Sur­vivor: Auschwitz, the Death March and My Fight for Freedom

Sam Pivnik
  • Review
By – October 2, 2013

A strange title for a Holo­caust mem­oir — aren’t all such mem­oirs sto­ries of sur­vival? — yet it seems pecu­liar­ly appro­pri­ate here. In expe­ri­ence after expe­ri­ence as they are recount­ed in hor­rif­ic detail the expect­ed out­come was death and yet Sam Pivnik sur­vived — cred­it­ed by the author him­self to an almost super­hu­man will to live. 

The Ger­mans invad­ed Sam’s town of Bedzin, Poland on his 13th birth­day in 1939. Between then and lib­er­a­tion in 1945 Sam had been in two ghet­tos, sev­er­al labor camps, con­cen­tra­tion camps and on the final death march from Poland to Ger­many as the Nazis were retreat­ing. In 1943 when very ill with Typhus he had a high fever, he writes: “ the will to sur­vive drove me on, made it pos­si­ble for me to get out of my bunk bed and stand to atten­tion with the oth­er patients the day that Men­gele came….” He con­tin­ues, “ to this day I don’t know why” but Men­gele reversed his deci­sion — the fin­ger point­ing left (to the gas cham­bers) — and Sam was allowed to stay in his bunk and recover. 

Born into a lov­ing fam­i­ly in a town that was more than 50 per­cent Jew­ish Sam remem­bers a child­hood of rel­a­tive tran­quil­i­ty that van­ished with the arrival of the Ger­mans. While the liv­ing con­di­tions in the ghet­to were quite des­per­ate most of his fam­i­ly man­aged to stay togeth­er until the sum­mer of 1943 when the ghet­to was liq­ui­dat­ed”. What fol­lows is the night­mar­ish moment of sep­a­ra­tion when Sam’s moth­er push­es him to the men’s line with the words Szlamek, save your­self”. He is nev­er to see them again. 

Sam details the chain of com­mand of the work force to which he is assigned and once he becomes a fore­man he is no longer at the bot­tom. He gets bet­ter food but it doesn’t last long. Along the way he suf­fers beat­ings, learns about how camp pol­i­tics worked” and par­tic­i­pates under orders in the killing of men who had attempt­ed to escape. Sam tells all — no white­wash­ing of his role. 

As the Ger­mans face defeat those in charge of pris­on­ers in Poland begin their retreat to Ger­many by foot — only, in con­trast to the pris­on­ers, they are well clothed and well-shod. Sur­viv­ing the Death March” Sam is lib­er­at­ed by the British. 

The sto­ry is fleshed out with facts that Pivnik researched to con­vey the life that was lost as well as the hor­rors endured. The text includes archival pho­tographs of Bedzin, Ger­man offi­cers, ghet­to life, con­cen­tra­tion camps and some per­son­al pho­tos — includ­ing his post-war return to vis­it Bezdin many years lat­er Sam found his broth­er Nathan after lib­er­a­tion, made his way to Pales­tine and ulti­mate­ly they both set­tled in Eng­land where he became an art deal­er. It seemed incred­i­ble to this review­er that the author at an advanced age could pro­duce this mes­mer­iz­ing doc­u­ment of his expe­ri­ences. The Notes at the end of the book reveal that the book was actu­al­ly ghost-writ­ten.” Based on a series of taped inter­views which had been record­ed by Sam’s friend Mei Trow, a his­to­ri­an has cap­tured Sam Pivnik’s voice. The his­tor­i­cal frame­work woven into the sto­ry gives the book an addi­tion­al sig­nif­i­cance. A glos­sary of Yid­dish and Ger­man words is also helpful.

Esther Nuss­baum, the head librar­i­an of Ramaz Upper School for 30 years, is now edu­ca­tion and spe­cial projects coor­di­na­tor of the Halachic Organ Donor Soci­ety. A past edi­tor of Jew­ish Book World, she con­tin­ues to review for this and oth­er publications.

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