As American troops pushed into Germany at the close of World War II, they came upon a weird sight: a scrawny 16-year-old looking quite as awful as a 16-year-old would who had just escaped from a death camp after four years of imprisonment. "Hi, kid," said the GIs. "Heil Rosevelt," replied the kid. The GIs adopted him at once.
The boy, Samuel Pisar, drunk with freedom and able to think of life only in terms of death, became a daredevil motorcyclist and, with his Auschwitz chums, Nico and Ben, a minor hood and black-marketeer.
The story might have ended there, and badly. But an uncle from Paris tracked him down and, expecting to find a pathetic little creature, found instead a cool-eyed delinquent wearing a gold watch (the uncle quickly put away the steel watch he had brought as a gift) and smoking Lucky Strikes. He was sent to another uncle in Australia where, with a rage to learn as strong as had been his rage to survive, he went through the equilalent of six years of school in two years. Harvard was the next stop where, not content with a brilliant law degree, he went on to earn a rarely pursued doctrate of juridical science.
Today, Samuel Pisar is a multilingual international lawyer, a U.S. citizen by Special Act of Congress who is based in Paris, where he has a splendid clientele, a fine home and the highest connections. He is a member of the bar in the District of Columbia and California as well as in London and Paris. He is a soft-spoken and controlled man, not given to overstatement. But the word he uses about his transformation from delinquent to scholar is redemption.
"I realized when I came out of all that I had not saved myself. Physically, I was breathing but I had a feeling that the system had programmed my destruction. There were no restrictions, no moral code, no responsibilities. It could have turned out badly. I realized if I was to have some sort of revenge on what Hitler had done to my family, my classmates, I had to redeem myself. I really was lost. It was harder to undertake that moral and intellectual survival than animal survival."
Samuel Pisar has been much in the French news recently. His memoirs have just been published by Laffont and, by coincidence, they appeared at the same time as "Holocaust" was so tumultuously shown on French TV. Naturally, Pisar has been asked to comment. "It is a great film," he says of "Holocust." "It's true even if ti's fiction."
His book is called "Le Sang de L'Espoir." Hope, for him is clearly not an ethereal thing with feathers but something that can be born of violence and that, if it is to have any meaning, courses with life.
"Hope had to have blood, but it took me a long time to find the right mixture," he say. "I did not want to convey a hopeless message because I am fundamentally optimistic. I believe man will survive. I wanted hope and I wanted blood because it is a way of giving meaning to those lives that were cut down. We can draw a lot from that horror."
Indeed, only about one-third of the book is devoted to Auschwitz. The main theme is how such an experience can prepare one for facing and finding solutions to current world problems. The French politician and academician, Edgar Faure, headlined his front-page review of Pisar's book in Le Figaro, "Resurrection and Apostolate."
As a boy in Bialystok, Poland, Pisar had been an indifferent student. "My grandmother always said I would come to no good." Arrested at 12, he was the only member of his immediate family to survive. "I was just old enough to have a small chance of survival and young enough to have a new life after," he says. Nico, his Auschwitz friend and protector, was 28 when he was arrested and never adjusted to normal life. Ben, Pisar's contemporary, did but was always anxious. ("When he came to stay with me in Paris, he would always see if the refrigerator was full before he went to bed. He couldn't sleep otherwise.") Both Nico and Ben died at 48. Pisar began to write his book.
"I never talked about Auschwitz with anyone. The first time was when Giscard invited me to go there with him in 1975. He didn't know about my past. It was the first time I turned and faced it. I hadn't wanted to look back."
He accepted the invitation of French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing, a longtime friend, because of the Yom Kippur war. "I don't feel anti-Arab one bit, but I cannot be indifferent to Israel because so many of my campmates went there because they had no other place to go. Emotionally, I was troubled by French policy, which had become increasingly oil-oriented, understandably. I though as long as Giscard was going and wanted to say 'Never Again' in this cursed place where all of mine had perished-say it to the Russians, to the Arabs, everyone-I wanted to help him say it. I felt it was my duty to go."
Today, Pisar describes himself as a perfectly adjusted, well-integrated man with a capacity to adapt to any world. He is careful always to finish what is on his plate and used to dream a lot about Auschwitz, but that they come to get you, they come to get your children."
Olaf Palme called Pisar the post-national and post-ideological man, and the aim of Pisar's book is not to dwell on the past but to extrapolate from his experience lessons that can serve on a global scale. All the problems, he argues, that the world now faces existed in the hideous microcosm of the prison camp.
"I believe in man's infinite capacity to survive and to invent," he says.
Perhaps no one is better equipped to discuss the future than a man who has come back from the dead. "I feel that unless a stand is taken we can find ourselves on the verge of moral collapse. And this time with out redemption," he says.
There are things about Auschwitz that he misses. "This may sound perverse, but I do, very often. I miss that friendship with Nico and Ben. Everything was so black and white, so pure. It is difficult to live that sort purity in our culture. There was something honorable amid all that degradation and madness."
Is there anything he would like to forget? "Nothing. Not one thing," he says. CAPTION: Picture 1, and 2, Samuel Pisar as a youth and today