Two new memoirs illuminate Germany's changing relationship to the Holocaustby Ben Mason / October 25, 2012 / Leave a comment
Survivor: Auschwitz, the Death March and My Fight for Freedom by Sam Pivnik (Hodder and Stoughton, £20)
Not Me: Memoirs of a German Childhood by Joachim Fest (Atlantic Books, £20)
The past is populated by people we will never meet and customs that are foreign to us, but it is not some alien land with no bearing on the present. Our relationship with the past is crucial to how we understand ourselves today. So we engage in a kind of dance with the past. Different facets are emphasised, mythologised and polished, their new shape reflecting back a different image of who we are today.
In this process of refashioning the way things were, the memoir is pivotal. The broad narratives we create must still be reconciled with the “way it really was” according to those who were there. This applies especially to the memoir by Sam Pivnik, an 86-year-old Jew living in London, with the self-explanatory title Survivor: Auschwitz, the Death March and My Fight for Freedom.
Pivnik’s story is incredible—almost literally. We follow him from his childhood in Poland via a Jewish ghetto to Auschwitz, from which he miraculously emerges alive, and onward still to further horrors. As he describes his experiences of starvation, cold and swimming for his life from a bombed ship, one reels at how many near misses he has with death. And the “survivor” of the title describes not only his remarkable ability to stay alive, but also the creed he adopts. Prisoners are stripped of all dignity, and it becomes evident that the will to survive must be placed over all other principles. There is no resistance, and precious little solidarity between the imprisoned; the choice is between compliance and death.
The book does not offer a graceful narrative arc nor standard progression from crisis to struggle and redemption; just a long sequence of trauma and barbarism. The Holocaust carries such boundless, definitive significance for individuals and whole countries, but the note that endures coming to the end of Survivor is its senselessness—what would sociopolitical explanations have to say to a 16-year-old who loses his parents and siblings in the space of an hour?
The Germans have a word for the ongoing attempts to understand and interpret the darkest chapter in their…