Witness to Auschwitz


Witness to Auschwitz

Examining the controversy surrounding British POW Denis Avey's account of Auschwitz III, published in 2011. Many disbelieve his claims that he broke into the concentration camp.


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At the age of 91, Denis Avey was named

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a Hero of the Holocaust

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for helping to save the life of an Auschwitz inmate.

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The medal inscribed simply, for services to humanity.

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Denis wrote about this heroic act in a best-selling book,

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but he also claims to have broken into the notorious concentration camp itself.

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The stench in that room was ghastly, it was warm.

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There were nightmares, there were prayers,

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there was crying, there was screaming. It was murder.

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Denis says he entered Auschwitz

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to gain first-hand evidence of the Nazi atrocities.

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He's brave, he's just an amazing, amazing guy.

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He's a very important Holocaust witness.

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But following the publication of his story,

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some have questioned whether the break-in could have happened.

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I don't think it's practical or possible.

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I find it hard to understand that he waited for such a long time to tell the story.

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With so few witnesses to the Holocaust left to share their story,

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can this man's account be believed?

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I don't mind if they doubt my word. I don't mind that a bit.

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It doesn't... I know what I've done.

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Did Denis Avey really break into Auschwitz?

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And why is it so important to know the truth?

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In 1941, the world was caught in the grip

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of the most widespread conflict in history.

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Denis Avey was in North Africa, just 22 years of age

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and a member of the 2nd Battalion, The Rifle Brigade.

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I was in carriers at the time.

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We had very little intelligence

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and the whole idea was to get an easement...

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..to go through Rommel's army to split the army up.

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We went into to a funnel of activity and we got shot up to blazes.

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I remember coming to with the Germans pulling me out of the carrier.

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They took me to an advanced resting station

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and a Stabsarzt there took me in, laid me on a table,

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and they said, "For you, Tommy, the war's over."

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I thought, "Not likely. I'm still on duty."

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Denis was taken back to Europe and passed through a string of

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prisoner of war camps before ending up beside the Nazi concentration camp,

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Auschwitz.

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He was forced to work alongside Auschwitz inmates

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on the building of a synthetic rubber factory for chemicals giant IG Farben.

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When I saw them first of all when we got into IG Farben...

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I couldn't believe it. I thought I was seeing ghosts.

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There was death in their face.

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And the poor devils... it was ghastly.

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It was ghastly, being with them.

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I used to watch Jews come into the camp,

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especially Hungarian Jews, big chappies, 13 stone.

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They started work and with the food that they had...

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Well, call it food - it wasn't food.

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If they lasted three months alive,

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that was quite some time to live.

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A lot of our fellas built up a defence mechanism

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and that was accepted but not for me. I was very angry.

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Communication with the Jewish inmates,

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known by the prisoners of war as stripeys, was forbidden.

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But when the guards weren't looking, the rule was broken.

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Denis won a Hero of the Holocaust award for helping an inmate called Ernst.

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Ernst had a sister in England who Denis got a message to,

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asking for cigarettes.

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He smuggled them back in to the camp.

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Ernst later testified that Denis' actions helped to save his life.

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I got 200 cigarettes to him and a bar of chocolate.

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These cigarettes, obviously substantiated,

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he was able to trade them eventually.

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He said that I'd saved his life because he'd been able to

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get thick soles on his boots and on the death march it saved him.

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But it was a chance conversation with another Auschwitz inmate

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that Denis says set him on the path to his remarkable break-in.

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I can't even explain why I did this.

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I chalked an algebraic formula on pipe work.

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I'd just finished it

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and a stripey came up behind me.

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He said, "Have you got a cigarette?

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"Will you give me a cigarette, please?"

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And I said, "Yes."

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He saw this formula and he said, "I know that formula."

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And that's how we got talking.

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The man, who Denis knew as Hans,

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was of a similar height and build.

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Denis says this gave him an idea.

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If he could swap places with this inmate for a night,

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he could become a witness to the Nazi atrocities inside Auschwitz.

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He could find evidence needed to bring those responsible to justice.

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Now, to me, to tell me something is no good, that's all right.

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It doesn't prove anything.

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If I witness something, that is a different situation.

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So I realised I had to witness

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how they were living, how they were treated.

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Auschwitz was actually made up of several sites

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around the Polish city Oswiecim.

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As well as Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau,

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there was Auschwitz III, opposite the IG Farben factory.

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This labour camp was known as Monowitz.

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Also nearby was the prisoner of war camp E715.

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To change camps, Denis says he and Hans had to switch uniforms

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and deal with a man in charge of Hans' working party, the capo.

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The capo, I bribed.

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And all he had to do was to turn his head,

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and I then said, "I'll give you more cigarettes when I come out."

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I had to be absolutely certain that my hair was shaved,

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because it's during the Appellplatz, which is the counting area,

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the capo counts and the SS count and the capo shouts,

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"Mutzen ab," which means hats off,

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and you have to whip your hats off and stand to attention like that.

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According to Denis, a couple of his friends

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agreed to take care of Hans in camp E715.

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In Monowitz, Denis also had help.

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They took me to the bed... Well, bed for want of a better word,

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it was a slot where people should have slept and slept head to toe.

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The stench in that room was ghastly, it was warm,

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and the stench from their bodies and not only from their bodies,

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their stomach was all upset, whatever it was...

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There were nightmares, there were prayers,

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there was crying, there was screaming.

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There was a noise going on. It was murder.

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Nevertheless, I got to know what I wanted.

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I got to see the treatment inside.

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That's what I wanted to see.

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Incredibly, having survived,

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Denis says he repeated the exchange several months later.

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A third attempt had to be abandoned.

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It's a heroic tale.

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But is it believable?

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Once his book was published, Denis came under pressure

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to prove that the exchange had really happened.

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He's not the first to have claimed to have done it.

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So just how tough would it have been to break into Auschwitz?

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Auschwitz-Birkenau is preserved as a state museum in Poland.

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Its head of research, Dr Piotr Setkiewicz,

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is an expert on the IG Farben labour camps,

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including prisoner of war camp E715.

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The barracks were dismantled after the war

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so now on the site of the former camp, there are only some pieces

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of foundations, pillars of the gates, and also like this...

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There was, for instance, a part of latrine barrack.

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Just down the road is the site of the Monowitz labour camp,

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now a small Polish village.

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In 1944, in these 60 barracks, lived approximately 11,000 people,

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11,000 inmates.

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Over there, it was the road that led

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from the concentration camp to the factory.

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Every day, the prisoners had to walk along this road to the main entrance of the factory.

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Despite their close proximity, the opinion of Dr Setkiewicz

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is that any attempt to exchange places between the camps

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would have been extremely tricky to pull off.

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The appalling treatment of Monowitz inmates meant

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their general appearance was strikingly different from prisoners of war.

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The British prisoners received the same kind of food as other workers of IG Farben.

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Nevertheless, the situation was better

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because they might receive food parcels from the Red Cross.

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They got better clothes and they were not beaten

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practically by the guards, so the situation was many times better.

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And it wasn't just the difference in appearance that made an exchange difficult.

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Denis says he bribed the capo, or supervisor, to look the other way.

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But bribing one of these overseers was risky.

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There was no guarantee he'd follow through.

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And once inside Monowitz, desperate inmates acted as spies,

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ready to report anything unusual in the hope of better treatment.

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A big problem for us, I think, to understand the situation that

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prevailed in Auschwitz during the war,

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the overwhelming fear and lack of trust between people.

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So if you tried to talk to somebody, you'd not be sure

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what kind of person he is or she is,

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friendly or not.

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For experts on the Auschwitz and E715 camps,

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there are unanswered questions about how Denis managed to pull off an exchange.

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And for some former prisoners of war, there are also problems with the account.

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Brian Bishop was held in camp E715.

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He thinks that if a couple of PoWs were brought in on the exchange,

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as Denis says, then the swap wouldn't have stayed secret for long.

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He had to go into a barrack room.

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There was 20 people sleeping in one of those.

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Somebody in the room would have said something or noticed something.

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I can't say they were all blind.

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And what makes it worse - he's supposed to have done

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the same thing again a few months later.

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No, I don't think it's practical or possible.

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Not with British soldiers especially.

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It'd have been all round the camp in no time.

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The challenges to swapping places with a Jewish inmate were many.

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But this isn't the only aspect of the story troubling experts.

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There's also concern about what Denis did with the information afterwards.

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If he wanted to bear witness to the Holocaust,

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why did it take him so long to talk about it?

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Returning to Britain in 1945, former prisoners of war

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had to rebuild their lives in a period of austerity.

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They had to reconnect with families

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and make the huge transition back into normal life.

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Historians who've studied the experience of prisoners of war

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say this wasn't an easy task.

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There was, in general, an attitude to look forward rather than

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backwards and to focus on resettling in civilian life and to focus on

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the future, on the jobs and rebuilding their civilian identity.

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I went back to the military, which one had to go

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and during that time I was asked into an office

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and I was asked, "Would you like to relate any of your PoW experiences?"

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And I told them about Auschwitz and I could see,

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as I described this sort of thing to them,

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I could see the glazed eye syndrome.

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I could see they didn't obviously believe me

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because they hadn't had the knowledge or experience of this.

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And I thought, "That's it, finished."

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And I walked out of the office and from that day hence,

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I thought, "This is what people aren't going to believe."

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They've had a bad war in any case.

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People don't want to know about my experiences.

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But there was a key moment when the world focused on the atrocities

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committed during the war, the Nuremberg Trials.

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In 1947, the military tribunals turned their attention to

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the executives in charge at IG Farben.

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Testimony had been collected from former inmates of camp E715

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and several men appeared as witnesses.

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Why was Denis not among them?

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I didn't know anything at all about it.

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I went in to hospital for two years.

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I was suffering as well, and for a long time.

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Even when I came out of hospital, I was very weak.

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But, nevertheless, it was covered by other people.

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I think there seven or eight chaps from E715

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that went and were witnesses and they did the job.

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In common with many other former prisoners of war,

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Denis chose to get on with his life and didn't tell

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anyone about his exchange for another 55 years.

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He finally spoke out in 2001.

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But in this first account, key facts in the story changed.

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Lyn Smith interviews veterans of conflict

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for the Imperial War Museum's Sound Archive.

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I was sent to Denis for his prisoner of war experience

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and I'd also hoped, knowing something about IG Farben,

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that he could tell me something about the slave labourers.

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'Denis Avey, reel seven.

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'Was it important for your morale to do something like that?'

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'Oh, absolutely. Absolutely.'

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Denis gave Lyn his first ever recorded interview and, in it,

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he talked about his exchange with an inmate.

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But it wasn't the Monowitz camp he said he entered.

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And it wasn't Hans involved with the swap.

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'So over the days and weeks,

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'we arranged to have an umtauschen - an exchange.

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'I went in to Birkenau with Ernst and this stripey

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'got in to my uniform and got in to E715.'

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Ernst was the Jewish inmate Denis helped to survive

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by smuggling cigarettes.

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The prisoner of war camp E715 was some distance from Birkenau.

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So what had happened to Hans and Monowitz?

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For Denis, there's a simple answer.

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I only had Ernst in my mind at the time

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and, obviously, after 50 years,

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if you have to... And when she's asking you a question,

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you ask the question and I have to think.

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Sometimes I say things possibly wrong,

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that I haven't properly understood you or haven't

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properly made myself understood

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and that's it and it's quite simple.

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I can understand the confusion. I think it's perfectly understandable.

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You know, this was the first time he'd spoken about it

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and Hans didn't come into it.

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It was only later that I suppose he thought, "No."

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Don't we all have moments like this?

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I think it's, you know, human, particularly after all that time.

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The confusions between Denis' accounts became clear once his book was published.

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Suddenly it wasn't just Denis under pressure.

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A BBC journalist helped bring Denis' story to light

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and went on to co-write his book.

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How does Rob Broomby explain the differences?

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I think you have got to see that with a 92-year-old man

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you cannot really subject his entire testimony to

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the kind of forensic analysis you might use with a politician on the Today programme.

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You know, frankly we shouldn't beat about the bush.

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I mean, what's remarkable about Denis' whole story is not what he's forgotten.

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It's not the details that occasionally have got confused

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in the fog of war, to use a horrible phrase,

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but it's just how much he can recall,

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just how much he can remember of that detail.

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I am the first person to go through that story forensically with him

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and I am absolutely convinced we've got that story right.

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So how much of an issue are confusions in first-hand testimony?

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It's an interesting story, it's certainly a fascinating story.

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It's created quite a debate since he published his book.

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The real kind of interesting bit of the whole thing is does it matter?

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Dr Matthias Reiss is an historian and lecturer

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with a special interest in prisoners of war.

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He believes it's essential to be rigorous in assessing

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accounts about Auschwitz.

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We need to get it right, we need to understand

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whether that story is true or not

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to avoid any degree of ambiguity,

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any degree of uncertainty of the history of Auschwitz.

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We need to make very sure that everything

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we say about this place is indeed accurate.

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The story he tells might be uplifting and serves to raise new interest

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in the Holocaust and educate a new generation about the crimes committed there.

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If it's not true, we still face the problems.

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Denis has had to answer many questions about his testimony,

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how he overcame the practicalities of staging an exchange in Auschwitz,

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why it took him so long to share his story,

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and why there are factual discrepancies between his recorded accounts.

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But Denis' story also highlights a big issue about the remaining witnesses to the Holocaust.

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What is the right response to those who have stories to share,

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but their testimony is unproven?

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Is it enough just to be keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive?

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# Happy birthday to you

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# Happy birthday, dear Denis... #

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At 93, Denis is getting used to invitations to be a guest speaker.

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Hooray! Hip-hip, hooray!

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Albert Einstein, he said there's none so evil as they that passes

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by a situation, sees the situation and passes by and does nothing.

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Today, he's visiting the Nicky Alliance Day Centre,

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a Jewish-run charity in Manchester.

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Old age - there's no future in it.

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Some of those here are survivors of the Holocaust.

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I've been through hell.

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I've had typhoid twice.

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I was taken away from my mother, father,

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sisters, brothers, everybody. Six of us - I was left.

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But him, how he's done that...

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Well, God only bless him how he managed to do it.

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What was your number, 57?

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My number?

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152.

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152.

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Denis has a special connection with those of his generation

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whose suffering he was forced to witness first-hand.

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Yet even here his story has provoked some debate.

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My past, I don't often talk about it.

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I've listened to plenty of stories so how can I judge his story?

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With something like this, there's always a bit of doubt

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because you're never 100% sure.

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There were a couple of survivors who were there

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and two of them asking rather what I would call brusque questions.

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But he was OK. He stood his ground.

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But I'm not sure that they totally 100% believed him.

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But I mean, I do.

0:24:270:24:29

For those in this community,

0:24:310:24:33

it's important that the Holocaust is never forgotten.

0:24:330:24:37

The whole subject has become much more emotional over the last 15 or 20 years

0:24:370:24:41

because even myself, I knew about it,

0:24:410:24:43

but you didn't really know too much about it.

0:24:430:24:45

It was something that was there but no-one actually ever spoke about it

0:24:450:24:49

and as it got spoken more and more,

0:24:490:24:51

then they probably wanted to make people become aware of what actually happened.

0:24:510:24:57

The story will not be told first-hand much longer

0:24:570:25:02

and nothing like hearing it from the horse's mouth, is there?

0:25:020:25:05

But having a book published about his experience of the Holocaust

0:25:090:25:13

has been bittersweet for Denis.

0:25:130:25:15

And, with no-one to verify his testimony,

0:25:150:25:19

those questions are not going away.

0:25:190:25:21

I don't want to blame the witnesses.

0:25:240:25:27

I understand that they were in the camp under huge pressure

0:25:270:25:34

and, even now, they're still under pressure,

0:25:340:25:36

under pressure of expectations

0:25:360:25:39

from the audience, from the other people.

0:25:390:25:41

I know from my own experience that sometimes this story,

0:25:410:25:46

that initially seems to be very problematic,

0:25:460:25:51

after years, it's proved to be true so that's why I'm

0:25:510:25:55

not saying yes, I'm not saying no. I'm waiting for the confirmation.

0:25:550:26:01

I think there's a very serious side to this.

0:26:050:26:09

I met some very fine people

0:26:090:26:13

who had had the most awful experiences

0:26:130:26:16

in the ghettos and the camps, and lost their families,

0:26:160:26:20

but wouldn't be interviewed because they said at the time,

0:26:200:26:26

"I can't remember names and places.

0:26:260:26:29

"I just, you know, my memory, I can't... The details of this,"

0:26:290:26:33

and the Holocaust-deniers will pounce on it,

0:26:330:26:36

and I'll be playing in to their hands.

0:26:360:26:39

But giving weight to the arguments of those who deny

0:26:400:26:43

the atrocities of the Holocaust is a real concern.

0:26:430:26:47

Could Denis' story be playing into their hands?

0:26:470:26:51

We have to defend our insistence on historical accuracy

0:26:510:26:55

when it comes to the Holocaust.

0:26:550:26:57

If we allow these standards to slip and if we say,

0:26:570:27:01

"OK, it doesn't really matter

0:27:010:27:03

"because the general message is one of outrage about the Holocaust,"

0:27:030:27:08

a line is crossed which might then kind of lead to more publications of these kinds,

0:27:080:27:14

where the Holocaust is mixed with almost adventure stories and then we are slipping into

0:27:140:27:19

a territory which might create all possible problems...

0:27:190:27:23

..and eventually allow Holocaust-deniers to claim the Holocaust never happened.

0:27:250:27:30

Look, it's absolutely right that people should ask questions if they want to.

0:27:320:27:36

That's part of a historical process.

0:27:360:27:39

Denis' testimony now enters that historical process where people

0:27:390:27:43

will go over it and ask questions, and compare it with other sources.

0:27:430:27:47

That's a genuine historical process but what you don't do is get...

0:27:470:27:51

You won't get testimony from survivors

0:27:510:27:54

if you make it illegitimate to talk about it.

0:27:540:27:57

After 65 years of silence,

0:28:040:28:07

Denis stands by his story and his decision to finally go public.

0:28:070:28:14

It wasn't a big adventure, it was a must.

0:28:140:28:17

I don't mind if they doubt my word, I don't mind that a bit.

0:28:170:28:21

It doesn't... I know what I've done.

0:28:210:28:24

I know... I hope I've got a few Brownie points for doing that.

0:28:240:28:29

I only hope so.

0:28:290:28:31

Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd

0:28:510:28:54

With so few survivors of the Holocaust left to share their first-hand testimony, what is the right approach to those with accounts that can it be proved?

Ninety-three-year-old Denis Avey is a British hero of the Holocaust who helped save the life of an Auschwitz inmate. He wrote about this heroic act, verified by the man he saved, in a best-selling book. But its publication generated a heated debate. That's because Denis also claimed to have broken in to the Nazi concentration camp itself. Why would anyone do such a thing and was it even possible?

Witness to Auschwitz examines the controversy surrounding this latest Holocaust account and asks why is it so important to know the truth?