Samuel Pivnik (Szmuel Pewnik) was born in Będzin on September 1, 1926 to a middle class Orthodox Jewish family. His father, Lejbus Pewnik, worked in the town as a tailor and business owner. His mother Fajgla raised the family’s seven children. Sam warmly recollects the nature of his childhood in Będzin as centered on family, religion, and education. These were the constants in his life prior to the German invasion of Poland on September 4, 1939. Sam Pivnik did not recall a great presence of antisemitism in Będzin. As as a young person he did not know the anti-Judaism experienced by the generations of his father and grandfather. He remembers intercommunal tensions, most palpable during the Christian observance of Easter, when Jews often became the target of hostility because they were blamed for the death of Jesus Christ.
Sam remembers that soon after the German invasion, the Jews of Będzin withdrew from public life. Jewish businesses were turned over to German ownership or to Polish townspeople with German heritage. Jewish schools were closed, and the Great Synagogue was burnt down in an arson attack. Jews lost their positions in public institutions and were forced to find other means of supporting themselves and their families. Sam’s father and his oldest sister Hendla found work in the clothing factory managed by Alfred Rossner. Both were considered valuable workers at the Rossner factory, and hence were given a Sonderausweis, special passes that protected them somewhat from harassment and violence. In the spring of 1940, youth resistance movements began to form and Sam became involved in them.
The persecution of the Jews escalated in the summer of 1942 when the Judenrat (Jewish Councils), on orders of the Nazi authorities, instructed Jews to report to one of the HaKoach sport stadium in Będzin with their identification papers. Once on site, the town’s Jewish population was sorted into three groups: workers remaining in the town; those deported to labor camps; and individuals to be “resettled in the East.” Sam’s family was lucky to be assigned to the first group. Later, a list was drawn up the Judenrat of “expendable” Jews for deportation. It included Sam’s older brother Nathan. When Nathan going into hiding, the Jewish ghetto police arrested their mother as a hostage.
In 1943, the Pivnik family was forced to move to Kamionka, a closed ghetto just outside of the town. In July of 1943, the Germans began to “liquidate” Kamionka: Jewish people were rounded up and deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, including the Pivnik family.
Upon arrival in Auschwitz, the family faced a second round of selection. All were placed in a group that Sam later realized was comprised of “expendable” Jews: families, the elderly, and the frail. Another group of men was formed, deemed able to work. Sam’s mother instructed him to save himself and shoved him toward the men’s group. Although there was no way of knowing it then, it was the last time he saw his family. Immediately after joining the ranks of laborers, Sam was stripped of his identity. He was given a prisoner uniform, his hair was shaved, and his name was taken from him and replaced with prisoner number “135913.” This number was tattooed on his forearm and labeled on his garment.
Sam was quick to realize within the first few days of his arrival at the camp that the labor had little to do with regular work. Instead, labor conditions were a dehumanizing method meant to demonstrate Aryan superiority over Jews. Although such techniques were crafted by high ranking Nazi officials, Sam recalls his experience of the Holocaust as executed by the hands of lower ranking army corporals and the SS, but also Jewish prisoners who had be appointed as Blockälteste (block seniors who oversaw their assigned barracks) and Kapos (foremen who oversaw labor units). Jews who participated in these roles were considered more privileged than their counterparts, receiving larger food rations and more protection. The Nazis benefitted from keeping the costs of running the camps low by relying on less German staff and by using their victims in the implementation of their own imprisonment.
Two weeks after arriving at Auschwitz, Sam was assigned to work on the arrival platform. As part of the so-called Rampe Kommando, he assisted in the unloading of newly arriving Jews and helped organize the possessions left in the cattle cars. Sam found himself secretly instructing those near his age to tell the camp overseers that they were eighteen, skilled in a trade or strong for work. This helped some newly arriving prisoners to survive. This labor assignment gave Sam some advantages: whatever food he found in the trains, he would secretly eat. Caloric intake was beneficial, no matter how small. In December of 1943, Sam contracted typhus and was sent to the prisoner hospital after collapsing. There, he faced another round of selection by Dr. Josef Mengele, a high-ranking SS official and the head physician in Auschwitz. Sam narrowly escaped the doctor’s attention and was spared being sent to the gas chamber.
In January 1944, Sam volunteered to join a group of men assigned to labor outside the fences of Auschwitz-Birkenau. He was sent to the subcamp Fürstengrube, where he worked as bricklayer and a coal miner. In January 1945, in the wake of the advancing Soviet army, the Nazi regime began to conceal the evidence of the killings in the camps and elsewhere. In Fürstengrube, the SS burnt the administration building that contained all documents. Prisoners were ordered to march toward Austria, one of the many death marches. They walked in the bitter cold for two days, until they reached Gleiwitz, the border town where the German invasion began on the eve of Sam’s thirteenth birthday in 1939.
From Gleiwitz, the prisoners traveled for nine more days without food, collecting what little water they could from icicles formed on the rims of train cars, until they reached Dora-Mittelbau, a subcamp of the Buchenwald concentration camp near Weimar, Germany. Sam and other men were from there to Tormalin, a labor camp. On April 6, 1945, Sam was forced on another death march to Magdeburg, about 150 kilometers from Berlin. From there, he and other prisoners embarked on a three-day drive to Lübeck, then made to march further north to Ostholstein. There, Sam and twenty prisoners were selected to continue marching even further through northern Germany, until early May, the final days of Nazi Germany. On May 3, 1945, he boarded the Cap Arcona, a German ship that was attacked by the British Royal Air Force, which mistook it to carry SS officers. Sam was among the few that survived the attack at the Lübeck Bay. Finally liberated by the British, Sam took refuge in Neustadt. The war had ended. In the summer, he was reunited with his older brother Nathan.
The brothers decided not to return to Poland. For them, their future lay in Palestine, the historic homeland of the Jewish people. However, they first went to London where extended family members lived. In 1948, Sam immigrated to Palestine and joined the Machal, an Israeli volunteer defense group that operated during the Arab-Israel war. In February 1949, Israeli and Egyptian leaders signed a truce that awarded land to the new state of Israel. Shortly after, Sam returned to London and became a naturalized citizen on September 15, 1953 [follow his path across Europe after 1944].
The Holocaust never left Sam. He wanted to understand what had happened to him, his family, and his people. He was consumed by feelings of vengeance and longed for justice that he felt was inadequately dispensed upon the perpetrators. In the 1990s, Sam returned to Będzin. He wrote in his memoir that little had changed since the Jewish community’s deportation to the Kamionka ghetto. Będzin, he wrote, was free of Jews and it was no longer his home.
Sam’s story is also told in:
Survivor: Auschwitz, the Death March and My Fight for Freedom (St. Martin’s Press, 2012)
See also Sam Pivnik’s personal website
The USC Shoah Foundation (popularly known as Spielberg foundation) interviewed Arnold’s brother Nathan, under the Int. code # 9545: