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Why one of the last remaining Auschwitz survivors wrote a memoir decades later

"I haven't achieved much in life," says Holocaust survivor Samuel Pivnik - which motivated him to share his horrific experience in Auschwitz with posterity. He tells DW about what he saw in the death camp.

Sam Pivnik at train tracks leading up to Auschwitz (Adrian Weale)

Pivnik is pictured at the train tracks that brought prisoners to nearly certain death in Auschwitz

DW: Mister Pivnik, you are 90 years old. Why did you decide to tell your story in a book recently? The book, "Survivor: Auschwitz, the Death March and my Fight for Freedom," was published in English in 2013 and in German in 2017. Why not earlier?

Samuel Pivnik: It was only in the late 1990s that I seriously started to consider writing my memoirs. Other survivors I knew had already written books.

Sam Pivnik (Philip Appleby)

Pivnik, now 90, lives in London

There was really no interest in our stories immediately after the war. It wasn't until I was approached by a close friend of mine in 1999, the artist David Breuer-Weil, who urged me very strongly to write. He felt that I had an obligation to humanity to tell my story so that people could learn lessons that may help to prevent them from descending into the depths of depravity again. I then began to seriously start the process. It wasn't until 2011 that my agent introduced me to a professional ghostwriter named Mei Trow. As a result of my work with him, the book started to interest big publishers.

Since your hometown of Bedzin is located just around 50 kilometers from Oswiecim, where the Auschwitz contentration camp was located, you and your family were among the few who heard rumors about the death camp as early as summer 1942. What did you hear about it and what did you believe was true?

I remember the trains rattling through our town pulling cattle trucks with tiny windows in which I saw men with long beards and women looking out. They seemed frightened and disorientated. I also heard rumors about the death camp nearby. But in my innocent naivety, being only around 14 years of age at the time, I didn't put two and two together. I think someone informed me they were Russian prisoners or something of the sort, and I never gave it a second thought.

We did hear rumors, but my parents refused to believe them. They thought it impossible and ridiculous that human beings could build industrial scale slaughter houses to kill other human beings! My parents were very decent people, and I don't think they realized it was true until they were in their own death throes as they were being suffocated by Zyklon B.

The number 135913 was brutally tattooed onto your arm in Auschwitz and has been there for more than 70 years. How do you view it now?

I know it's not something I should boast about, but my number is a very early one. I know very few people who survived Auschwitz-Birkenau with a number lower than mine.

Survivors can often get into unhealthy conversations with each other in which comparisons are made in terms of who suffered the most. Some say the earlier the number, the more one suffered. Obviously this isn't always the case, but I do have a certain pride in my number.

At one point you write, "The terrible pain erased the memory of the exact day…". Isn't it sometimes tricky to remember events that took place more than 70 years ago?

Many of my memories from that period are as clear as a bell, but obviously an exact day and date of a particular event is impossible for me to recall. However, if an atrocity is taking place in front of one's eyes, that inevitably gets imprinted into one's memory. I try my best not to think about some of the things I saw, but it's difficult.

Sam Pivnik in 1943 (privat)

Samuel Pivnik in 1943, the year he was deported to Auschwitz

If someone is having his head literally beaten to a pulp in front of you, the memory of that man's brains spewing out is hard to erase. No one could forget a character like Karel Kurpanik, who I have described in my book. This man was a necrophiliac who I unfortunately observed in his element when he was with us prisoners. Having the opportunity to break someone's skull and watch them die slowly was the ultimate pleasure for him. These memories will always haunt me.

After a while, being in an environment like this numbs your senses; you just see it all as normal. The pain gets buried somewhere in your subconscious, only to emerge many years later in the form of horrific nightmares that still haunt me to this day.

One can see in your writing that aside from detailing what you remember, you did a lot of research about what "really" happened historically. Why was it important to you to add this historical background?

Having seen the worst that humanity can become, I was naturally curious to get a wider perspective on the events I had witnessed. I also felt it important to place my experiences into the larger political context in order to help the reader understand what needs to happen for a society to become like this, and hopefully see the signs and stop it before it's too late.

You tell the story of Alfred Rossner, who was in charge of almost 10,000 Jewish textile workers in Bedzin, and who provided part of your family with documents which proved they did strategically important work to the war effort. Did you want to show that there were also people who were humane during these terrible times?

Yes, exactly. Alfred Rossner was someone I will be eternally thankful to. He kept my family together and alive for much longer than would have been the case otherwise. He helped my father and elder sister to work in his tailoring factory for as long as possible. I certainly wanted to pay tribute to him as a man of compassion. He was someone who cared when authorities were trying to tell the population that certain types of human beings should be victimized and humiliated.

Auschwitz (picture-alliance/dpa/F. Leonhardt)

Pivnik says he is one of the oldest remaining survivors of Auschwitz

There were a few people who risked their lives to help us Jews. Another such person was Killov, who owned the furniture factory where I worked, as well as his manager, Herr Häuber. They both protected me for as long as they could. These people were bright lights in the darkness.

You are one of the last witnesses of the Holocaust. Do you feel it is a burden to tell your story so that the younger generation will know about what happened even after all the survivors are gone?

I wouldn't call it a burden. I have never been married, I don't have any children. I've not really been able to achieve much in my life. I am therefore very pleased to have written my book, because I've finally managed to contribute something to humanity that will be of lasting value.

I have been very satisfied with the success the book has achieved, and that is has been translated into many languages. It has given me a degree of contentment in my later years. It will preserve the memory of my beloved parents, brothers, sisters and those brave souls like Rossner, Killov and Herr Häuber.

 

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