REVIEW: Tadeusz Sobolewicz's BUT I SURVIVED-and How to Take the Longer View on Horrors of War, Terror and Torture
By Kevin Stoda, Germany
In 1985, the Polish actor and lifelong volunteer teacher in Polish schools (and in other youth programs), Tadeusz Sobolewicz published his WWII memoir, BUT I SURVIVED. For this well-written tale, Sobolewicz won first prize for the Polish Auschwitz Recollections Collection. However, the book encompasses much more than just giving a witness's description of the horrors of death camps during one of the darkest periods and places in world history.
The non-fiction work also tells both of luck, fate, and selflessness and/or revenge of the survivors. Moreover, the book, BUT I SURVIVED, discusses how one begins to move on from such a past or experience of living as part of a hideous inhumane world order (under some of the worst war criminals one could ever imagine). We need to look into this topic as our world is awash with terror, torture, and wars of occupation. From all these perspectives, I feel the book from Tadeusz Sobolewicz ought to become the cannon of high school and young college history curricula-not just in Germany, but worldwide.
Despite its content, it inspires as much as it depresses while giving the reader a fairly authentic narration-perhaps more so than the biography of Anne Frank has ever done. The difference is that this narrator, Sobolewicz , was just old enough to experience the full moving into adulthood at the time world war broke out.
Tadeusz Sobolewicz was only 17 when the story begins. This means that he went from being a naïve boy scout to becoming an active and on-the-run in a double occupation of his homeland by the Soviet Union and Germany starting in 1939 till 1941. Thereafter, he became a death camp prisoner who survived.
This is because, by 1941, a Polish girl had turned him in, and he was sent off to Auschwitz following months of beatings in a local Polish prison, ran by SS agents. Over the next four years, Sobolewicz lived through hell in 6 death- and work camps in Poland and Germany: These were Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Leipzig, Muelsen, Flossenbuerg, and Regensburg. Meanwhile, his father would die in Auschwitz-almost before the young Sobolewicz's eyes. (His grandfather had been shot to death for helping Jews.) His mother was taken off to Ravensbrueck for the duration of the war. Another cousin had been killed in the infamous Katyn massacre.
In the beginning of his narration, Tadeusz Sobolewicz emphasizes that perhaps "luck and coincidence" is all that had kept him alive throughout his travails. However, this is in a way only partially true as his very narration is full of surprisingly hopeful events and peoples who risk their own security and survival to help others-as he does. In Sobolewicz's narration, often these personages or events pop up just as young Sobolewicz is at his wit's end--and is almost begging to be taken form his misery by the Hand of Death.
Just as in Guenther Grass's novelette, CATS AND MOUSE, set in Gdansk in 1939, Sobolewicz describes a pre-German Occupation world in Poland that was filled with the excitement of a youth growing up. Just months before the September invasion of the Germans, Sobolewicz was training as a boy scout in the same fields where so many Polish soldiers would soon die.
As the German military pushed from the west, millions of Polish mothers and their children hit the road to drive, ride, or march east. Sobolewicz then became the man of the house as the father was off fighting with the Polish military. He and his mother headed to what soon became the Soviet Zone, i.e. in the wake of the Hitler-Stalin Pact. On their way in search of safety from the Germans, the Sobolewicz family witnessed again-and-again Guernica-type horror scenes with horses and farm animals running here and there-and with trucks and railroad yards being bombed along the way before their eye. The family also watched as unprotected cities were attacked again and again by the German blitzkrieg.
In the eastern part of Soviet occupied Poland, Mrs. Sobolewicz had relatives, but after a few months of staying with them and with others from whom she rented property, the Sobolewicz family received word from Tadeusz' father to return to the German occupied zone to the west. After making the dangerous crossing, they rejoined the father, who had become a regional leader in the resistance movement for Poland. Soon young Tadeusz was following his father's footsteps.
However, shortly thereafter, the SS and German occupiers are quickly after Tadeusz and his dad. In order to get the two to turn themselves in, the mother is arrested and sent to a prison in Germany named CampRavensbrueck for women. She stays there for the duration of the war. One year later both Tadeusz and his dad find themselves being tortured in SS-run prisons and finally sent at different times to become political prisoners in one of the Auschwitz camps prior to Christmas of 1941.
Although there were many traitors in Poland aiding (or forced to aid) the occupying forces, even during his days in SS prison and while he had been on the run from the Gestapo as a freedom fighter, Tadeusz always found one or more role models who gave him help or served to tell him how to live and survive. (Tadeusz was always particularly trusting of those who had served in or had led boy scout troops. Even during his years in death- and internment camps, he would seek out fellow former scouts and scout leaders to gain assistance.)
Tadeusz received the number 23053 in Auschwitz. He had heard rumors of the camp and rumors about what awaited him there, but the beatings in prison had been so bad that he had actually looked hopefully to the transport to Auschwitz, where he could at least see the sun. (He had been in a dungeon or cellar of the jail for many months-without ever seeing daylight.)