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This is an exhausting book to read: not because its prose is impenetrable – on the contrary, it flows easily. It is exhausting because the reader cannot fail to be engaged all the time, and taken on an emotional roller-coaster in which his stomach is frequently churning, his heart is in his mouth, and his belief in God (if he has such) under continual question.  

 

Sam Pivnik, is, obviously, a survivor. Of sustained acts that defy comprehension.  I have visited Auschwitz (this review has stimulated me to post an account of that visit that I wrote at the time. This book brings to life (or should it be death?) the evil of that place.

 

How did Pivnik survive? Because he was young, fit, and learned the ways of the camp very quickly.  We talk these days of “street” skills; well Pivnik acquired the equivalent in the muddy, freezing, louse-ridden, disease–laden evilness of the Birkenau camp.

 

The first chapter is entitled Garden of Eden – the poignancy immediately obvious given the subject-matter of the rest of the book. He recreates well the comfort of a relatively middle-class existence in pre-War Poland, even if it is marked by the feeling of rootlessness that has afflicted Jews in Europe over the centuries.   The dry tone is captured in the chapter’s conclusion:

 

But somebody else had the idea of a Garden of Eden too. He was a Bavarian ex-corporal who had joined a right-wing organisation in Germany soon after the Great War. The only problem was that he wanted to set up his Garden of Eden in somebody else’s country.

 

Mine.”

Survivor   Auschwitz, The Death March, and My Fight for Freedom

Sam Pivnik                         Hodder & Stoughton, 2012

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A signal message of the book is that there was widespread anti-semitism in Poland before the Nazis arrived; more surprisingly this continued after the war. Indeed when Pivnik returned to his native town of Bedzin in 1996, his party was greeted by disgusting behaviour from drunken locals. (Whose antecedents had shown little compunction in seizing the possessions and homes of the Jews when the Aktion finally started there.

 

The emotional temperature rises; who cannot be moved by the account of his 82 year-old half-blind grandmother being rounded up and put on the trucks with everyone else? An example of the German’s strategic aim of wiping out swathes of the invaded races: by the time of the imprisonment of the Pivnik family, Germans were subsisting on 2310 calories per day.  But for Poles it was 634, and for the Jews it was 300. (Which rather puts obesity in 2013 Britain in context).

 

The core of the book is of course his account of life in Auschwitz-Birkenau, and later in a nearby coal mine. The all-pervading terror makes each day of survival a major victory. It is this part of the book that reveals Pivnik to be an acute observer of human strengths and weaknesses (mostly the latter); and also that he has an amazing resilience.

 

The Death March, as the Nazis removed their concentration camp inmates westwards to escape the advancing Russians, brings horrors anew. But it is interesting how the by now completely institutionalised prisoners cannot take advantage of a shift in the circumstances and the balance of power of their captors. Then Pivnik’s luck holds when he is at the centre of one of the last catastrophes of the war – when the RAF bombed the ships in which hordes of ex-camp inmates were being held in the Baltic.

 

He needed all of his guile to reach England after final liberation. It is unsurprising that he devotes the final chapters on the fate of his tormentors. It would be a hard heart that did not share his disgust with the lax penalties meted out to most of the guilty, not the least SS rocket man Wernher von Braun, and the Auschwitz guards tried in 1965.

 

In a book that poses a pile of questions, one thought stuck in my craw. In one sense Hitler succeeded: Pivnik recounts that Bedzin is indeed (still) now Judenfrei.

 

If I have a reservation about this book it is that the tone of its prose does not ring true of how one imagines Pivnik to write. This strong impression whilst reading the opening chapter made me study the front and end papers more carefully, and the book is indeed ghost written. There is on occasion too much polish and not enough rawness. But after the opening chapter, this feeling recedes. And it is a very minor reservation for what is a jaw-dropping account, which I hope adds fresh dimensions to most readers’ knowledge of the Holocaust.

 

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