Holocaust tale that's also story of coming back to life

December 21, 2007

Jean-Marc Dreyfus lecturer, Holocaust Studies, Manchester University.

When two young men met in Auschwitz, they did not know they would survive the horrors of the Nazi concentration camp and begin a lifelong friendship, writes Chloe Stothart.

Neither could they have predicted that one of them would go on to become an internationally renowned writer who would immortalise their relationship in print.

The two men were Primo Levi, the author, and his friend Jean Samuel, who was Pikolo in Levi's memoir If This Is a Man.

Now, 20 years after Levi's death, Samuel has told his own story - to Manchester University academic Jean-Marc Dreyfus.

Dreyfus, who recently joined Manchester as a lecturer in Holocaust studies and will begin teaching in February, was the man to whom Samuel chose to tell his tale. The book, He Called Me Pikolo, was published in France in September and a deal to print it in Italian is being drawn up.

Before Samuel felt able to ask Dreyfus to write the book, the two men had met several times - in a bookshop where Samuel was giving a talk, at the Israeli Holocaust remembrance centre Yad Vashem where Dreyfus worked, and in their home town of Strasbourg.

Dreyfus says: "In Strasbourg, he said he wanted to show me something and he produced the letters of Levi, the books and documents and everything he had.

"Later, I was about to leave, and at the very last moment he asked if I would like to write the book with him." Samuel, now 85 years old and one of a dwindling number of Holocaust survivors, wanted to record his testimony.

The book tells the story of Samuel and Levi's friendship which began with their meeting during an Allied air raid on Auschwitz when the SS guards took shelter but the Jewish inmates were forbidden from doing so - a situation that gave the unsupervised prisoners a rare chance to socialise. It goes on to recount Samuel's harrowing experiences in the camp, including some that he had never made public before. Samuel describes the stoning to death of a young man who was one of the "kapos", or chief inmates who carried out the orders of their SS supervisors.

"You have the impression being a historian of Auschwitz that you know the depths of it, but then you have a description of something unthinkable," Dreyfus recalls, his voice quiet. "When you deal with a witness, the distance you could have dealing only with archives disappears."

The experience was painful for both of them, he says. Sometimes he felt as if he were forcing Samuel to speak, and there were some events that the older man was simply unable to talk about.

The book also goes on to cover how Samuel was sent on the "death march" to Buchenwald as the Russians closed in on Poland, while the sick Levi was left in Auschwitz and later liberated by the Americans. It recounts how they got back in touch through fellow survivors, their lifelong correspondence about their lives, experiences and about Levi's books, as well as Samuel's life after release.

"It is also a story of coming back to life," says Dreyfus.

Dreyfus's other research interests include the history of Alsace and memorialisation of the Holocaust. At Manchester, he will teach undergraduate courses on the Holocaust and on the university's new MA in Holocaust studies.

He was drawn to Manchester because of the paucity of lectureships in Holocaust studies elsewhere. Previously he taught at the Institute for Political Sciences in Paris and at the University of Freiburg in Germany. He has also been a guest scholar at Yad Vashem and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. He holds a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard University and studied for his history degree and PhD at the Sorbonne (University of Paris I). He also spent two years working in the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs on the international task force for Holocaust education.

His forthcoming projects include a study of how European diplomats dealt with the aftermath of the Holocaust, including the issues of Nazi gold held by the Bank of England and compensation to Holocaust victims.

Dreyfus said the experience of working with Samuel will have a lasting influence on his research. He has had experience of interviewing witnesses before, but thinks such testimony will play an even greater role in his work from now on.

I GRADUATED FROM

the Sorbonne (University of Paris I) with a degree in history and a PhD

MY FIRST JOB

was sweeping my uncles' stables in the Alsatian village where my family comes from. I also produced a CD-Rom on the Warsaw ghetto for a multimedia company in my university holidays

MY MAIN CHALLENGE

is trying to understand a little bit more of the complexity and darkness of the 20th century

IN TEN YEARS

I would like to be teaching in a 'good' university and writing my books

MY FAVOURITE JOKE

The CEO of a globalised Anglo-Saxon bank dies and goes to Paradise. He rings the bell, and the Devil opens the door.

The CEO is surprised and asks: "Isn't this Paradise?" "Sure," answers the Devil, "but we merged."

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