Sam Pivnik: Obituary.


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’.




Paddington Bear: the reality


Londoners faced more rush hour chaos last night when a wild animal, believed to be a species of south american bear, was found at Paddington Station’s left luggage office.  The station was closed for more than two hours – between 4.30 and 6.30pm – whilst the British Transport Police and RSPCA inspectors dealt with the situation.

Jonathan Brown, 13, a pupil at Eton College, told the Standard:

‘It was, like, really weird? The bear was, like, sitting on a suitcase eating sandwiches it must have, like, stolen from somewhere’

A spokesman for the RSPCA said:

‘It is hard to imagine the sheer irresponsibility of someone deliberately leaving a potentially dangerous wild animal at a busy railway station.  Bears may look cute and cuddly but they are powerful and unpredictable animals and this could have been a life-threatening situation’.

British Transport Police are appealing for the owners of the bear to come forwards.

A spokesman for Network Rail said:

‘We would urge any of our customers travelling with animals to ensure that they are secure and under control at all times.’

The station was reopened after the bear was put down by a police marksman who had been called to the scene.

Mark Kermode Hatchet Job!

I’m reading Mark Kermode’s latest book ‘Hatchet Job’ at the moment.  I really like Kermode’s film reviews which are lucid, well-informed and well thought-out, even when I strongly disagree with them (for example, he liked the Gary Oldman/Benedict Cumberbatch ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’ which I thought was mediocre and missed the point of the source material) and I make a point of listening to his Friday afternoon BBC 5live film review show with Simon Mayo which is always thoroughly entertaining.

But blimey his books need editing!  This is the second of them I’ve tried to read and golly it’s hard work.  He really needs someone to tell him that long-form writing is not just an excuse for drivelling, blather and padding, but an opportunity to set out thoughtful ideas and opinions of real depth.  If he reviewed a film as flabbily edited as this, he would rightly rubbish it.  Ironically, it’s a rumination on the roles and responsibilities of the film critic.

I’ll blog again if I manage to finish it but if you’re really desperate to see what I’m on about, you can buy it here

Updated to add:

Nope, I’ve given up on this: it’s unreadably discursive.  The lovely Mrs Weale had a go last night too, but cast it aside after fifteen minutes with a disgruntled – though elegant – snort.

Christmas is Coming!


So if you’re stuck for a last minute present for that special person you want to really impress, you could do worse than delving into the Adrian Weale back catalogue:

Howzabout the ‘Arrse Guide to the British Army’ by my very close friend Major Des Astor?  It’s an hilarious, knockabout guide to what the British Army is all about in the 21st century which will teach you everything you need to know about bulling boots, walting with confidence, naked bars and skiffing.  It’s a perfect Christmas present for anyone with the remotest interest in the military,  humour and la conditione humaine.

The Arrse Guide to the British Army

The Arrse Guide to the British Army – Kindle Edition

If you aren’t worried about hilarious military antics and anecdotes, you might prefer a bit of practical help in getting yourself fit for the long year ahead, in which case I recommend ‘Fighting Fit’.  More than 100,000 satisfied customers can’t be wrong!

Fighting Fit

And finally, if you know someone who needs a serious historical blockbuster, then look no further than ‘The SS: A New History’.

The SS: A New History

The SS: A New History – Kindle Edition

Harmless Drudgery

I’ve finally – and no doubt to my agent’s delight – finished revising my old fitness book ‘Fighting Fit’ for an ebook edition.  We’re hoping to get it online in the next month or so in time for the Christmas rush.

If you can’t wait that long, Orion produced a new print edition a couple of months back (with a new cover design, no less) which Amazon will happily sell you:

It’s a hard knock life, uh huh!

My day rate...

My day rate…

My friend Guy Walters wrote a ‘pulpit’ for the Literary Review – Britain’s least up-its-own-arse literary magazine – this month, pointing out how there is a strange assumption throughout some sections of the culture-media nexus that people who write books don’t actually need to be paid (it’s online here:

Here’s another example:  I was phoned on Monday by a TV producer for an independent company that has a commission from Channel 5 to produce a 1 hour documentary on an aspect of the Third Reich about which I happen to know quite a lot.  He wanted to know if I was prepared to appear on the film, setting the subject in context and talking about some of the key characters.

I do quite a lot of this kind of thing so I was happy to agree to it.  We then got on to the mechanics of the filming.  His idea was that I would fly out to Germany for a day for the shoot, which – again – I was happy to do: it gets me out of the office, apart from anything else.

It was at this point that he used a phrase which I must have heard two dozen times in the twenty years I’ve been writing non-fiction:  ‘Of course, we’ll make sure your book gets a mention’.  For those who are unfamiliar with TV producer code this means ‘we’re not planning to pay you anything’.

I pointed this out, told him my day-rate and there were a few seconds of uncomfortable silence.

‘We’re not really allowed to pay interviewees anything’, he ventured, ‘because it seems like we’re just paying them to say what we want them to say’.

This is rubbish:  I do quite a lot of this kind of stuff and I am routinely paid for it.  We talked for a few more minutes and we closed with the producer telling me he would try to work out what they could pay me and would ‘get back to me’.  I haven’t heard from him since and I have no doubt he’s been phoning round trying to find someone to do the gig for free.

The point, as Guy Walters makes clear in his Literary Review article, is that if you ask a lawyer or a doctor to give you an expert opinion, you expect to pay them for it.  So why not a writer?

The excuse is always that by appearing on TV, we’re getting a marvellous opportunity to promote our work, and that we writers should be grateful for that.  In reality, if 10 people buy a copy of the paperback of my history of the SS on the back of an appearance on a documentary – and I doubt it would be many more than that – it’s going to make me about a fiver.  It doesn’t stack up.

So, like Guy, I’m not doing any more freebies without a damned good reason.  It’s a precarious enough career unless you’re J K Rowling and frankly we all need to minimise days when we don’t earn anything.