Sam Pivnik: Obituary.

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Sam Pivnik visiting the memorial at Auschwitz-Birkenau in 2008

 

Szmuel ‘Sam’ Pivnik was born in the Polish Silesian town of Bedzin on 1 September 1926, the son of a Jewish tailor, Lejbus Pivnik, and his second wife Feigla.  Sam was the second of six children in the family.  His older brother Nuchim (‘Nathan’) was born two years before him and he had a younger sister Chana, and three younger brothers, Meir, Wolf and Jozef.  He also had an older half-sister, Handel (or Hendla), from his father’s first marriage, who lived with the family.

Bedzin was a town with a substantial Jewish population – more than 50% – and, according to Sam, his father Lejbus, a pious, orthodox Jew, was seen as one of the ‘Elders’ of the community.  A man to whom others would go for advice and support.  The family lived in a small, rented, ground floor apartment at 77 Modrzejowska*, across a courtyard from Lejbus’s workshop.

By his own account, Sam was a difficult and unruly child, more interested in football and playing with his mates, both Jewish and Gentile, than with study or religion.  He was educated at the ‘Rappaport School’, a progressive, Jewish-run institution which also catered for the Gentile population, but as the son of a religious family, he had to spend his afternoons at Shul, learning Hebrew and scripture.  Their holidays were spent in the countryside around Wodzislaw, where they had relatives, playing in the woods and fields and swimming in the river.

Hitler’s invasion of Poland was launched on Sam’s 13th birthday and the first he heard about it was when some of his friends told him that there was a commotion down at the local barracks.  Sam and friends went to watch as the 23rd Light Artillery marched off to war behind the horse-drawn guns.

Bedzin was very close to what was then the border with Germany and by late morning, the population could hear the distant rumble of approaching war.  In mid afternoon, a German bombing raid attacked the zinc works, the copper works and the railway station.  Sam ran home to where his mother and sister were preparing the Sabbath meal, but they couldn’t or wouldn’t tell him what was happening.  For the first time that he could remember, the family didn’t attend synagogue on the Saturday, and as the weekend drew on, Bedzin began to fill with refugees from the fighting.

On Monday morning the schools were closed and rumours were circulating that the British and French had declared war on Germany and were coming to the rescue.  A crowd gathered to greet the Allied troops but the soldiers who appeared were a Wehrmacht reconnaissance unit and the population went home in confusion.

A curfew was imposed on Bedzin although the Germans rounded up a few hundred adult men, mostly Jews, to clear bomb damage and unexploded munitions from the bombing raid.  Sam and his family stayed at home out of fear.  On 8 September, elements of an SS Einsatzkommando under the command of SS Major General Udo von Woyrsch arrived in the town and, as the day continued, the Pivniks hid at home, listening to outbreaks of shooting in the streets.  That evening, the main synagogue, a large building on a hill top, was burned to the ground and over the next two days, as many as 500 local Jewish men, women and children were murdered in the streets.  This was effectively the end of Sam’s childhood.

For the next three and a half years Sam worked, primarily as a joiner in a furniture factory run by a German named Haber.  Haber was a humane man who liked Sam and would sometimes give him gifts of food to take home to his family, although this caused some problems:  Lejbus would not allow non-Kosher food in his house, even though the family were living at a near starvation level, and Sam would have to smuggle the food in and ensure that his mother and siblings ate it when their father was absent.

As the war escalated, particularly after the invasion of the USSR in 1941, conditions deteriorated.  In March 1942, Sam’s older brother Nathan was deported to a work camp at Blechhammer in Silesia, a ‘sub-camp’ of Auschwitz, where he also worked as a joiner, and in August 1942, the first major ‘Aktion’ took place in Bedzin.  Sam and his family were among around 20,000 Jews ordered to report to the ‘Hakoah’ stadium on the edge of town (a similar number went to the Sarmacia stadium) where, in a day of sweltering heat punctuated by thunderstorms, the SS selected a group to be sent to labour camps and a second group for ‘resettlement’ in the east.  The resettlement group included his grandmother, Ruchila Pivnik, aged 82.  They were taken to Auschwitz and murdered on arrival.

About six weeks later, the Jews of Bedzin were forced out of their homes and moved to ‘Kamionka’, a kind of shanty on the edge of Bedzin which was to serve as the town’s ghetto.  With the war going badly for Germany, the pace of ‘deportations’ began to increase and by July 1943, most of Bedzin’s Jews had been sent to their deaths at Auschwitz, a little more than an hour away.  At the end of July, the final clearance of the ghetto was launched.  Sam and his family had tried to prepare for this by stockpiling what food they could and preparing a hideout in the roof space of their shack but they were defeated by the hot summer weather.  Within a day or so they had run out of water and were reduced to drinking their own urine, sweetened with sugar.  Eventually they gave up, and turned themselves in.

The trope is that all Jews were transported to Auschwitz in cattle trucks, but the Jews of the Bedzin ghetto went in commuter trains.  Sam maintained that throughout this journey, his father was expecting God to intervene and save them.  He didn’t.  Shortly after arrival, Sam’s father, mother and four younger siblings were marched into the gas chambers and murdered.  Handel, his half-sister, survived for a week or so before she, too, was killed.  Sam, although small of stature, was selected to work.

After a period of ‘quarantine’, Sam was selected to join the ‘Rampe Kommando‘, the group of prisoners at Auschwitz II – Birkenau, who met and unloaded the deportation trains.  This was, in many ways, good luck.  The SS turned a blind-eye to the Rampe Kommando looting food from the possessions of the Jews who had been sent to the gas chambers (they drew the line at valuables, possession of which was punishable by instant shooting) and Sam had more or less enough to live on.

Sam worked on the Rampe at Birkenau until December 1943, when he contracted typhus.  Miraculously, he survived.  It seems from Sam’s account that he was quite a popular prisoner in the camp and the Jewish orderlies in the sanatorium – normally merely a waiting room for death – tried their best to help him.  When he recovered, he was relocated to a mining camp at Fuerstengruebe, another sub-camp of Auschwitz, where he resumed work as a joiner.

This was, in some ways the most interesting period of Sam’s imprisonment but the one he was least keen to talk about.  Although he was still not yet eighteen, he was appointed overseer of a group of carpenters and bricklayers, responsible for productivity and discipline, and in this way received access to extra food and other privileges.  There was an unusual dynamic at Fuerstengruebe.  The SS Commander, Sergeant Max Schmidt, was a young wounded combat veteran who seems to have decided to opt for an easy life: as a result, he reached an understanding with the senior Jewish prisoners that, if they didn’t cause him trouble, he would follow a relatively hands off approach.  This did not mean that there was no brutality there, many still died, but it does appear to have been less systematic than in most parts of the concentration camp system.

With the approach of the Russians in January 1945, Fuerstengruebe was evacuated along with the rest of the Auschwitz complex and after a period without food, being shuttled around south-eastern Germany in open topped railway wagons in freezing conditions, Sam arrived at the Dora Mittelbau camp in the Harz Mountains.  He stayed there, in appalling conditions, until March 1945 when Schmidt, the former commander of Fuerstengruebe, rounded up a group of former trusties and Kapos from his camp and transported them, by barge, to the area of his family home in north Germany, where he distributed them as labourers amongst local farmers.  For the next month, this group lived relatively well, sleeping in barns and eating fresh farm produce as the Third Reich collapsed around them.  For Sam, it ended in the most dramatic fashion.

On 2 May 1945, two days after Hitler’s squalid suicide in Berlin, Schmidt was ordered to take his prisoners to the nearby port of Neustadt where they were to be loaded onto ships.  He duly complied and Sam found himself on board a former cruise ship called the ‘Cap Arcona’, along with some 5000 other mostly jewish concentration camp inmates.  Literally within minutes of his arrival, the Cap Arcona was struck by rockets from British fighter bombers, caught fire and began to sink.  Sam was one of only a few hundred prisoners who were able to escape, swimming ashore with the help of floating wreckage.  The next morning, as he sat shivering on the beach, a German farmer drove up and told them that the British had arrived at Neustadt, and gave them a lift into the town.

Sam spent the next year or so in Germany, where he was miraculously reunited with his brother Nathan, who had also survived, before migrating to London where they had an aunt, Lejbus’s sister, who sponsored them.  For a while, they worked together as tailors but, in 1948, Sam was smuggled out of Britain to fight as a member of a British unit of the Israeli Defence Force in the Arab-Israeli War, where he was an armoured vehicle driver.  He considered staying on in Israel once victory was secured but eventually returned to London.

For much of the rest of his life, Sam lived in Golder’s Green, sharing a house with his brother Nathan (and later, Nathan’s wife Jill), and dealing in art and antiques from a gallery in Notting Hill.  He died in the early hours of this morning, the day before his 91st birthday.

Sam was an extraordinary man.  He was small, not much more than five feet tall, and in later years often seemed physically frail, but to survive what he did suggests that he had a core of pure steel.  The psychological scars were, nevertheless, very deep.

I got to know him as his ghostwriter, after two previous writers had tried and failed to produce a publishable autobiography for him.  Over the course of several years, I interviewed him at length, including twice travelling to Auschwitz with him, but the project stumbled at the hurdle that there were areas of his experience that he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, talk about.  He was desperate to tell his story but at the same time, much of it was too painful for him.  I did eventually produce a manuscript, which was subsequently adapted by another writer into his memoir ‘Survivor’, but the book which was published skirted around some of the most interesting – from a historian’s point of view at least – of Sam’s experiences, whilst interpolating many of the cliches of modern Holocaust literature and cinema.  With hindsight, I think that was what Sam wanted.  He wanted to be recognised as a survivor and for the horror of what he had been through, but the reality of his experience was still too awful.  He could cope with an account that was partially, at least, ‘generic’ for want of a better word.

Sam never married, much to his regret, but he had a circle of friends and supporters, led in recent years by the artist David Breuer-Weil and the composer Philip Appleby, who looked after him and maintained his morale. I hope he is now at peace.

 

*The building is still there, substantially unchanged, but has been renumbered ’81’.

 

 

 

4 thoughts on “Sam Pivnik: Obituary.

  1. I crossed paths with Sam a couple of times over the years. In the late 1980’s I tried my hand at selling Oriental rugs in Portobello Road. Sam used to drop in when doing the rounds of the market and if I complained about trade he would urge me to buy and sell drawings instead. Later I encountered Sam as a resident of the care home where my mother spent the last year of her life. Only then did I learn about his past and read “Survivor.” He had a remarkable spirit and would love to dance when musicians visited. Thank you for your fine obituary which really deserves publication in one of the national papers.

  2. i knew Sam for at least a year in the early 1990’s when he used to go ballroom dancing lessons on a sunday at Bell Lane school in Hendon. he was always cheerful and friendly and as he knew i was a civil servant, i used to like him saying to me “give my regards to Tony Blair when you see him”! i bought his book and saw him once in an auschwitz documentary on TV and he is/was inspiring to everyone

  3. sorry, i meant that i knew sam in the late 1990’s /early 2000’s – not early 90’s- and a very pleasant chap he was too

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