REVIEWS

Sam, working with his ghost-writer, Mei Trow, who faithfully reproduced the terrible facts of Sam's sufferring. 

There weren't many survivors. As Sam Pivnik, one of the few survivors, notes, by the most conservative of estimates, one and a-half million people died in the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in World War 2. Much indeed has already been written about the insensate cruelties and systematic Nazi executions which took place at Auschwitz and other German concentration camps. But can too much ever be recorded for posterity about the savageries perpetrated in the cause of the Final Solution? Though Pivnik, as a Polish Jew little older than a boy, endured great harshnesses and deprivation in Auschwitz, he was lucky not to have been selected for the gas chamber in 1943. Not so lucky were his father, mother, two sisters and three younger brothers who were murdered. The German SS ran Auschwitz with purposeful savagery. But it was not only Germans who exerted power. At the bottom of the heap in terms of discipline were the kapos, with their distinctive arm badges. Many of these men were Jews, mostly from Germany or western Europe, who were selected from the long-term prisoners. "One thing they all had in common was their viciousness," Pivnik writes. "Our education from them consisted of blows and harder blows if we moved too slowly or got something wrong ... In Auschwitz, as in all concentration camps, the natural order of things was reversed. In the unusual, topsy-turvy world of genocide, the riff-raff were in charge; the lunatics were running the asylum." Thus the kapos, Jew and Gentile, actively participated in the brutality and the murder. Pivnik, resolute, determined and in luck again, was transferred to Furstengrube, one of the many sub-camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau, at which coal from a mine was extracted to make synthetic rubber for the war effort. Then the author had some more luck. At a builders' school, Pivnik No 135913 became a first-class bricklayer. With the Third Reich vanquished and the European war almost over, Pivnik was taken on a SS death march to the west. "There was no talking, just the clatter of clogs and boots on the crunching snow. The monotonous rhythm was punctuated now and then by the crack of a rifle and another heavy bullet, fired at close range, slammed into a fragile body. No bullet ever missed. No target ever survived." Luck yet again was with Pivnik soon after the death march when he was one of only a handful of people who swam to safety when the RAF sank the prison ship Cap Arcona, mistakenly believing it to be carrying fleeing members of the SS. Pivnik, now in his 80s, with impressive recall, has penned yet one more account that will ensure future generations have no excuse to be ignorant of the heartache and cruelty which Hitler and his henchmen inflicted upon countless millions. Survivor includes a good number of monochrome photographs.

Clarke Isaacs of the Otago Daily Times, New Zealand - 27 October 2012.

'Gore Vidal's brutally effective putdown of Norman Mailer - 'yet again, words failed him' - is one to recall whenever you see authors reaching for the laziest and stupidest adjective in the dictionary: indescribable. To call something indescribable is to confess that we lack the skill to describe it. Words do not fail; writers do. With regard to the Holocaust, however, vocabulary takes us only so far. It is imagination that recoils. Six million deaths, six million tragedies. If we are ever to understand it, we need faces, names. Here is a face. Here is a name. Sam Pivnik's moving and candid autobiography revisits his experiences during those infamous years. Born in Bedzin, a small town in southern Poland, Mr Pivnik saw at first-hand the horrors of Nazi occupation. The beatings, the executions, the remorseless cruelty. His family was lucky enough to find employment as 'skilled workers' making SS uniforms at a local factory. Yad Vashem subsequently recognised the factory's German owner as one of the 'righteous among nations', like Oskar Schindler, for having protected as long as he could the Bedzin Jews. Then the round-ups began. First to go was Mr Pivnik's grandmother. Old, nearly blind. She went onto the train, family clustered round her at the station, telling her through their tears that everything would be alright, they'd see her soon, to take care. Then it was their turn. Loaded into the trucks. Sent to Auschwitz. They queued on the 'Rampe', the platform where SS doctors decided with one flick of a glove who lived, who died. You to the left, you to the right. You to the gas chamber, you to the camp. Arbeit Macht Frei. Mr Pivnik, a sturdy teenager, went to one side. His middle-aged parents, his younger sisters and brothers, went to the other. Mr Pivnik later worked on the Rampe, sorting out the belongings left there by subsequent arrivals: 'From the Rampe, everybody in the left-hand column was led like the Pied Piper of Hamelin's children into the huge room and told to undress. Eight hundred of them at a time, humiliated, frightened. Old ladies who had never taken their clothes off in front of anybody, not even their husbands. Teenage girls, self-conscious about their newly developing bodies. None of this mattered to the SS. These brief lives were about to end anyway. Anyone who sensed something was wrong, who was about to make a fuss, was taken out of the equation, out of the unrobing room, and a bullet would blast into his or her head'. The usual thing at this point is to start wittering on about the triumph of the human spirit, the lessons we can all learn. Mr Pivnik's book rather deflates such noble sentiments. 'It's a hard thing to write now', he says of his fellow-inmates, 'but we weren't comrades. We were all going through the same Hell and you'd think that would bind us together, give us a 'them and us' mentality, but it wasn't like that. Fear drove wedges between us and it was every man for himself'. The death marches in 1945, which Mr Pivnik also witnessed, reduced prisoners to the lowest state of degradation. 'We fought and jostled, punching, gouging, kicking, with the desperate energy of the starving'. One would be hard-pushed after reading this memoir to say which crime was foulest: robbing so many humans of their life, or so many lives of their humanity.'

Henry Coningsby (from the Waterstones Web Site).

'I have read many, many holocaust memoirs in the last few months and many were good. I would say this one was very very good. One of the best I've read. Very thorough and complete. He makes you feel like you are right there experiencing it all. That's what a good book should do. It should make a reader feel like he is living the experience. Highly recommended!'

Amazon customer review by Chuck S.

 

'Sixty-seven years after the end of the war, by which point the extent of Hitler's death camps have been fully exposed, we've heard it all before, read the book, seen the movie. Yet we haven't. That's the thing about human stories: each is unique. Sam's is remarkable. Not just the death camps, but his escape from them. And that he could build a life afterwards.'

The Big Issue.

 

'Survivor by Sam Pivnik is a harrowing, haunting and unflinching memoir that offers a personal insight into a dark period of history that should never be forgotten.

Posted by Pam McIlroy 9/14/2012.

 

'It is a 'good read', being clear, well-paced and, of course, a powerful story. I think the fact that it adopts a fairly objective stance made it all the more telling. The image of a small movement of a gloved hand indicating life or death is really powerful.'

Professor John Head.

The way this book has been written is absolutely riveting. It draws you in from the very beginning of the war and how it enters Sam's innocent carefree world. how it infiltrates his family, neighbours and friend's lives, and how it gradually ruins everything around him. He writes in a very matter of fact way and you are carried along on his horrendous journey. He went through Hell. It sounds as though he is a charming and cheerful man now, with God-knows-what sort of nightmares. My Dad was a Catholic survivor, and Sam's way of talking and writing reminds me very much of my Dad. It would be an absolute honour to meet someone like Sam and to be able to shake his hand. He is to be much admired for his inner and outer strength and I do pray that he now leads a happy and settled life. A really wonderful and thought provoking book.

H.A. Bedford - Amazon Customer reviews Jan 9 2013.

Miraculously there are a number of remarkable books written by survivors of the Holocaust. However, I strongly recommend reading this one because of its power through ordinariness. Sam Pivnik describes in almost detached prose how he moved from living a contented family life in a Polish town near the German border, to being part of a ghetto in that same town, through to surviving different Nazi death camps and then building a new life, first in Israel and then as an art dealer in post-war London. What is striking is how purely descriptive his account is. The book is largely free of judgement of values or ethics or indeed even emotion. The characters he encounters seem to have simply put on costumes to play their roles and are capable of frightening switches as circumstances require. One striking example is his fearsome Nazi guard who Pivnik later encounters in the role of the local farmer who offers him shelter.

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Hence the power of the book: ordinary people transformed by circumstance, in a matter-of-fact way, to perform inhuman acts and most disturbing of all, to seemingly reintegrate seamlessly into daily life. Sam Pivnik is clearly a remarkable man, a survivor by his own justified book title. There appears to be little anger, despair or vengeance in him. What I could not discern is whether this is the result of a remarkable peace emerging from indescribable loss or an extraordinary and persistent ability to isolate himself from all that surrounds him. Whatever the answer, he has undoubtedly added a stunning account of the best and worst of the human condition when tested in the severest of circumstances.

 

Random Reader - From Amazon (UK) - June 2 2013.