BUTTERFLIES AND SPEECHES

A few months ago Pierre and I were contacted by one of our facebook friends, Michelle Zimmerman, who wanted to know if we would contribute handmade butterflies for the Houston Holocaust Museum’s “The Butterfly Project“.  Michelle and Helen Bradley were the event coordinators for Amaco, an arts and crafts company based in Indianapolis, and the butterflies were part of Amaco’s “Friendly Plastic Challenge”.  Over the Thanksgiving weekend Pierre and I slid the “Friendly Plastic in the oven, softened it up, grabbed the butterfly cookie cutter and here are the results.

Last Monday at an arts and craft convention in Anaheim, California, I spoke at Amaco’s booth before they announced the winners of the Butterfly Project as well as the “Bottles Of Hope” with donations from that project going to the Hasbro Children’s Hospital. I was asked to speak about the Holocaust and Pierre’s memoir.  Here is my speech.

“I have to apologize up front because as a speaker I’m a very poor second to Pierre Berg, who as a young man spent 18 months in German concentration camps, 12 of those in Auschwitz and who graciously and with a big leap of faith allowed me to co-write his memoir, Scheisshuas Luck.  I say, “with a big leap of faith” on Pierre’s behalf because I had never written a book before let alone a Holocaust memoir.  Being that history was one of my favorite subjects through college, I prided myself on being quite knowledgeable on the “Final Solution” and the death camps this policy spawned.  After my first two days of interviewing Pierre,  I realized what I had learned barely scratched the surface in truly understanding what the victims of the Holocaust had endured.  It was seven years last September from the day Pierre and I started working together to the day his memoir was finally published, and I have to admit that I still can’t completely wrap my head around what Pierre and Mr. Zimmerman went through on a daily basis as inmates of the Nazi concentration camps.  I’ve never been that close to such depravity, hatred and cruelty.  I would like to think that I never will, which was pretty much what Pierre thought before he got arrested.

Pierre was arrested in his hometown of Nice, France two months after his 19th birthday.  He was a bicycle courier for a cell of the French resistance, but that was not the reason he was arrested by the Gestapo.   Pierre was not arrested because he was Jewish – He is a gentile.  Pierre was picked up for being in the wrong place at the wrong time — Scheisshaus Luck as he puts it.  Pierre went to the house of a school friend and walked in just as the Gestapo was arresting his friend for having a short-wave radio/broadcaster.

With no explanation – there was no due process with the Nazis – Pierre was also handcuffed and placed on a Paris bound train.  He spent a couple months in a camp called Drancy where he toiled as an orderly in a quarantined ward during a scarlet fe¬ver epidemic and had an unexpected romance with a 16 year old Jewish redhead named Stella.  In January of 1944,  Pierre, Stella, her parents and a couple thousand other prisoners were loaded onto cattle cars to an unknown destination – Pitchi-Poi as some referred to it.

Days later Pierre found himself in Auschwitz where he spent 12 months.

In Auschwitz Pierre witnessed beatings and was on the receiving end of a couple himself.  He watched a man’s head caved in with a spade because he had diarrhea and that just wasn’t right when a Nazi dignitary was making an inspection.

Pierre witnessed shootings.   He witnessed men hung for stealing bread to stop their hunger while their Kapos, convicted murderers, rapists and thieves, placed bets on who would die first.

He watched the Sonderkommando unload the bodies from his Auschwitz camp, then helped deliver the ashes of 1200 human beings to slave laborers toiling in a cabbage patch.  In his memoir, Pierre wrote: “From the looks of the heads of cabbage we made good fertilizer.”

Pierre escaped a selection to Birkenau’s gas chambers because he did a good job washing the barrack’s foreman’s shirts.

Pierre fell asleep in a warehouse during a work detail and was written up for an escape attempt, but because the man who tattooed the number on his left arm had a shaking hand they mistook the 9 for a 2 and another poor soul was hung in his place.

Pierre celebrated his 20th birthday in Auschwitz.  He carried the body of a Jehovah Witness out of his camp’s brothel.  She had committed suicide because she couldn’t be anyone’s whore.

Everyday in Auschwitz Pierre dreamed of reuniting with Stella, the red-headed girl he had met in Drancy.  Even after he escaped the Nazis and recuperated in the German town of Wustrow,  Pierre hoped that he would see Stella again.  But, there was no fairy tale ending.

In 1947 Pierre moved to Los Angeles with his parents.   At his first job in Hollywood, a female coworker inquired about the tattoo on his left arm.

“It was my license plate in a Nazi concentration camp.”  Pierre told her.  “I lost half of my weight there.  From 145 lbs to 72 lbs.”

“We had a rough time, too, here in the U.S.”  The coworker replied.  “We had to eat chicken all the time.”

Thinking that someday he might forget what he had gone through in those 18 months, Pierre jotted down his recollections. Those recollections sat in a drawer for over fifty years until Pierre and I met while we were both working part-time at the Canon theatre in Beverly Hills.

The butterflies that are on display here today will become part of exhibit that will represent the 1.5 million children that were slaughtered by Nazi Germany.  Butterflies are elegant and beautiful creatures and of course so are children.  1 million, five hundred thousand innocent children systemically murdered.   Many were shot to death, beat to death or starved to death, but those children who arrived at one of the extermination camps were murdered with an insecticide called Xyklon-B.  Infants, toddlers, 3 year olds 4 year olds, 5 year olds, 6 year olds, 7 year olds,  8 year olds,  9 year olds… if they were deemed to young to work productively they would be marched to the showers, sometimes with a parent or holding the hand of their sister or brother or maybe they walked into that room alone, naked, waiting for the water to come out of the pipes above them, not understanding why there were people crying all around them.  The pellets of insecticide would be dropped and 20 ungodly minutes later the door would be open and all the children, men and women inside would be gone.

One of the main goals for Pierre and I in writing his memoir was to tell his story without whitewashing or softening a thing.  To have done so would have been a great disservice.  As a race we humans have a difficult time enough learning our lessons from the past.  Diluting history, softening the truth to not upset the children sitting in classrooms, means we are only giving the tools to future generations to repeat past generations’ mistakes and atrocities.  The Holocaust survivor who recently admitted to romanticizing his memoir in the desire to give people hope, his heart was in the right place, but hope is for the future.  The past only needs one thing — brutal, unblinking honesty.”

Michelle’s father, a Holocaust survivor, was scheduled to speak but had to back out at the last minute.  I truely regret not being able to meet him.  Helen read his prepared speech.  Mr. Zimmerman was gracious enough to allow me to post it.

“Unfortunately George’s wife became very ill suddenly. He apologizes for not being here, is honored for being asked to speak at the AMACO challenge and wishes to share his stories but this time has to deliver his speech through me.

These are George’s words:

Holocaust stories are all big stories and all different. You can’t say that if you have heard one you’ve heard them all. Each is about different torturing and killing. The only common thread is that it was about extermination.

They told me that if I worked good they will treat me decently and when the war is over as all wars are, we will go home, except those that were different and didn’t belong would be shot.

For example we were told that when we finished a project we’d be shot. The first project was building a bridge to get wounded soldiers out. People were hung from this bridge every day for bringing in less pebbles, for working too slow. I was hung from it by my hands which were tied behind my back, because my mother came to see me.

Halfway through construction the Russian army burned down the bridge so I lived to build another project. We kept constructing and the army kept destroying and I kept living.

5 kilometers from the Hungarian border we were told that anyone who wanted to go home was to fall in line and march. I fell in a ditch. Years later when I arrived home I found a man who had been in my group. He said that at the border there was a train waiting to take everyone to a concentration camp where everyone was shot that same day. Except for he and his twin brother.

My Holocaust story is one of many horror stories.

In a nutshell I went through 3 hells not just one.

The first hell was the forced labor camp, but I was a young man, sure of myself and survived—me against the world. I thought I’d go home a free man.

The 2nd hell was being liberated from the labor camp and taken as a Russian Prisoner of War. POWs had no rights, not even the right to life. Russians had not signed the Geneva Convention.

The 3rd hell was when I was liberated and went home. I got off the train in Budapest happy and proud that I survived. I was greeted by 2 long lines of silent strangers who were holding photos to their chests. They said nothing but looked me in the eye hoping I knew where their relative was buried. I had to walk by these people to reach the street. By the end I was so ashamed that I’d survived. There was my home, the furniture, the streets I grew up on and all my family was dead.

This was the worst hell. During the day I laugh and smile and then night comes and I dream about the horribleness of coming home every night and have done so since 1947.

It was cruel and brutal. The only limit to the cruelty was the imagination of the people and they were very imaginative. I am told that now imaginative people use their skills to ensure that the stories and memories of the survivors continue on past the time that is coming very soon when we are all dead. I hope it’s true. It is a wonderful thing these butterflies for the children. “

Neither Pierre’s or my butterflies won, but that wasn’t a surprise seeing the craftsmanship of some of the other entries.  I got none of my mother’s artistic attributes.  I do like Pierre’s Rainbow Butterfly very much.

We are both very thankful to Michelle for getting us involved in the butterfly project.  It means so much to Pierre and I to contribute to what should be a stunning exhibition remembering all those children that never got the chance to grow up.  Here is the link to the The Butterfly Project if you want to get involved.

The Butterfly

The last, the very last,
So richly, brightly, dazzlingly yellow.
Perhaps if the sun’s tears would sing
against a white stone….

Such, such a yellow
Is carried lightly ’way up high.
It went away I’m sure
because it wished
to kiss the world good-bye.

For seven weeks I’ve lived in here,
Penned up inside this ghetto.
But I have found what I love here.
The dandelions call to me
And the white chestnut branches in the court.
Only I never saw another butterfly.

That butterfly was the last one.
Butterflies don’t live in here, in the ghetto.

Pavel Friedman, June 4, 1942

Born in Prague on January 7, 1921.
Deported to the Terezin Concentration Camp on April 26, 1942.
Died in Aushchwitz on September 29, 1944.

Published in: on February 2, 2009 at 8:35 am  Comments (1)  

An Iraq Veteran’s View On Scheisshaus Luck

Over the weekend I received an e-mail from an Iraq veteran.  I was so moved by his words that I asked him to expand on his thoughts because I wanted to share them with all my friends here. 

During the struggle to find a publisher I heard over and over again that my memoir wasn’t topical.  Yes, it happen a long time ago, but the Holocaust just like the killing fields of Cambodia and the ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia will always be relevant to whatever current wars and genocides that are taking place.

Justin Mays just came back from Iraq.  Here is his explanation of his job in the military:

“My job title in the navy is “Operations Specialist”. Normally I would be onboard a ship operating radar systems and providing navigation information, or providing targeting information to the weapons systems. I’ve taken some different assignments that put me on the ground quite a bit. I spent 7 months in Djibouti (one of the hottest places on earth, often over 120F). I got out of the navy in July 2005 after serving nealry 5 years. I got my associates degree, met my wife, and was in the process of buying our first home when the Navy called me back to duty for a tour in Iraq. “Mrs. Mays” and I got married, canceled the purchase of our home, and I deployed 9 days later. The nature of my work was often times classified, but the parts I can discuss were equally interesting as those I cannot. I provided a relay between troops on the ground and aircraft in order to give the ground guys a birds-eye view of the mission. Often times the terrorists would be on rooftops and the aircraft would be able to direct troops to them in order to avoid sniper fire. Other times I would be aiding in hostage rescue, or special operations missions. My time in Africa was a humanitarian mission (win hearts and minds so as to prevent fertile ground for the terrorists ever-expanding recruitment). We were building churches, schools, helping orphanages, and immunizing the farm animals of the locals.”

 Here is the e-mail he sent me after reading my memoir:

 “Dear Pierre,

 I just finished your book, it made for a long night, but I couldn’t put it down.  Scheisshaus Luck would have really surprised me about 10 years ago, but after the things I saw in Iraq and Africa… well it’s like you said in your book, we just seem doomed to repeat history. With most of the planet wanting so badly to pretend that the Holocaust never happened, it’s sure to be repeated again. The amazing thing is, the events you personalized in Scheisshaus Luck are not some piece of a history from long, long ago; equally shocking events happen every day in the world around us.

 I was stationed in Djibouti (Horn of Africa) and saw the bodies of the child armies. They were often missing limbs from the land mines, and most of these children are well acquainted with the AK-47 (it’s not a rarity to see a child holding one). It’s common for feuding tribes to landmine border territory and not bother to remove the mines when the fight is over. These mines often look like toys, so the children are the ones who discover them.

 Poverty breeds derangement of the human mind. Police rape women, the entire Djiboutian population seems to enjoy the one leisure activity they have, the drug khat (which is a stimulant that can result in hallucinations and emotional instability). When you add to this a food shortage and the ever-abundant AK-47, it is no wonder that tragedy is the largest African export.

 While in Africa, I also studied the Rwanda genocide and it just seems that the rest of the world wants to pretend these things don’t happen. During the mid 1990’s almost a million (or more depending on who you believe) souls were destroyed in the most barbaric ways. Families and neighbors were pitted against one another, and the fighting was often carried out with machetes. This happened and is a testament to the dangers of apathy. This same apathy is what propagates an alarming number of our population to simply wish away atrocity. We seem to think that if we wish hard enough these events will “unhappen”.

 While I was stationed in Baghdad I saw first hand some of the amazingly horrific things Saddam and his sons had brought on their people. I was especially disturbed by the lion’s cages where they are rumored to have fed people to ravaged lions. I read about the execution of failed Olympians, raped-women, and men who were murdered based on some threat that Saddam could think up. These events are mind numbing, but it’s not the events that cause me such alarm, but rather our reaction to them.

 The way the human body can be nothing to someone else is troubling. Dehumanization is one of the best-kept secrets in military history. Most people have a build in resistance to killing other people. It was discovered long ago that in order to have an effective military, you must dehumanize the enemy (i.e. “Japs” “Charlie” “Commi-bastards”). How many times have we seen Iraqi bodies on TV and not batted an eye? Yet we scream and cry foul when the body of a dead American service member makes the airwaves on Al Jazeera.

 As I read your book it seems like your goal was to make sure the story is told, to make sure people remember these were human beings we’re talking about, not numbers. That is the impression it made upon me. It brought me to reflect a moment on the monumental number of families that were torn apart. Friends, boyfriends, girlfriends, husbands, wives, sisters, brothers, grandmothers, grandfathers, and the innocence of an entire planet were just gone… all done in the name of power. These people left shadows. These people had favorite restaurants, they told funny stories, they gave great hugs, they took first steps, they had bad hair days, they held grandchildren high, they kissed lovers, they had picnics on summer days, and they were murdered. Do we close your book and pause a minute before lying down to sleep? Do we turn the page in our mind and pretend this was “once upon a time”? We will see. As you surmised, history indicates that we will show the social memory of a goldfish.

Powerful book you wrote my friend, powerful indeed. You put a face to the shadows. I’ve traveled the world. I’ve been to some of the places you mentioned. You put a taste on the pages in the history books. We could tell stories for 20 years and never do justice to the events you recalled with such honest clarity. When I think about what we lost in those days I feel the emptiness in my chest expand a bit more. We will never know the true cost we as a society have, and continue to pay. I’ll recommend Scheisshaus Luck to everyone I know. Yours is a powerful story. I hope you’ve found some peace.

 Your Friend,

Justin Mays”

Justin, one of the things that gives me peace these days is finding so many young people like yourself who do care, who really want to make this a better place for everyone on this planet.  And sometimes it is as simple as making sure you’ve educated yourself before choosing the leader of your country.

Scheisshaus Luck’s First Book Event

This Saturday morning Pierre Berg and Brian Brock will be speaking about Scheisshaus Luck at the Upland Library in Upland, California:

Inked & Book-Enders Book Clubs – 10/4/2008

Our guest speaker is Holocaust survivor Pierre Berg. Mr. Berg has co-written with Brian Brock Scheisshaus Luck: Surviving the Unspeakable in Auschwitz and Dora. Mr. Berg’s memoir will be available for purchase and autographs.

Times: 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. (noon)
Location: Carnegie Cultural Center – Great Room/ Upland Library, 460 N. Euclid Avenue, Upland, Ca 91786
Cost: Free
Contact Information: Kathy Bloomberg-Rissman, (909) 931-4205.

Published in: on October 2, 2008 at 12:00 am  Comments (1)  
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Scheisshaus Luck – The Book’s First Review & Scheisshaus Luck Defined

Here is The Kirkus Reviews’ review for Scheisshaus Luck:

“The harrowing story of Berg’s time in Nazi concentration camps, related with “irony, irreverence, and gallows humor” that led co-author Brock to urge him to publish it a half-century after it was written. 

The pair collaborated to amplify and clarify the original manuscript, but retained the cocky voice of a French Resistance member only 18 years old when he was arrested in Nice in late 1943. On a train full of prisoners, Berg met Stella, a pretty Jewish girl with whom he snatched some stolen sex and happiness at the Drancy transit camp near Paris. There he also had the misfortune to encounter the Gestapo agent who had arrested him in Nice; the agent ordered him sent to Auschwitz. But the “shithouse luck” of his book’s title, Berg explains in his preface, meant that he “kept landing on the right side of the randomness of life.” A minor clerical error caused another Häftling (prisoner) to be hung in his stead. Berg got to carry on collecting corpses, digging trenches and cadging the occasional extra ladle of watery soup that sometimes made the difference between life and death. Like other survivors, he graphically recalls the beatings, hunger, sickness, selections, stink, despair and omnipresent death. Berg’s mechanical skill and proficiency in German, English, Italian, Spanish and a bit of Russian, in addition to his native French, contributed to his Scheisshaus luck. The young Häftling was sent to the caves of Dora, where he assembled V-1 and V-2 rockets as a slave of IG Farben. When freedom came, he was caught between the retreating Wehrmacht and the advancing, marauding Red Army. He was searching for Stella, never forgotten during his 18 months in the camps, and the randomness of life proved itself once again.

A worthy supplement to the reports of Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel.”

 

Here Pierre explains what Scheisshaus Luck means, why it is the title of his Holocaust memoir and why in 1948 he began to write about his experiences in the camps.

Scheisshaus Luck’s website is now up and running.  CLICK HERE


Pierre’s memoir is available in select bookstores and on Amazon (35% off).

Published in: on September 30, 2008 at 12:35 am  Leave a Comment  
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Scheisshaus Luck: A Short Introduction To My Memoir

 

 

16 year old Pierre Berg

16 year old Pierre Berg

In 1947, after 18 months in German Concentration camps, I moved from Nice, France to California.  At that time no one in the U.S. really cared about Auschwitz or what would later be termed “the Holocaust.”  So to insure I wouldn’t forget what happen to me I wrote down my odyssey.  I was twenty-one years old.  My mother, bless her heart, typed it up for me.  I spared her many of the more revolting things I saw and went through.  Once finished it sat it in a drawer for over fifty years.

1946

1946

The title of my memoir is Scheisshaus Luck because it was shithouse luck that I survived.

I saw a man’s head caved in with a shovel because he had diarrhea and that is an affront when a Nazi dignitary is making an inspection.

I witnessed men hung for stealing bread to stop their hunger while their Kapos, convicted murderers, rapists and thieves, placed bets on who would die first.  I’ve watched the Sonderkommando unload bodies, then I helped deliver the ashes of what I calculated to be 1200 human beings to women toiling in a cabbage patch.  From the looks of the heads of cabbage we made good fertilizer.

I escaped a selection to Birkenau’s gas chambers because I did a good job washing my blockelster’s shirts. 

I fell asleep in a warehouse and was written up for an escape attempt, but because the man who  tattooed me had a shaking hand, they mistook the 9 for a 3 and  another poor  soul was hung in my place. 

 I celebrated my 20th birthday in Auschwitz.  I carried the body of  Jehovah Witness out of the camp’s brothel.  She had committed suicide  because she couldn’t be anyone’s whore. 

 I barely survived the death march out of Auschwitz and found myself  working on circuit boards for the V2 rockets in Dora.  I did what I could to make sure they didn’t work without getting my neck stretched by the noose. 

I still have a few shards of shrapnel from a Red Army tank shell in my ass. 

I fell in love with a girl in the Paris camp of Drancy before we were shipped to Pitchi Poi.  In Auschwitz I dreamed of reuniting with her, even after I escaped the Nazis and was recuperated in a German village I hoped that I would see Stella again.  But, I had no fairy tale ending.

 

Pierre - 2008

Pierre - 2008

I am a gentile.  I am a Holocaust survivor. I want the skinheads, the neo-Nazis, the Holocaust deniers to come to me and say that the Holocaust is just Jewish propaganda.  I want to help put a cork in the bile they spew.

SCHEISSHAUS LUCK in bookstores September 4th!

Published in: on August 27, 2008 at 8:02 pm  Leave a Comment  
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