The Long Road

An International Lawyer Remembers the Holocaust

In 1979, Samuel Pisar's Of Blood and Hope soared to the top of bestseller lists throughout Europe. The book war certainly not the first autobiography to be written about Nazi death camps, and while the unexpected twists of Pisar's subsequent life made his tale more dramatic than most, that along did not account for the book's rampant popularity. Unlike most Holocaust memoirs. Of Blood and Hope was not just a reminiscence, but a warning. The book, like its author, was a product of the past, projected onto the future.

In his own words, Samuel Pisar is a "post-national man." A renowned international lawyer who helped lay the foundation for detente, Pisar commutes between four continents, regularly crosses datelines and time zones, and speaks seven languages fluently, though he considers none his native tongue. Born in Poland, a resident of Paris and New York, Pisar was made an American citizen in 1961 by a special act of Congress.

But if Pisar's self-appelation accurately describes his present life, it is drawn from his past, and thus encapsulizes his vision of the future. Born in Bialystok, Poland, in 1929, he lived through Soviet occupation and Nazi terror, spending four years in Maidanek, Dachau and Auschwitz and escaping death only through a combination of luck and nerve. One of the youngest survivors of the concentration camps, Pisar lost his entire family to the war and was the only student in his grammar school of 900 to survive. Although he eventually earned doctorates from Harvard and the Sorbonne and rose to intellectual and political peaks, it is the vivid memory of his youth that gives him his sense of mission--of destiny.

"I am a witness to history who has seen the ship of humanity go under in the darkest moments of this century, "he says quietly. "I know that man is as capable of the worst as of the best, of madness as of genius, and I believe that the unthinkable is not impossible' I am groping for a future that is post-national and post-ideological, because I know, how dangerous extreme nationalism and ideology can be."

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For 12-year-old "Mula" Pisar, the terror began on June 22, 1941. On that day, after two years of Soviet occupation, "the bad was succeeded by the worst." Germany turned on its ally to the East and the Red Army crumbled under the onslaught. Nazi shock troops swept into Bialystok, the city with the second-largest Jewish population in Poland, and wasted no time implementing the Fubrer's plans. On the first Friday of the occupation, Pisar recalls, over a thousand Bialystok Jews were herded into the city's Great Synagogue, which was then set aflame. The following Sabbath, hundreds of men--including--three of Pisar's cousins--were taken to an open field and shot. With this introduction, the Jews remaining in the city were ordered into a designated slum section; the Bialystok Ghetto was formed.

Pisar's recollections of the ghetto remain vivid. It was here; on his thirteenth birthday, that he was bar mitzvahed in a shabby synagogue in full sight of the pacing Nazi guards. It was here that he first met Ben, the lifelong friend who accompanied him through the camps and with whom he made a solemn pact to survive. And it was here that his father kissed the family goodbye and left home for the last time. A few months later, the ghetto was razed and those who survived were put on a train for the camps.

The night before the train left, Pisar recalls, his mother had a premonition. Deliberating over how to dress him for the Journey, she instinctively realized that if he wore short pants he would be considered a child and would go with she and his sister. If he wore long pants, he would go with the men, whom the Nazis often kept alive as workers. She dressed him in long pants and by doing so saved his life. It was the first in a string of miraculous and intuitive acts that marked his path to survival. Pisar never saw his mother or sister again.

The second such event occurred shortly after his arrival at Muidanek, a camp which Pisar says is little known only because so few survived. One day during roll call, all tailors were told to remain standing at attention, while the others were ordered dispersed. "My intuition told me to stand still." Pisar remembers. "When the SS officer got to me he asked me if I were a tailor I answered. Sir, I am no a tailor, but a buttonhole maker." Something must have clicked in the officer's mind because he told me to got to the right--the side of life."

Pisar's most dramatic brush with death came roughly a year later, after he, Ben and "several hundred others who had stubbornly refused to die" had been transported to Auschwitz. One morning, Pisar's number was called and he and his group were placed in a halfway barrack to have their numbers checked off as they waited their turn: "We stand closely packed in a dread silence." Pisar writes, "the faces around me flushed with the rage of helplessness, or some crazed hope of last-minute deliverance, or the hallucinatory peace of the imminence of death. At the back of the room, in a space clear of prisoners. I see a barrel of water, and alongside it a pail, brush and rag."

Slowly, Pisar crept across the floor, past people who were too benumbed to notice. Reaching the pail, he began scrubbing the floor vigorously--scrubbing and drying and inching his way toward the door. Called back by the guards to clean a corner for the second time, he resumed his slow progress to the door. Reaching it at last he arose and walked toward the barracks, losing himself once more in the anonymity of the camp. He was just 15 years old.

But these pivotal moments comprised only a small part of the horror of camp life. For the most part, the memories are of the endless, pervasive smell of death and terror so constant it becomes mundane: the brothels, the body pits, the typhus, the orchestra of European virtuosos forced to sit near the machine--gun towers playing Mozart while the furnaces belched fire and smoke "Most cynical and indecent" of all. Pisar recalls, was the sign which hung above the main gate of Auschwitz proclaiming Arbeit Machl Frei--"Work Brings Freedom." .

In Spring of 1945, as the Allies closed in around Germany, Pisar and his two close friends--Ben and Niko, "the wild Dutchman"--had been sent to the West to dig up body pits to hide evidence. As they were being marched back to Dachau with a column of prisoners they decided to make a run for it and dashed for the woods. Of the 14 who broke from the column, nine were shot. Ben. Niko and Pisar escaped.

On a sunny, spring afternoon a few weeks later, holed up in a barn near Munich. Pisar peered through it crack and saw an enormous tank lumbering towards him. Instead of the hateful swastika, he saw an unfamiliar emblem: a small five-pointed white star. "Suddenly the realization flooded my mind that I was looking at freedom, the insignia of the American army. "Pisar recalls I ran towards it through the German machine-gun fire, and as a big Black G. I climbed out, swearing at me. I yelled Heil Roosevelt." He understood. He motioned me to move through the roof of the tank, into the womb of freedom."

"I really live in a new incarnation," Pisar observes softly. "The new human being who is before you now and leads a life in the glittering capitals is totally and completely different from the one who was given life in Eastern Poland and was meant to give it up at Auschwitz at the age of 13."