I’m very close to finishing the book Survivor – Auschwitz, The Death March and My Fight for Freedom by Sam Pivnik and some two-thirds of the way through I was jolted by this passage:
We could have run, could have made it, could have reached the welcoming arms of the British, who surely wouldn’t fire on scarecrows wearing the stripes of a concentration camp? But we didn’t. None of us. And it’s something I’ve read about since in the memoirs of other survivors. The years of terror, of barbed wire, of electric fences, they never leave you. You turn in on yourself, hiding in the only Hell you know. Why? Because out there, in those fields and woodlands, across the ploughed farmland of North Germany was a world I didn’t know at all. I was just thirteen when the Wehrmacht invaded my homeland and in a way my life had been put on hold ever since. In a word, I was too scared to run away.
Almost an entire shelf of my book cabinet is stocked with various accounts of the Holocaust, a collection I started with Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz on the recommendation of a psychiatrist I was seeing for post-traumatic stress that followed a serious accident in 2003.
While the ‘woulda, coulda, shouldas’ of Pivnik’s experience differ greatly from my own, I recognize my own mindset in how I processed difficulties in my childhood. (By the time I was Pivnik’s thirteen years of age, I had experienced this example of the drubbing of a head teacher/principal in elementary school and the sexual abuse and subsequent exploitation at what I would now recognize as a sexual cruising area.)
I have long since absolved myself, intellectually at least, of any guilt in these matters. However Pivnik’s laser-like identification of lingering fear – my fear, too, of the world – has amazing resonance with me. It’s not the first time I have named fear as a foundational part of my emotional operating system, and I could quantify it in reviewing the hypomanic behaviour which has characterized my history with bipolar II, but to read Pivnik’s account is to affirm how I can relate my experience with what has followed.
(I still aspire to writing my life story, such as it is, told only in fits and starts in this blog.)