As a marketing strategy it has obviously worked. Unlike other recent British POW memoirs of E 715 Auschwitz, Spectator for Hell and Allies in Auschwitz, the book has achieved bestseller status.

The book has its beginnings in a 2009 TV report by BBC reporter Rob Broomby, in which the reporter managed to link a 1990s Holocaust archive videotaped interview with Auschwitz survivor Ernst Lobethal to Avey.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/8382457.stm

In the archive interview Lobethal talks of befriending a British POW he only knew as 'Ginger' and telling the Britisher that he had a sister who was a refugee in the UK. Ginger, he said, wrote to his family regarding this and the upshot was that Lobethal's sister sent on a carton of cigarettes which Ginger passed on to him. Lobethal was able to use the cigarettes to pay a cobbler within the Jewish compound to fix his boots, which, he said in the interview, undoubtedly saved his life during the dreadful 'Death March' out of Auschwitz in January 1945.

Broomby discovers that Avey is the mystery man Ginger, and, though Lobethal is now dead, his sister is still living. On camera, Broomby engineers the first meeting between Avey and Lobethal's sister in over 60 years. It's a moving sequence: a perfect human interest story.

In the course of the original TV report Broomby talks imprecisely about Avey serving in 'Special Forces', but at no point does he say in which unit he served and when and where he was captured. That's always the TV news style now, where surviving World War Two soldiers are invariably generalized blandly as 'heroes' rather than as veterans of specific units and campaigns. Almost as an afterthought, the TV report also mentions Avey's claim to have swapped places overnight with a Jewish inmate at Auschwitz.

The TV report created quite a stir and eventually led to this book. The cross-media 'synergy' is perfect, so much so that the closing chapters of the book detail in thriller fashion Broomby's increasingly desperate bid to find the missing sister and record on video her first meeting with Avey for over 60 years. Find the sister, get her with Avey on camera and the story is complete. Don't find her and there's no closure, no story. Those are the rules of modern human interest TV journalism. Happily Broomby succeeds.

However, so far as the publishing marketeers are concerning the book's key selling point is the swap, so that's brought in very early on in the book to tease the reader:

'It was in the middle of 1944 when I entered Auschwitz III of my own free will.' Page 4.

How and why? That's the suspenseful promise of this ungainly plot hook. But it's a red herring that to my mind completely unbalances what is otherwise a fascinating memoir. Instead of a man bearing witness, it implies, whether true or no, a far-fetched fantasy of heroic, individualist endeavour.

The Man Who Broke into Auschwitz, by Denis Avey and Rob Broomby, Hodder and Stoughton, 2011