V It is 67 years since Sam Pivnik was found, weak and shivering, still in the striped pyjamas of Auschwitz, on the banks of the Bay of Lübeck in northern Germany, and driven to safety. Now, at the age of 85, in his book Survivor, he finally shares his experience.
There is much in Mr Pivnik’s relentlessly bleak story, from Polish ghetto to Auschwitz, from work camp to death march, that is sadly familiar from countless other tales of Holocaust survival. But then there are the little known stories of the aftermath of the genocide, when even in the dying days of the war, killing continued.
“It was May 3 ,” said Mr Pivnik, leaning forward in his chair at the Holocaust Survivors Centre in Hendon. “The crew didn’t want us prisoners to board the Cap Arcona, they didn’t have room.” There were in fact already around 4,500 people on board a ship that had sanitary facilities for 700, but Hitler was already dead, the SS in chaos, and after a three-month death march from Poland to northern Germany, the SS were desperate to move on.
“We were on the top deck and had not yet been sorted when we heard the noise.” That noise was Royal Air Force bombers, who believed that the ships, packed with concentration-camp prisoners, were in fact SS men escaping to Sweden. The Cap Arcona and another smaller ship, the Denmark, were bombed and sunk, and around 5,000 died.
Sam Pivnik, then 18 and originally from Bedzin, Poland, managed to climb out of a port-hole and jump into the icy water. There he remained for two hours, sharing a plank of wood with another prisoner, waiting for the SS to stop shooting at those who reached the shore.
“There was no apology from the British, no compensation,” said Mr Pivnik. “Do I forgive them? No comment.
“But I know that it did not need to happen. Even if they [the ships] had been full of German soldiers, there was no need to bomb them. The British were already in town and the boats didn’t have enough steam up to escape.”
This was far from Mr Pivnik’s first brush with death. Three-hundred heart-wrenching pages detail his last-minute avoidance of the gas chambers where his family died, his escape from “Doctor of Death” Dr Mengele in Auschwitz-Birkenau, and his dangerous work in the mines of Auschwitz sub-camp, Furstengrube.
After fighting in the Israeli war of independence in 1948, Mr Pivnik settled down in London, where he had family. “People in London didn’t want to hear my story, they had problems of their own.”
He feels that “Holocaust fatigue” is still a problem. He speaks of how saddened he was by his struggle to find a publisher:
“People must hear my story. Because, you know, history repeats itself”.
Survivor is published by Hodder and Stoughton, £20.