Monday, October 18, 2010

Speak You Also: A Survivor's Reckoning by Paul Steinberg, published in France in 1996, in English in 2000

“It's an unsettling book, from the first page showing Steinberg's fierce will to survive.” From Martin Arnold’s review in the New York Times in October of 2000.

In 1943, when Paul Steinberg was almost seventeen, he was picked up on the streets in Paris where he thought he could pass unnoticed since he was not wearing the required yellow star. He spent the next fifteen months in concentration camps, mostly in Buna (Monowitz), a part of Auschwitz.

Several aspects of Steinberg’s story make this memoir particularly interesting. The memoir serves as an interesting document about the effects of trauma.  He tells us that he made an attempt to write a memoir earlier in the 1960’s but that re-living the experience was too painful and anxiety-producing and he put the manuscript away. When, in the 1990’s he decided to have another go at it, he writes that he became interested in his selective memory: some moments were crystal clear and he remembered minute details. On the other hand, there were long stretches of time that remained blank.  He also recounts how he reacted to this second attempt at writing down his story. Although he got through it, many nights he didn’t sleep. He knows he withdrew emotionally from family and friends.

Another aspect of his story that is particularly interesting is that Steinberg was assigned to work in the same group as Primo Levi and it wasn’t until years after Levi wrote his memoir, Survival in Auschwitz (subject of an earlier post)  that he was willing to read Levi’s memoir at the urging of a friend, and he realized that he made an appearance in it as “Henri.”  He does not object to Levi’s characterization of him as a boy who would do anything to survive.

He describes in detail exactly what the conditions were like in the camp and what he had to do to survive. He describes the power structure and the rules, and then he describes what he did to make sure he could make the power structure and the rules work for him. It started the minute he got to the camp. It involved lying when asked his age – he said eighteen – and lying about what he knew about chemistry so he could get a “good” placement. He capitalized on the fact he spoke German fluently. (He came from a Russian Jewish family who lived in Berlin when he was born and then moved to Paris.)  He turned on his boyish charm and befriended those he knew could help him. At the same time he cared for others, getting extra soup, for example, for his friends when he could.

He also stresses that luck played a big role in his survival and the survival of others; sometimes bad luck turned into good luck. For example, when his number was tattooed on his arm, the needle was infected and he ended up in the camp hospital where he got enough food and was free to recuperate slowly. He thinks he might have been the only one to have survived who came down with hepatitis from that re-used needle.

This is a very interesting memoir about being a Holocaust survivor as well as the trauma of the war, recovering the memories and reliving the trauma.

If you would like to read a scholarly article about British Prisoners of War and their reaction to the Jewish inmates at Auschwitz published in the Journal of Holocaust and Genocide Studies  click here.

To read a 2/18/11 New York Times article on current thoughts about the need for new kinds of exhibitions at Auschwitz written by Michael Kimmelman, click here.

Note: Steinberg spends very little time discussing family. No family names are mentioned. He does say that his mother died at his birth and is buried in Berlin. That he has an older brother and sister who survived the war, his brother in England, his sister in France with false papers. His father was Russian born and active in the Bolshevik revolution.

Friends and Acquaintances
Victor Young Perez
Robert Levy
Philippe Hagenauer
Robert Frances
Jean Olchanski
Pierre Bloch
Albert Cases

Drancy, France
Auschwitz, Poland
Monowitz (Buna), Poland
Juan-les-Pins, France

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