Auschwitz, concentration camp
AP Photo/File
This undated photograph shows buildings and the defunct high voltage electric fence of the Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz I, Poland, which was liberated in January of 1945.

The "Spy" Who Saved Me

December 06, 2009 04:00 PM
by Shannon Firth
The story of Denis Avey, 91, a British soldier during WWII, shows that small acts of bravery can save a life, and calls to mind other unsung heroes of the Holocaust.

Undercover in Auschwitz

After being captured by Nazi soldiers during WWII, Denis Avey, a British soldier was placed in a POW camp adjoining Auschwitz, arguably the most infamous German concentration camp. While there, he twice swapped places with a Jewish inmate overnight, a fact that he only recently revealed. According to the BBC, “[H]e wanted to witness what was going on inside and find out the truth about the gas chambers, so he could tell others.”

Perhaps more important than the intelligence Avey brought to the world outside Auschwitz were the goods he delivered inside. During one visit, Avey befriended Ernst Lobethall, an Auschitz inmate. Writing a letter in code to his own mother, Avey managed to smuggle a package from Lobethall’s sister, who had escaped to England before the war started. Through Avey, Susana Lobethall sent her brother 10 packs of cigarettes, a bar of chocolate and a letter.

In a video filmed by the Shoah Foundation Institute, Lobethall recounted the good deed: “Ten packs of cigarettes. It’s like being given the Rockefeller Center,” he told cameras. Lobethall traded the cigarettes for other items and favors. Two packs of English Player cigarettes bought him new heavy soles for his boots, which “later came to save my life on the death marches,” he explained.
Another WWII hero whose exploits were catalogued by the Shoah Foundation was Vera Laska, who became part of the Czechoslovakian Resistance, and, like Avey, did not at first recognize the significance of her actions.

Laska had a friend who was asked by resistance members to take two French men across the border and through the mountains of Czechoslovakia in secret. But because the friend did not want to go alone, she invited Laska. “I said, ‘Sure why not’. But it wasn’t like ‘This is the Resistance! I am here!’” she said in a mock serious, low voice. After the crossing was successful, they were asked to do it again. And Laska again said she would help. “Then we realized, ‘Hey, we are the Resistance.’ And then we stayed.”

Related Topic: The Resistance: Spying on the Nazis

Witold Pilecki, like Avey, willingly entered Auschwitz by posing as a prisoner. In Auschwitz, he formed a clandestine resistance network, and leaked intelligence reports for two years, including one confirming the existence of the gas chambers. He and other resistance factions were planning a revolt, when key resistance leaders were arrested, and Pilecki decided to escape.

Pilecki later helped lead the failed Warsaw uprising of 1944. He was arrested by the Germans and lived in a POW camp until it was liberated in 1945. Two years later, Pilecki, strongly anti-communist and loyal to the pre-war Polish government, was executed by the Soviet-backed government in 1948, on charges of espionage and other crimes against the new government.

Women also proved talented spies. Virginia Hall, an American Europhile, born to a Baltimore aristocrat, pursued a career as a diplomat, and later a journalist, before joining up with the SOE (Special Operations Executive), an espionage agency created under Winston Churchill. In spite of losing one leg in a hunting accident in Turkey in 1933, Hall became a gifted spy and “the lynchpin of her section’s activities in southern France,” according to the CIA Web site.

Codenamed, the “Heckler,” she financially and emotionally supported other agents, helped pilots whose planes had crashed to avoid capture, and, according to NPR, cut electrical wires that enabled German communication.

She was the first woman ever to be given the Distinguished Service Cross, the second-highest U.S. military award for bravery.

Pearl Cornioley, née Witherington, a French secretary living in England was also hired as an agent for the SOE, after insisting on a greater role for herself than “pencil-pushing” for the WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force), according to the Daily Telegraph.

In training, she learned sabotage and combat techniques; she was considered "the best shot, male or female, the service had seen," according to the New York Times. At 29, Witherington parachuted into Nazi-occupied France. At first she delivered coded messages; however, when her superior was arrested, she assumed his role leading 1,500 members of the French Resistance--a number that soon doubled. Her troops blocked supply routes and cut off railway lines, preventing Nazis moving north from the south of France.

Many believe Witherington’s romance with her eventual husband Henri Cornioley, also a member of the Resistance, inspired the novel, “Charlotte Gray” by Sebastian Faulks, reported the Times. But Cornioley told the Telegraph in a 2002 interview, "There was a job to be done." She did not go to France to pursue romance.

After the war, she scoffed at the offer of a civilian military cross, saying, “There was nothing civil about what I did,” reported the Telegraph. She received the Commander of the British Empire, (CBE) an award she’d been denied decades earlier, from the Queen in 2004.

References: Books, films and other resources related to the Resistance


Most Recent Beyond The Headlines