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Interview with Mark S. Smith, Author of Treblinka Survivor: The Life and Death of Hershl Sperling

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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.” 

Treblinka Survivor by Mark S Smith coverHistory 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? 

Then Sam asked: “Did you know my father wrote a book after liberation?” I hadn’t known. 

“Have you read the book?” I asked. 

He hadn’t. It wasn’t until months later, after tracking down the work in an antiquarian bookshop in Jerusalem and getting it translated from the original Yiddish, that I discovered Hershl had, in fact, written just a part in this book, titled From the Last Extermination. His contribution, however, was called simply “Treblinka”. Only after reading it did I begin to understand the riddle of his suicide. In Treblinka, the most gruesome and efficient death machine ever known, the horror of Mankind’s self-loathing plunged to a terrifying nadir. 

So, I began with anti-Semitism and end up writing the story of my friend’s father.

In the book, you mentioned that Hershl’s sons found it difficult to answer the questions that you needed to ask them.  Now that some time has passed, how does Hershl’s family feel about the book and its success?

I know they are pleased their father’s story did not disappear into history and that his testimony, his own words, was published for the first time in English as an appendix to my book. 

You researched the material for this book extensively, travelling to both Poland and America. If you look back on the process of writing your book, is there anything that you regret or that you wished had turned out differently?

This is a complicated question that needs to be answered at a number of levels. Hmm… the writing process. As I have mentioned, I began with the idea that I wanted to write something about anti-Semitism and consequences of racial hatred when it is manipulated and fanned for the purpose of controlling the herd. However, I really did not know my story until speaking with Sam, the son of the man who would eventually become the subject of my book. But the process of writing itself, the creation of the work beyond its basic structure, is mysterious to me. I had a sense of how I wanted it to be, what I wanted it to say and the effect I wanted it to have on the reader. Beyond that, it wrote itself, so I cannot truly say that regret any part of it or wish it turned out differently. I suspect it turned the way it was supposed to turn out.

In terms of information, however, there were things that came to light after the book was published, which I would have liked to include, had the timing been different.

There have been several significant developments since the book was published.

Hershl Sperling after liberation

The first occurred several months after the book was published. I received a letter from the coroner who had been on duty the day Hershl’s body was brought in. He had read my book and said he believed that Hershl had been in the water for perhaps several days. This contradicts the assertion of George Parsonage, the Glasgow Humane Society’s lifeboat officer, who had pulled Hershl’s body from the river into his rowboat. The coroner’s contention raises the possibility that Hershl may not have spent as long wandering the streets of the city as we originally thought. If true, that means Hershl’s suffering at the end was less, and I am glad about that. 

The second significant development has come from the recent work of British forensic archaeologist Caroline Sturdy Colls, who has unearthed fresh evidence to prove the existence of mass graves at the Nazi death camp Treblinka – scuppering the claims of Holocaust deniers who say it was merely a transit camp. The lack of physical evidence in the area has been exploited by Holocaust deniers, but the work of Caroline Sturdy Colls confirms Hershl’s story and testimony, even to those haters who continue to deny and would rather it weren’t true.

Could you tell us a bit more about your journey to Poland, to the areas that used to be Jewish but from which Jews had disappeared?

There is so much to tell and certainly not enough space here. I have been trying desperately to understand Poland without Jews. I travelled all over Poland while conducting research for the book. There have been Jews in Poland since the times of the first Crusade in the 11th century. 

Although my immediate family were not connected with Poland, the name on my maternal side, Kaminsky, has Polish roots. So Poland is in my blood.

At the same time, Poland is an integral part of Jewish history, my history.  There is no such thing as Jewish culture without Polish culture, and conversely there is no Polish culture without Jewish culture. I find it ironic that Jews first came to Poland because of its relative tolerance. Here they had their own language, religion, literature, music and even laws.

By the end of the 18th century, more than 70% of the world’s Jews lived in Poland. A visitor to to almost any small town or city in Poland for several centuries could not walk 10 feet down the street without bumping into a Jew.

Do you have any views on rising Islamophobia in Europe?

There is a striking photograph held in the archives of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC, which was also used as the back cover of the paperback edition of my book, which is coming out in the U.S. on May 1. It shows a smirking German soldier lining up a group of Jews during the round up in the Polish city of Czestochowa. Almost certainly, none of the Jews in that picture survived. What fascinates me most is the look on this soldier’s face. It encapsulates that vicious strand in European culture which has stigmatised, persecuted, and murdered whoever could be categorised as different. This tradition in Christian Europe — and by extension in the U.S. — found perfect expression for its unquestioning superiority in its anti-Semitism and in its racism. While the Holocaust was a unique historical event, the racism and anti-Semitism that motivated it continue to flourish. Islamophobia is the latest manifestation.  Clearly, most Muslims are not terrorists. 

However, there is something else I’d like to say here, because while Islamophobia may have its roots in European prejudice, the picture since September 11, 2001 has become far more complex. Islamism, which I regard as an Islamic version of Nazism, has become a major force not just in Islam but in the non-Islamic world. In many ways I feel Islam and Islamism are opposites. 

Let me make my position clear. I have enormous respect for Muhammad, who was without doubt a unique and luminous individual. He was a warrior, a sovereign, a revolutionary and a sage. He was a great man by any standards. His achievements were huge and judging by the astonishing legacy he left behind in terms of the culture and the system of belief he set in motion, he is certainly one of the most extraordinary men to have ever lived. I have enormous respect for Mohammad and for Islam, and for the numerous benefits both have bestowed upon mankind. 

In the decade that has followed 9/11, we have heard much about a so-called civil war within Islam, between moderate, life-loving Muslims and Islamism. Well, until the Arab Spring, it seemed the civil war was over and the Islamists had won. Until recently, it seemed moderates were silent. Now they are speaking again, it places like Tunisia. This is progress not just for Tunisia, but for the world. 

So, although I have enormous respect for Muhammad and Islam, I have zero respect for Islamism and the the followers of al Qaeda, which of course feeds Islamophobia in Europe. We can hardly be expected to respect Islamism, an ideology that calls only for our deaths here in the West. Islamism is as self-loathing as anti-Semitism and all racial discrimination, but it is also loaded with self-pity and self deception. Populations should always beware of political parties that have their roots its hatred and division, such as Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. Anyone who doubts the aims of this group, should read history for themselves. Despite their place in the Arab Spring and attempts to be viewed as moderates, they are wolves in sheep’s clothing and I am not afraid to say that they will promote further Islamophobia around the world and, to some extent, rightly so.

In your book, you mention the genocides in Rwanda, Srebrenica and Darfur which I especially appreciated given my interest in those situations. Do you have anything else to say about those situations?

Let me start with this… I know that my friend’s father tumbled from that bridge at least partly because the trauma of Treblinka had become a part of his very being and he could never be cured, but I suspect also that he understood the world could not be cured either.

By this I mean that there must be hundreds of thousands of Hershl Sperlings in places like Darfur, Rwanda, Cambodia, Iraq and Afghanistan, people whose families have been murdered and whose emotions have been lacerated and brutalized, and whose suffering did not end when the news stopped.

Do you think that enough is done to discuss and prevent genocide?

I don’t believe we can ever stop people behaving savagely toward one another. The herd can always be manipulated. But I believe that more we understand this human phenomenon, the greater our chances of reducing it.

Anti-Semitism and racism in general are diseases passed from one generation to another. Yet the optimist in me knows that no child is born an anti-Semite or a racist. I paraphrase others when I say I do not know what a Jew is – or for that matter a Christian, a Chinese, a Muslim or even a Pygmy – I recognize only human beings. It occurs to me that every time we resist hatred and each time we teach tolerance to our children, we make the future of the world that much better. 

I put this idea to Sam, Hershl’s son. He sighed and said: “I think that’s too much to hope for.”

Thank you to Mark for taking the time to participate in this interview and for the incredibly detailed responses.  Read the Blogcritics review at: Book Review: Treblinka Survivor: The Life and Death of Hershl Sperling by Mark S. SmithYou can purchase the paperback of Treblinka Survivor at Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk.

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About Mandy Southgate

Mandy Southgate is a blogger, serial expat and eternal tourist living and working in London. Aside from writing at Blogcritics, she blogs about travel and London at Emm in London, entertainment and media at Addicted to Media and war crimes, genocide and social justice over at A Passion to Understand.
  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/gordon-hauptfleisch Gordon Hauptfleisch

    Excellent interview, Mandy – both Q & A. An incisive and haunting account. Thanks.

  • http://passiontounderstand.blogspot.com/ Mandy Southgate

    Thank you Gordon. This excellent book stayed with me for months after reading it and I was very pleased when the author agreed to answer some of my additional questions.

  • Heloise

    I am always looking for a good book on survivors. He mentions Primo who also killed himself by jumping out of a window after surviving death camps. This is a long article will read though and tweet later. thanks

    PS: Genocide can never be fixed or cured it will always be.

    Heloise

  • http://passiontounderstand.blogspot.com/ Mandy Southgate

    Heloise, I did not know that about Primo Levi although something tells me I really should have known! How terrible, I have just been reading about it. As Elie Wiesel is quoted as saying, he died at Auschwitz, only 40 years later.

    If you are looking for a good book on survivors, I cannot recommend this one highly enough. It was riveting and remains with me over a year after I finished reading it.

    I disagree with you about genocide. It is a complex thing but a lot of time and energy goes into the systematic planning and execution of a genocide. We need to put as much effort into counteracting it. Perhaps in our lifetime, we will not know whether genocide can be “cured”, but we can identify the warning signs and take action; we can educate people on tolerance and coexistence; we can talk about the Holocaust and Rwanda, Srebrenica and Darfur; and we can continue our work in genocide prevention and education regardless.