Pierre Berg spent 18 months as a prisoner in a Nazi death camp, and wrote down his story not long after his escape. In his first-ever interview, Pierre gives his unromantic view of survival, tells how he makes use of the serial number tattooed on his arm, and hopes to find a publisher for his memoir, SCHEISSHAUS LUCK: THE REMEMBRANCES OF A FRENCH TEEN IN AUSCHWITZ. Here’s the opening to his book:
If you’re seeking a Holocaust survivor’s memoir with a profound philosophical or poetic statement on the reasons six million Jews and many millions of other unlucky souls were slaughtered and why a person like myself survived the Nazi camps, you’ve opened the wrong book. I’d be lying if I said I knew the reason why or if I even believed there is a reason I’m still alive. As far as I’m concerned it was all shithouse luck, which is to say – inelegantly – that I kept landing on the right side of the randomness of life.
Describe the town you grew up in, and what your life was like before the Nazis occupied France. What had your attention, what did you dream of becoming, what did you cherish, what did you worry about?
I grew up in Nice, which is on the Mediterranean coast. At that time it was the fourth largest city in France. I was going to school and doing as much fishing as I could in my spare time. I was 14 when the war started, so I’d have to say girls and politics occupied most of my attention at that time. It was hard to think about any long-term, future goals when Hitler was causing such confusion in Europe and the French government was so unstable. At that time I entertained the thought of going into the Navy so I could see all the French colonies.
What did I cherish? Like a typical teenager, the neighborhood girls.
What did I worry about? As 1939 approached I worried more and more about the possibility of a war in France.
Pierre Berg, one year after WWII
Most of us are familiar with the yellow triangles Jews were forced to wear on their clothes. Why did you wear a red triangle? And how did you end up at Auschwitz?
A red triangle was for political prisoners, basically anybody who wasn’t a Nazi. When I was picked up in 1943, the Gestapo and collaborating millice were at times almost randomly picking up people to use them as slave labor for the Nazi war effort. I was picked up because I stopped to visit a school friend whose house was being raided by the Gestapo. Somehow they had found out that he had a shortwave radio, which he and I used to entertain our school friends. I knocked on the door and found a Luger in my face.
I was going to be sent from a camp in Paris, Drancy, to another camp in France, but I made the mistake of asking for the return of my confiscated money. What I didn’t know at the time was that the Gestapo were occupying my parents’ house and cleaning it out.
Tell me what was happening to your parents at the time.
My father had leukemia and a couple of weeks before I was arrested my mother escorted him to a hospital in the French Alps. When they arrived back in Nice the Gestapo officers were living in our house. My mother said they were walking up our street and could see an officer in the window, so they stayed with friends and relatives until the Allied troops pushed the Germans out of France. When I arrived home almost every piece of furniture, paintings, and family heirlooms were gone. The Nazis had even found a box of my mother’s jewelry that I had buried in our backyard.
It was my Dad’s leukemia that brought us to the United States. He had heard that there was a doctor in Los Angeles that was using the fall-out from hydrogen bombs on cancer patients. It was an experimental treatment and it more or less quickened my father’s death.
Is there a person or an image or a sound or smell from your time at Auschwitz that you can share with me?
The way you phrased this question, asking if there was a smell from my time in Auschwitz made me remember something that isn’t in my memoir. I was on a work detail digging trenches and laying pipes at the massive IG Farben chemical plant. A co-worker went to use the toilet, which was an open ditch with a plank over it that you would perch yourself on. The plank broke and he was floundering in a stinking, gooey pool of human waste. He couldn’t climb out and we were trying to pull him up with our shovels when a SS guard came over. He asked why we weren’t working and we pointed to our comrade down below, who was clinging to one of the shovels. The guard said, “He’s too messy. He’s not worth cleaning.” He then shot him and chased us back to work. Witnessing SS guards shooting prisoners was a common occurrence in my 18 months of captivity.
Tell me about your tattoo. Do you remember who gave it to you and the context of getting tattooed? What was your feeling then, and what is it now, to carry that mark?
This is from my memoir:
“At the first table, a son of a Warsaw haberdasher sewed the number, 172649, onto my jacket and pants. I sat down at the next table where a German prisoner wrote my name and serial number on a card. From the corner of my eye, I watched alarmed as the man next to me got tattooed. The bleeding numbers were taking up his whole forearm. The German processing me grabbed my left arm, dipped his pen into his white, porcelain inkstand and attacked my forearm with fast, little jabs. I clenched my teeth, but the physical pain was less than the stinging realization that the numbers 172649 meant I was now officially property of the Third Reich.
“Will this ever come off?”
He shook his head. “It’s permanent.”
Considering that I’m stuck with my tattoo, I put it to practical use. I’ve used it as a PIN number and I play the lottery with it. Matter of fact I need to walk down to the liquor store and buy a ticket this afternoon. I won’t allow myself to look at it as a negative.
How does a healthy teenager stay sane in the midst of such horror? Did you vacate emotionally? Did you create some kind of meaning in your days there? Did you hold to anything specific from the past or the future to get you through?
On a daily basis I disassociated myself from what was happening around me. I did not allow myself to dwell on the cruelty that I witnessed, and that was a constant, minute-to-minute struggle. There are certain events that are fresh in my mind… No, really it is people’s faces that are vibrant in my mind’s eye as if I had seen them a half hour ago.
I would self-hypnotize myself to think I was standing on the warm shoreline of Nice while I was ankle deep in icy sludge. There was one person I did think about a lot and hoped to see again when I was free. While in the camp in Paris I met and fell for a 16 year old red head, Stella. We were both transported to Auschwitz and my memories of our times together helped keep my morale up.
Do you know what happened to Stella?
Susan, I don’t know how to answer that without giving away the ending of my memoir. Hmmm…
While I was in Wustrow I stayed with a German ex-Communist truck driver, who the Red Army made the mayor of the town. Because I could speak four languages, he asked me to be his police officer. Wustrow was getting an influx of displaced people, the majority of them former concentration camp prisoners, who came to our one room city hall seeking help. Most wanted information on how to get home, but there were many women who came to report being raped by Red Army soldiers (There were also many Germen women in and around Wustrow who were coming in to report being raped, too). I always asked the former female prisoners if they ever came across a young French woman with red hair.
One day a group of displaced women were gathered in the center of Wustrow. By the striped pajamas a couple of them were wearing I knew they had been in Auschwitz. I asked if they had known of a girl named Stella. One of them said that they had left a handful of sick women at an abandoned farm and thought that one of them was French and named Stella. I went to the farm, which was in reality a hunting lodge. I found six bodies in a chicken coop. One of them could have been Stella, she had red hair, but I’ll never be 100% sure.
I’m not sure how to word this question but I desperately want to know if you sang while you were there, or if you created any sort of art or anything at all.
I didn’t sing this song, put I did hum it in Auschwitz. I don’t remember the title of the song, but I can give you a verse of it in French: “Terre enfin libre ou nous pouvons reviver aimer, aimer” – “Place where we are free to live and love, love.”
We were singing this song when we left France for Auschwitz.
In the portion of the memoir you sent me, you said that the false identification papers you gave up when you were captured made it impossible for your parents to trace you. Did you see your parents again? And if so, what did they believe happened to you when you had gone missing for over a year?
Even if I had handed the Gestapo my true papers there would have been no way for my parents to trace me to Auschwitz. The Nazis kept detailed records, but it was for their own benefit. For everyone else it was a secret. Neighbors informed my parents that I had been picked up, but they had no idea where I was or what I was going through until I returned home. For those 18 months They had no idea if I was alive or dead.
How strange was it to try to return to a normal life? Where do store that trauma?
I spent 6 weeks in Wustrow, Germany at the end of the war recovering so I could have enough strength to walk to the American lines, which were on the other side of the Elbe River (about 300 miles). Then I had to take a train to Paris and was in a military hospital for 5 weeks before I took a train home. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I had time to adapt to my newfound freedom before I arrived back home. The only thing I found difficult to adapt to was school. I just couldn’t concentrate and maybe that was because of trauma. I have to admit I never gave it much thought.
This photo comes from the Holocaust Museum.
Tell me the meaning of “Scheisshaus Luck” and how you chose it for the title of your memoir.
Scheisshaus Luck translates to shithouse luck, which means a lucky coincidence, and it was lucky coincidences that kept me alive for those 18 months. While I was working with Brian he commented one day that I always joked that it was shithouse luck that I survived, and he thought it would make a good title for my memoir. I agreed.
You and Brian have chosen to tell your story as close to the point of view as you journaled it as a teenager. Talk to me about that decision, and why your insights all these years later were not a part of this memoir.
At 83, I don’t feel I have any new or fresh insight on the Holocaust; on why it happened and what can be done to prevent it from happening again. Seemingly we haven’t learned a thing and there have been so many books published and monuments built. Genocide has continued to happen constantly on this planet since the end of WWII.
I wrote my original remembrances two years after the war and Brian and I decided that we didn’t want to give a history lesson and that placing the reader in my 18 year old shoes would have more impact then listening to an old fart pontificate. In my original remembrances, which I wrote when I arrived in Los Angeles with my family, I left out many events to spare my Mother who was typing my hand written pages. I wanted to spare her, censoring myself in a way I guess.
Given what you’ve lived through, have you any thoughts on what is happening in the world today? Any wisdom or opinion you’d like to share?
Like I said before, sadly we haven’t learned a thing. People still will follow dictators. I don’t want to sound completely negative because the response of my friends on MySpace gives me hope that maybe some day as a human race we will wake up.
Tell me about your life now. What are you passionate about? What do love? What hurts you? What do you want to give or receive in this half of your life?
I usher at a couple of theaters here in Los Angeles and that keeps me busy and happy. You meet a lot of different people that way and I get a lot of cigarette breaks (I’ve been smoking since I was 10 years old).
What do I love? I love my girlfriend of 35 years. What hurts me? Neo-Nazis and skinheads who say the Holocaust never happened.
At my age, I’m running out of time but I’d like to see peace on earth, or at least see more of us treating one another with kindness. And I’d like to see my memoir published.
Thanks for being here, my friend.
You can visit Pierre on MySpace. Thanks for stopping by!
Postscript: Pierre has now published his book, SCHEISSHAUS LUCK. Please check it out!