Mark S. Smith is the author of Treblinka Survivor: The Life and Death of Hershl Sperling. The book tells the story of Hershl Sperling, a man who survived the horrors of the Holocaust, only to take his own life 44 years later. The paperback is due out in the U.S. on May 1 and we spoke to Mark about his inspiration for writing this story, his journey to Poland, Islamism and rising Islamophobia, and genocide education and prevention.
Could you tell us a bit more about Treblinka Survivor: The Life and Death of Hershl Sperling? What inspired you you tell this story?
I began with the idea that I wanted to write something about anti-Semitism. Few Jews over the past two millennia have not been subjected to this vile phenomenon that is so deeply ingrained in European and more recently Middle Eastern cultures. I have been at the receiving end of it many times and so has my family, and I wanted to stick my oar in.
I have always held the view, perhaps best expressed by Holocaust survivor and writer Primo Levi: “I can’t bear how a man can be judged not for what he is but because of the group to which he happens to belong.”
History teaches us that the consequences of hatred and discrimination are murderous and genocidal – 800,000 slain in Rwanda, two million Cambodians, 450,000 in Darfur, a million Armenians, six million Jews. An estimated four million Africans died chained in the belly of slave vessels en route to America. The list is continuous, the suffering incalculable, extending from the remotest days of human life to the present and forward into the future. Anti-Semitism, the theme of my book, is but one manifestation of evil. Yet it transfixes me – not only because I am a Jew, but also because it expresses the senseless self-loathing of Mankind. I wanted to analyze it and understand it, and, naively, cure it.
I read volumes on the subject. I learned of the origins of anti-Semitism during the early days of Christianity, whose Gospels – violently anti-Jewish and political in nature – placed exceptional blame on the Jews for the death of Jesus. Their motive, conveniently circumventing the fact that Jesus died a Roman death on the cross, was self-interest – to demonstrate that the Christians had not shared Jewish disloyalty towards Rome during the revolt of 70AD. The words of the Gospels have had terrible consequences for Jews through the centuries. The attacks in the Koran are no less brutal for Jewish refusal to recognize Muhammad as a prophet. Muslims who cite these abuses to vindicate their own anti-Semitism disregard other Koranic passages which show respect for Jews and preach tolerance. I also saw how anti-Jewish vitriol through the ages – both Christian and Muslim – had been used by religious and political leaders to manipulate the herd. For many months, I churned my theme in my head, but I was a writer without a story.
Then, one day in 2005, while the world was commemorating the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, my deliberations came to an end. I have been a journalist for more than a quarter of a century, and I recognize a good story when I see one. I was on the phone with Hershl’s son, my friend, Sam, in London.
Sam said: “You remember what my father used to say, ‘Auschwitz was nothing. Auschwitz was a walk in the park.’”
It was a jarring remark. And I wondered how make sense of the pain of a man who felt “Auschwitz was nothing.”
I had known Hershl Sperling very well when I was a teenager. After all, he was my friend’s father. His death in 1989, a suicide from a bridge in the Scottish city of Glasgow, had shocked me. Suddenly, I saw him on that bridge and I was struck by the recollection of the blue-black number on his arm, his tattoo. He had survived almost everything the Nazis could throw at him – blitzkrieg, the ghetto, prison camps, work camps, concentration camps, death camps, death marches. He also survived Treblinka, the most murderous place on earth. Of the roughly one million souls who were transported there to die, Hershl Sperling was among 68 who survived. What had possessed him to take his own life almost fifty years later?