Speak You Also: A Survivor's Reckoningby Paul Steinberg, Bill Ford, Linda Coverdale
In 1943, sixteen-year-old Paul Steinberg was arrested in Paris and deported to Auschwitz. A chemistry student, Steinberg was assigned to work in the camp's laboratory alongside Primo Levi, who would later immortalize his fellow inmate as Henri, the ultimate survivor, the paradigm of the prisoner who clung to life at the cost of his own humanity. "One seems to glimpse ... a human soul," Levi wrote in If This Is a Man, "but then Henri's sad smile freezes in a cold grimace, and here he is again, intent on his hunt and his struggle; hard and distant, enclosed in armor, the enemy of all, inhumanly cunning and incomprehensible like the serpent in Genesis."
Now, after fifty years, Paul Steinberg speaks for himself. In an unsparing act of self-scrutiny, he traces his passage from artless adolescent to a ruthless creature determined to do anything to live. He describes his strategies of survival: the boxing matches he staged for the camp commanders, the English POWs he exploited, the maneuvers and tactics he applied with cold competence. Ultimately, he confirms Levi's judgment: "No doubt he saw straight," Steinberg writes. "I probably was that creature, prepared to use whatever means I had available. I will never know whether I am entitled to ask for clemency from the jury." But, he asks, "Is it so wrong to survive?"
Brave and rare, Speak You Also is a profound and necessary addition to the body of Holocaust writing: a survivor's reckoning with culpability and survival.
“The most powerful and important Holocaust account to be published in recent years.” Murray Schwartz, Professor of Writing, Literature and Publishing, Emerson College
“It is unlikely that there will be a memoir of more terse power than Paul Steinberg's Speak You Also, a testimony from within the chamber of evil itself that performs the duty of memory with a special kind of pain and meaning . . . An important and unforgettable document . . . The mystery deepens, why some men are beasts, why most are not, and how, to survive, one has to have a little of the beast in oneself. Steinberg's book is saturated with those questions, which haunted this unlikely author for decades and now, thanks to his remarkable little volume [will] haunt us as well.” Richard Bernstein, The New York Times
“A searing philosophical memoir . . . In Speak You Also, which is eloquently translated from the French by Linda Coverdale with Bill Ford, Steinberg cryptically ravels and unravels his past . . . 'Perhaps I survived so that I might give an account, one of the very last, that is both passionate and serene,' he writes. 'A delivery, however long overdue, is still deliverance.'” Susan Shapiro, The New York Times Book Review
“A riveting analysis of the effect of barbaric acts on the human mind . . . His account is disturbing, powerful reading. We cannot be as hard on him as Levi was or as hard as he is on himself. His transgressions were small, compared to his punishment.” Linda Matchan, The Boston Globe
“A work of permanent significance. I find it hard to imagine reading Levi's classic work except in tandem with Steinberg's brief for the defense.” Lawrence N. Powell, The Nation
“This is an exceptional work of witness, cold, precise, drained of pathos and often unbearable because of its dryness. In his pitiless self-searching, Paul Steinberg has given us a kind of response to those dreadful events that we have not had before . . . an indispensable book.” Jorge Semprun, author of Literature of Life
“Steinberg shows not the slightest trace of self-pity . . . Instead, there's detachment and a refusal to shrink from even the harshest of confessions that separates this text from many others on the same subject. More than a reconstitution of his experience, Steinberg is engaged in a poignant dialogue with Primo Levi's indictment, bringing us face to face with the most difficult questions about survival and humanity.” Claude Lantzmann, producer, director, and author of Shoah
“With an alert detachment devoid of self-pity and anger alike, Paul Steinberg speaks from the heart of his experience . . . He is an essential witness.” John Felstiner, author of Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew
“What is striking in Paul Steinberg's way of telling the story, what makes his testimony so very different, is his detached, glacial, pitiless tone. Tinged with black humor, Steinberg's voice restores the madness of the camps in all its cruelty and violence and barbarism.” Myriam Anissimov, author of Primo Levi: Tragedy of an Optimist
“With brutal honesty and frightening self-examination, Steinberg dissects himself and forces readers to reexamine what mortality means in the face of unremitting horror.” Publishers Weekly (starred review)
- Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
- Publication date:
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- First Edition
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Read an Excerpt
I was in my junior year at the Lycée Claude-Bernard. I was almost seventeen. I'd barely made it through my first baccalaureate examination, scraping by with only one and a half points to spare.
It was September 23 and I'd just spent a few months in absolute euphoria, which might, in the year of disgrace 1943, seem hard to believe.
I'd been suffering from gambling fever for a full year, ever since one of my classmates, who was later to have a brilliant career as a racing columnist, had dragged me along with him to the Auteuil racetrack, in the Bois de Boulogne. I didn't need much persuasion. From that day on, I was hooked. I cut classes to go to the track, and during the winter, since I couldn't go all the way across Paris to the Vincennes racecourse, I counted the days until the steeplechase and flat-racing season opened again. It wasn't long before I was in hock up to my neck, to the tune of two years' spending money.
There wasn't a single school chum, friend of the family, or vague acquaintance I hadn't hit up for money, including, even the old Russian guy with the lending library. I'd been reduced to slinking around, and rumor had it I'd sold the family silver, which was an exaggeration: at most I'd swiped a bit of money from my father's pockets.
Things had reached this sorry pass when my day arrived. The moment of glory every player encounters once or twice in a lifetime. I was latermuch laterto have two more such strokes of luck, but by then I was no longer a seriousgambler, so my good fortune didn't thrill me anywhere near as much.
On the day in question, I arrived at Auteuil for the third race; I had thirty francs on me, and the infield lawn, the cheapest public enclosure, was bathed in sunshine. The race was a steeple with nine starters. I picked Kami, owned by the baron de Bourgoing, and bet ten and ten. Kami romped home at four to one.
The fourth event was the main hurdle race of the spring season. I'd made my choice long before: M. Cruz Valer's Ludovic the Moor, ridden by Bonaventure, red cap, red and yellow stripes. The horse had run three times that season without showing, and I was convinced he'd been held back for this race. He was a horse of supreme elegance. I adored the way he caressed the hedges going over them. He was a great favorite, three to one, if I recall correctly. He won by three lengths and was never even challenged. I'd bet thirty francs each way. Out of gratitude I've bet on Ludovic the Moor's offspring down to the third generation.
The fifth race was the big steeplechase for four-year-olds. I was on a roll. I chose Melik II, trained by Buquet, ridden by Dornaletche (who won once in a blue moon), ten-to-one odds. At the eighth pole water hazard, I was a little worried; Melik was in sixth place but running clear. I lost sight of the horses when they tackled the last turn by the porte de Passy and the Open Ditch, I heard shouting from the stands when someone took a spill, then the horses hurtled past me a hundred yards from the finish. Melik II, blue cap, blue and white checked silks, had a six-length lead and danced past the winning post.
I was loaded with money. I felt like I was God and that the future was up to me. In the sixth race I recognized an old acquaintance: C. V. Lombard's Kitai, eight big goose eggs his last eight times out, now at forty to one. The hour of his resurrection had come. I bet a hundred francs to place and Kitai promptly came home second, paying twice as much as the winner.
At that point I decided to call it a day. The next morning I paid my debts, cash on the barrel head. I bought all the books I wanted. I still had more than enough left for a few splurges in the near future. Except for one small hitch: the following week, I lost almost everything.
But what relief, what delight, what luck it was to live that day!
My obsession did not prevent me from keeping up with the news. The war had taken a turn for the better. Italy had switched sides, the Soviet army was running roughshod over Jerry and approaching the Polish frontier, everyone was waiting for the Allied landing, and the "collabos" were looking grim. The wind had shifted. I had long ago stopped wearing the yellow star; the turf was one reason, plus I figured it was a trap for suckers.
I wasn't a complete idiot. I'd noticed my circle gradually thinning out, I'd heard about the Vel d'hiv' roundups, which had barely touched the posh 16th arrondissement, where I lived. I knew that being one of the chosen people was not the fashion of the day or even of yesterday, let alone of the days to come.
My father had never bothered to talk to me about what might lie ahead. My sister was in unoccupied France with false papers, my brother had been in England since 1936. I was the youngest; my father didn't care much for me. After all, I'd killed his wife, my mother, when I was born. I loathed my stepmother.
As for my mother, I had to wait until the winter of 1992 to introduce myself to her. In East Berlin, at the old Jewish cemetery. At her tomb, clean and neat in that ravaged junkyard of families, their descendants extinguished because they burned so well. Thanks to my brother, her grave had been maintained. I brought back photos: my daughter Hélène saw her grandmother Hélène's name engraved on the plinth of gray marble.
True, a friend of the family, Mme Lurienne, had stepped in and tried to hide me with some farm people she knew in Troissereux, north of Beauvais. We'd taken the train at the Gare du Nord and then a wheezy country bus. I'd brought along my fishing pole, with which I'd been contributing to my little family's supply of protein by catching gudgeon, roach, and bleak beneath the pont Exelmans. I was sometimes joined by a classmate, Jacques Deniaud, an experienced angler who'd reel in five fish for my every one. It was my first encounter with technical skill.
Waiting for me in Troissereux was a real French family. Father, mother, their little mam'selle, and Auntie examined me suspiciously and kept me for three days, which I devoted to fishing for rainbow perch in the local pond. Then they informed Mme Lurienne that they couldn't run the risk of letting me stay, for fear of upsetting the Kommandantur. I packed my stuff and returned to Paris, not forgetting my fishing pole.
My best friend, Pierre Bertaux, who lived in Sèvres and in whose home I'd spent many a Sunday, could not persuade his parents to take me in, either. His father was some sort of administrative secretary in the Senate and was afraid of jeopardizing his sinecure.
And so that's how I came to set out on September 23, 1943, armed with ration coupons, to fetch our daily bread from the bakery on the boulevard Exelmans, just beyond the corner of rue Erlanger.
A few years later, in 1950, while driving north to Le Touquet, I went through Troissereux again. I allowed myself the luxury of stopping there. The farm was a bit more dilapidated. The small grocery store, which the family ran to earn a little something extra, had closed.
Mam'selle, who still was one, did not recognize me, or pretended not to. I had to explain to her that I was the boy who (and so on), that I'd been deported shortly afterward, that I'd made it back by the merest chance, and that I held her and her parents in everlasting contempt. She mumbled a few indistinct words, among which I made out the inevitable "We didn't know." I must really have spoiled her afternoon. Cold comfort.
Back at the bakery in 1943, the long arm of the law had been waiting. There were two plainclothes policemen and they were on to me. The informer's letter had been quite explicit. Times were hard: the police didn't have a car so we took the Métro. They explained to me that they were armed and would use their guns if I tried to escape. They didn't bother with handcuffs.
I suppose that in September 1943 two police officers taking a sixteen-year-old kid, probably Jewish, on the Métro in handcuffs might have aroused the ire of the working classes and that my escorts preferred to avoid embarrassment. I must have had two or three chances while our train was sitting in a station, before the doors had shut, to make a run for it. I did no such thing ... My life would have been completely different, and I would not be writing these lines.
I think the Cité station was closed; we got out at Odéon, and there I had a strange inspiration. I asked my cops if I could duck into Librairie Maloine, a bookstore on rue de l'École-de-Médecine; I still had a tiny reserve left over from my exploits at the track, and I chose a book of analytical inorganic chemistry. I knew absolutely nothing about the subject, which was part of the first-year university curriculum for the degree in mathematics, physics, and chemistry, but I was very keen on chemistry.
M. Artigas had been my physics and chemistry teacher at Claude-Bernard for two years in a row. He was not exactly charismaticindeed, my classmates found him frankly patheticbut by some miracle, through some improbable channel, he'd managed to get me interested in chemistry. Only chemistry; I was a washout in physics.
Mendeleyev's table, valences, inorganic chemical reactions like H2SO4 + KMnO4 held no secrets for me, and I haunted the science museum, the Palais de la Découverte, where I discussed rare earth metals with the head of the inorganic chemistry department. The periodic table, in color, was the sole decoration of the closet that served as my bedroom.
The book was to come with me to Drancy, the collection camp on the northeastern outskirts of Paris, and on to Auschwitz, where it was confiscated, but by then I knew it by heart, and the knowledge I'd acquired would later help save my life.
Long afterward, around 1960, a friend who was a math instructor helped me track down Artigas, who happened to be teaching in my friend's lycée. I went to see him and recounted my story. I sometimes imagine that he was deeply moved by it; I would have been, in his place. Can one conceive of a more magnificent destiny for an educator than saving someone's life through his teaching? If he was touched, he didn't show it. I did not see him again. Peace to his soul!
From Odéon we walked to police headquarters, myself in front, the cops two steps behind. We went up a few flights to a shabby office. There they went through the motions of questioning me as to the whereabouts of the rest of my tribe. I played dumb, and they didn't press me.
I was only just beginning to feel distressed. I think I had tears in my eyes at one point. I sensed, and rightly so, that I was at a turning point in my life.
They decided to take me home so I could pack a suitcase. I tried in vain to find out what was in store for me. Perhaps they hadn't a clue either! Today I tend to think they were vaguely ashamed. Ten months later, no doubt, they slipped on the armbands of the Resistance, shot off a few rounds, and continued their careers as cops. Perhaps one or the other of them even gave a thought, once or twice, to the kid they sent off to hell with his chemistry bookor maybe they forgot to bother! The virus of conscience is present in all of us, but only a few people fall ill or develop an itch from it. The rest get off scot-free.
When I got home, I was stumped: what should I take? Most of my clothes were in a second residence. In the end I packed up my pillow as well as my slippers, which were destined to play a decisive role. I've always been very attached to my pillows. The absence of the maternal breast, a psychiatrist would say. (Even today, when I enter a hotel room, the first thing I do is open the closet and feel the pillows.) I shut my suitcase. I also took along some pears that had been set to ripen on the kitchen windowsill. The policemen had stayed in the living room. That's when I had my best chance: out the kitchen door and down the service stairs. It was three flights; I could have reached the street before they'd even realized that they'd blown it. After all, I tell myself, maybe that was what they expected me to do. Who can say? I did nothing, I knew nothingabsolutely nothing. It's easy to judge in hindsight.
From the apartment they took me to the police station on boulevard Exelmans at the corner of rue Chardon-Lagache. Their day's work done, they handed me over and went home to their wives and kids. I was placed in a cell in the station basement, with the door left open. The police seemed decent enough, telling me I'd have to wait there for the prison van. I thought about the movie theater next door, L'Exelmans, which vanished ages ago and where, three years earlier, in June 1940, I'd seen a Tom Mix film that was being shown in two parts over two weeks. At the end of the first episode, Tom Mix and his horse had fallen into a trap, a pit dug by the bad guys and covered with branches. I'll never know how he got out of it because I didn't see the second half: in the meantime, the wolves had entered Paris. American movies were banned until 1944, by which time I was long gone, and in any case, they'd stopped showing Tom Mix films by then, except perhaps way out in the sticks.
At this point in my musings about the silver screen, sirens began to wail. Air-raid alert. The cops got in a tizzy over where to put me. This was the last real chance I missed. The door was open; I could have run for it, up the fifteen steps, and seen what they would do in a 400-meter dash. Perhaps, there again, they were giving me a hint, thinking, Get going, you little jerk! I considered it. I didn't do it.
Cold feet or maybe, instinctively, inexplicably, the will, the desire to go on to the bitter end, the agony I could never have suspected lay ahead.
I've often wondered if I didn't choose my fate deliberately. After all, a prisoner's vocation is to escape, even in the direst situations. I went meekly to the slaughter like a lousy sheep, and yet there were times when I could have bolted.
Of course, once I was cornered by death, I defended myself, fought back, resisted any way I couldbut passively, bending before the blast. So it's hard for me to present my behavior in an honorablelet alone gloriouslight.
That evening the paddy wagon came to take me to the central police station. I lined up to sign the register with a few pimps and thugs, plus the day's catch of Jews. I handed out my pears. I remember a motherly whore who told me I should keep my eats for myself.
I spent the night in cell 10, where the sons of Abraham, Moses, and Jacob passed through in procession for three years. The walls were covered with polyglot graffiti. There were five or six of us. I don't remember any of them or what was said. Maybe I was sleeping. In that department, kids have it easy.
The next morning, we were taken to Drancy.
On October 20, less than a month later, I took my first group shower at Auschwitz IIIMonowitz, also known as Buna.
Naked as a jaybird, clutching some gritty soap, I was rubbing myself fore and aft under the lukewarm water when suddenly all eyes were on me, or rather, on my lower abdomen.
"What the hell are you doing here?" asked a Parisian furrier from the Poissonnière neighborhood.
I looked at him in bewilderment. He pointed at my dick, called his buddies over, and shouted, "He's not circumcised!"
I didn't know a thing about circumcision or about the Jewish religion in general. My father had neglected, through foolish prudery, no doubt, to discuss this captivating subject with me. In all likelihood I was and I remain the only uncircumcised Jew in the whole of France to be deported to Auschwitz. It had never even occurred to me to play that trump.
More and more men had gathered around me, all laughing so hard they could barely stand up. Finally, one of them informed me I was a complete and utter asshole.
Meet the Author
Paul Steinberg was born in Berlin in 1926 and immigrated to France at the age of seven. Deported to Auschwitz in l943, he was the only member of his family to survive the war. After liberation, Steinberg returned to Paris, where he lived until his death in 1999.
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