Survivor: Auschwitz, the Death March and My Fight for Freedomby Sam Pivnik
Now in his eighties, Sam Pivnik tells for the first time the extraordinary story of how he survived the Holocaust
Sam Pivnik is the ultimate survivor from a world that no longer exists. On fourteen occasions he should have been killed, but luck, his physical strength, and his determination not to die all played a part in Sam Pivnik living to tell his
Now in his eighties, Sam Pivnik tells for the first time the extraordinary story of how he survived the Holocaust
Sam Pivnik is the ultimate survivor from a world that no longer exists. On fourteen occasions he should have been killed, but luck, his physical strength, and his determination not to die all played a part in Sam Pivnik living to tell his extraordinary story.
In 1939, on his thirteenth birthday, Pivnik's life changed forever when the Nazis invaded Poland. He survived the two ghettoes set up in his home town of Bedzin and six months on Auschwitz's notorious Rampe Kommando where prisoners were either taken away for entry to the camp or gassing. After this harrowing experience he was sent to work at the brutal Fürstengrube mining camp. He could have died on the ‘Death March' that took him west as the Third Reich collapsed and he was one of only a handful of people who swam to safety when the Royal Air Force sank the prison ship Cap Arcona in 1945, mistakenly believing it to be carrying fleeing members of the SS.
He eventually made his way to London where he found people too preoccupied with their own wartime experiences on the Home Front to be interested in what had happened to him.
Now in his eighties, Sam Pivnik tells for the first time the story of his life, a true tale of survival against the most extraordinary odds.
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Auschwitz, The Death March, and My Fight For Freedom
By Sam Pivnik
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2012 Sam Pivnik
All rights reserved.
The Garden of Eden
It's the little things I remember – the singing of the birds in the high woods; the taste of the blackberries, wild and sweet by the roadside; and over it all, under a sky that seemed forever blue, the heady scent of the pine trees. I remember the rutted roads and the smell and rattle of the bus that took us there – eighty kilometres through a magic land; the furthest I had travelled in my life.
It was summer, of course, when we went there – just a holiday like any other. But not like any other. Summers like that would not come again, except in my fondest dreams. Summers that should have faded from my memory but refused to fade. Memories that may just have kept me sane in the years that followed. And I can hear them now, the friends and family crowding round, laughing, nodding, the old men tugging their beards, the women hugging us and clucking round, preparing the food. 'Here are the relatives,' was the first shout we'd hear, 'from Bedzin!' And for those few weeks, Bedzin could have been on the far side of the moon.
I can see the tables now, groaning with the food of the countryside. Butter, rich and yellow; the smetana cream, sharp and pure and richer than anything you can buy today. Cheese that melted in the mouth but bit back; the cheese with holes (Emmenthal or Jarlsberg), the schweitzercake. Bread that smelled of Heaven dipped in smetana; pastries you'd give your right arm for. We ran through the woods, my brothers and I, running off a meal like that – Nathan, nearly a man in that last summer; Majer and Wolf, trying to keep up. Josek was too little to join us; just a babe in arms and never far from my mother's side. We kicked a rag ball around in the long grass, rode the tough little ponies of the Polish plain, splashed each other and swam in the cool, brown water of the river, dappled with trailing willows.
In the mornings, as the sun climbed lazily into the blue, we would sit in my uncle's workshop at the front of the little yellow-painted house in the market square. He was a shoesmith and I can still smell the leather and hear the steady tap-tap of his awl as he crafted the boots that our people had made for generations. They were tall and elegant, in rich mahogany colours or glistening black, ordered by the army or sold on consignment to wealthy riders. Uncle had been a handsome young man – I remember the photographs – but now he was an elder of the town, with a beard to match. He had status; we boys knew that. But when he measured our feet among the leather scraps and the gleaming lasts, all that was forgotten and he'd tickle us and express amazement at how big our feet were.
Another of my uncles was a butcher and he had a fine horse that he used to pull his meat cart. Sometimes he'd let us ride the animal through the town square, with its huge synagogue that looked like a castle to me.
Beyond the square the bustle of the town reminded us of home, but it was different. They were our people, of our faith and our past, but they were also the inhabitants of a magic land. I had known them all, ever since I could remember, because we saw them every summer. I last saw them when I was eleven. And I never saw them again.
* * *
The Garden of Eden had a name – it was Wodzislaw, eighty kilometres from my home, lying between the rivers Oder and Vistula. The water us kids splashed in was one of the several tributaries that ran through Wodzislaw, probably the Lesnica or Zawadka, I can't remember now. The meteorological office will tell you that its rainiest month is July, but that's not how I remember it. The sun always shone – on the synagogue built there in 1826, on the Christian monastery founded by Duke Wladyslaw of Opole centuries before, even on the otherwise grim derricks of the coal mines.
People have a stereotypical image of Jews as city-dwellers, urbanites scurrying the streets in search of a buck. The most famous Jew in English literature is Shylock and he came from Venice, in Shakespeare's day the most thriving marketplace in the world (and that at a time when there weren't any Jews in England). But when I was growing up in Poland there were Jews in all walks of life – or at least there were, before those walks were closed to us. My mother's people in Wodzislaw were country people. One of my aunts was Lima Novarsky. Her first name means flower and she got on famously with her landlady, a Christian Pole. Another of my aunts kept a mill. Wodzislaw may have been granted the status of a city under the Magdeburg Laws of the Middle Ages, but it was really just a country town; all my Wodzislaw relatives kept animals – sheep, goats, chickens.
For three or four weeks every year we ran in the grass of this Eden, and for us, at the time, the greatest of all misfortunes was that at the end of the holiday we had to go home.
* * *
Home was Bedzin, a town on the banks of the Przemsza River that ran into the Vistula. Its first mention in the history books came a little before my time; in 1301 it was a fishing village and acquired its city status fifty-odd years later under the same Magdeburg Rights that elevated Wodzislaw. What dominated the old city's skyline was the castle of Kazimerz the Great. It started out as a wooden fortress on a hill but Kazimerz rebuilt it in stone, with a circular keep and walls four metres thick and twelve metres high. It was there, on the hill over the Przemsza, to guard the Polish border against the constant eastward sweep of the Silesians. In the Middle Ages, the town had fairs and was an important trading post in the south of Poland; so important that the Silesians and later the Swedes did their best to burn it to the ground.
But it was the other building on the Bedzin skyline that coloured my life more than I realised, a building that is not there today: the great synagogue. The first Jews are recorded in the village long before the synagogue. They were there in 1226, worked the land and paid taxes to the Christian Church. By the fourteenth century they had turned to trade and money-lending, of which the Church officially disapproved. Under King Wladislaw I, Jews were given rights and equal status with the Christians of Bedzin, but gradually a change took place. In the twelfth century the general message from Gentile governments was: 'You have no right to live among us as Jews'; by the sixteenth century, it was changing to: 'You have no right to live among us.' In 1538 Jews had to wear yellow hats as a mark of their 'difference'.
But the Jews prospered and the arrival of new economies in the nineteenth century saw the advent of coal mining and tin production. By then, Bedzin was Russian and the world had turned. Historians have described Poland as a 'political football', kicked around by stronger countries just as us lads kicked our rag ball in the alleyways of the town. The 1897 Russian census records that Bedzin had a 51% Jewish population; by 1921, in the years before I was born, this figure had risen to 62%.
There had been a synagogue on the hill below the castle since the seventeenth century, but the building I remember was built in 1881. There was another one and, in my grandfather's time, more than eighty prayer houses. I was born into a vibrant, if poor, Jewish community and the great synagogue, recently rebuilt in the year of my birth, was the only one in southern Poland designed and decorated by Jews. Chaim Hanft was the architect – I can still see the huge exit door with its gleaming brass. Mosze Apelboin painted the vast fresco that filled the east wall with colour; Szmul Cygler daubed his unmistakeable style to the west. It was folk art, the art of a people who had made Bedzin their own, and it portrayed the ancient history of those people – I remember the animals marching two by two into the Ark with Noah. As the writer Josef Harif put it, Bedzin was 'a characteristic Jewish city with characteristic Jews, Jews hammered on a steel foundation, born in sanctity to maintain their Yiddishkeit [Jewishness] until the time of the Messiah.'
Yet even in the decade of my birth, Bedzin was a town of contrasts. There were different sounds ringing in the streets, and not just from the ghost of the rabbi's assistant Abram Kaplan, whose booming voice echoed down the alleyways around the great synagogue 'Sha! Sha!' – 'Quiet! Quiet!' In the old town the dialect was harsh and guttural, like the German spoken in Vienna. In the newer areas that stretched along the river, newcomers spoke a softer Polish, Yiddish and Czech. It was a city of wealth – powerful business leaders like the Furstenberg family employed hundreds – and a city of the desperately poor, like the beggarwoman called Crazy Sara who froze to death in the streets in the grim ice of my second winter.
The non-Jews were Catholic Poles with their church on the hill and Silesian Germans, a reminder that Bedzin had, at various times in its past, belonged to Prussia, Tsarist Russia and the Austro-Hungarian empire of the Hapsburgs. At home we spoke Yiddish, Polish, German and even, although we found it funny and didn't really understand it, a little of the English my father had picked up in London.
Today you have to go on-line to see the places I remember. Kazimerz's castle is there still, as a ruin, but it was a ruin when I was a kid. I remember the old market square, with its cattle, its horses, its chickens and the coloured awnings of the stalls. When I was four they knocked down the nineteenth-century railway station and built a new one, all flat roofs and modern detailing, in the best tradition of the Art Deco movement that was sweeping all Europe. The Third of May Square had a huge Art Deco statue in the centre of its tree-lined circle, a naked woman reaching into the clouds. There were trams and buses, trucks and the occasional car to remind us all that the twentieth century was here. And alongside them plodded the little ponies shackled to their carts, reminding us of an older Bedzin, an older culture smiling at us from the safety of a thousand years.
But most of all, in the faded photographs and the flashes of my memory, what comes back is Number 77 Modzejowska Street and the courtyard there. This is where I came into this world on 1 September 1926. All my life – all everybody's life – is a series of chances, of maybes, of what ifs. One of these surrounded my birth – I could have been born in London and for me there would have been no Holocaust, no destruction, none of the horrors that sometimes still come to me in the night.
My father was Lejbus Pewnik and he was born in 1892. Poland then was Russian and under the Tsar Alexander III there had been pogroms against the Jews – systematic, if sporadic, attacks backed by the Tsar's government and carried out by the Cossacks and the police. My grandfather died of cholera around the turn of the century – the dates are vague in my mind now – and my father went West, to England. Exactly why is not clear, but it was probably to avoid conscription into the Tsar's army – the Russian steamroller that would later break down in the marshes of Tannenberg and Galicia.
My father's sister was already in London, a city that represented a freedom the Poles had never known, at least not in living memory. There was a Jewish 'ghetto' in Whitechapel and Spitalfields and journalists like S Gelberg and Jack London described life there in the early years of the last century – 'Kosher restaurants abound in it; kosher butcher shops are clustered in thick bunches in its most hopeless parts (seven of them at the junction of Middlesex Street and Wentworth Street) ... "Weiber! Weiber! Leimische Beigel!" sing out the women ... and long after the shadows have lengthened ... they are still vouching their own lives or the kindness of Shem Yisborach [God] to Israel for the quality of their wares.'
But Whitechapel had become the most famous Jewish community in London only because of the crimes of Jack the Ripper in 1888. My father lived in the more affluent and less well-documented Stamford Hill. Today Stamford Hill has the largest Hasidic community in Europe, often called the 'square mile of piety' because of all the strict Orthodox Jews walking to and from their synagogues. One school in the area has recently refused to study Shakespeare because of his anti-Semitic views.
It wasn't quite like that in my father's time. Stamford Hill wasn't a ghetto like Whitechapel, and London was the largest, most cosmopolitan city in the world. He never quite fitted in; 'The pavements weren't kosher,' he used to say, and the whole family knew what he meant. The twist of fate – the what-might-have-been – happened again and my father got a letter from his mother, Ruchla-Lea. Her other son, my Uncle Moyshe – the tailor from Szopoenice, near Katowice – wasn't being any help and the old lady was finding it difficult to look after herself back in Bedzin. She asked my father to come home.
I'm not exactly sure when this was. If it was after the Great War, then Russia had become convulsed in her own internal revolution and the children of Bedzin no longer had to offer prayers for the Tsar. If it was before the Great War, the threat of conscription had gone and Bedzin was under German control between August 1914 and the signing of the Armistice.
There is a studio portrait of my father taken at about the time of his return to Poland. He is a good-looking man, perhaps early twenties, with a stiff, starched shirt collar and highly polished shoes. He looks quite serious, as befitted his status in the community by the time I was born, but there is just the hint of a smile playing around his lips. I sometimes think he would need all his sense of humour bringing me up. What is odd is his suit – the jacket, worn open to show his waistcoat and watch-chain – looks too big for him. This is odd because my father was a tailor – in fact, he was a member of the Master Tailors' Association. Perhaps it was just the fashion at the time.
My father married his first wife soon after he came back to Bedzin. Many years later there were rumours in the family that she had died giving birth to their daughter Hendla, but this wasn't true. They must have divorced because I remember the woman. We didn't have anything to do with her, but I knew who she was. It was one of those things that happen in devout Orthodox families. There was probably a scandal of some kind and no one spoke of her again. My grandmother Ruchla-Lea, who lived with us at 77 Modzejowska Street, was the source of these stories, but she told them quietly, furtively even, as bedtime stories by candlelight. Hendla lived with us – she would have been about five years older than me, I suppose – and her mother visited her own sister in our apartment block. Inevitably she'd talk to Hendla as well. I seem to remember she married a shopkeeper in a nearby town, but it's all rather a blur now, one of the many shadows of my past.
My mother was Fajgla, a kind woman who was always, as they say nowadays, there for me. She was a good mother; most Jewish mothers are. I didn't realise it at the time but I was probably her favourite. Or perhaps because of the kind of kid I became she had to spend more time and energy defending me – it sometimes seemed that way. She wore her sheitel sometimes, but she wasn't as deeply religious as my father. Nathan was the eldest, two years older than me. We had that love–hate relationship that brothers close in age often have. Our temperaments were totally different and we spent the rest of our lives fighting and quarrelling. Did I love him, underneath all that? Of course; he was my brother. And blood, in Jewish communities especially, is thicker than water.
* * *
If I am vague about my other siblings it's because I never had the chance to get to know them as people. Hendla was lovely, kind and intelligent. She was never a bossy big sister, perhaps because she knew that that wouldn't work. Chana was pretty too – I was six when she was born. My other brothers were Majer, three years my junior, Wolf, born in 1935, and Josek, born three years later. That was the family unit – grandmother Ruchla-Lea, father Lejbus, mother Fajgla and us kids.
I suppose you'd say the Pivniks were climbing the social ladder in the Thirties. We had a radio and took a regular newspaper. Father's was Yiddish; mother and Hendla read a Polish paper. My grandfathers on both sides had been pedlars, men who walked the roads for hours with a horse and cart and often little to show for their efforts. The one who didn't die of cholera drowned one dark night coming home from a farm. He took a short cut he thought he knew and fell into the river. He was fifty-three. But my father was a tailor, a member of a respectable profession, and that gave us artisan status. His workshop, full of bolts of cloth and spools of thread and those huge, heavy scissors you don't see much now, stood across the cobbled courtyard from our house at Number 77. He worked six days a week, making suits, shooting jackets and skirts. My Uncle Moyshe in Szopoenice, with his bushy eyebrows and twinkling eyes, specialised in uniforms for officials. In those days everybody in Poland wore a uniform – postmen, railwaymen, policemen, firemen. Even the odd NCO or officer from the nearby army barracks came in with a special order – parade uniforms, or full dress for the proudest army in Europe, with its history stretching back to Marshal Poniatowski and his Lancers of the Vistula.
Excerpted from Survivor by Sam Pivnik. Copyright © 2012 Sam Pivnik. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
SAM PIVNIK was born in Poland in 1926. In 1943 his family was sent to Auschwitz II where Pivnik's parents and five siblings were murdered. After many brushes with death, Pivnik was liberated by the British Army in 1945. He now shares his memories through lectures and talks.
M J TROW is the author of many books on historical subjects, including War Crimes: Underworld Britain in the Second World War. He studied military history at King's College, London.
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Even though I'd read a fair bit about WW2 and the Holocaust I'd never read a true first hand account from a survivor. Pivnik describes every brutal detail leading up to his stay in Auschwitz-Birkenau without sparing himself. Interestingly enough the story doesn't end there, but also tells the story of his life after the liberation. I could hardly put it down and regularly had goosebumps all over...