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Treblinka Survivor: The Life and Death of Hershl Sperling

af Mark S. Smith

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523403,464 (4.29)1
In 'Treblinka Survivor', Mark S. Smith traces the life of a man who survived five concentration camps. Hershl Sperling's story - which takes the reader from his childhood in a small Polish town to his suicide in Scotland 50 years later - is testament to the lasting abuse suffered by those who survived the Nazis.… (mere)
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This was an incredibly challenging book to read. Not because of the author’s writing (which causes me to abandon many nonfiction books on a regular basis), but because of the triple narrative that bound the story together. The author pairs the story of Hershl’s life pre-, during-, and post-war with his own journey of research into Sperling’s life (going to visit many places in Poland and Germany where Sperling lived or was imprisoned by the Nazis, contacting researchers and museums, and discussing with Hershl’s sons the enigma that was their father), which serves to emphasize the horror of Sperling’s experience and trauma alongside that of the reader’s discovery of his story. In some ways this softens the abject horror of some of the experiences, since we see the happiness that Hershl found after the war in his marriage, but throughout the tone of sadness never seems to abate as we are brought back time and again to the fact that he never really managed to come to terms with Treblinka. And how could he, considering what occurred there and the role he was forced to take. We can only read his testimony, discover his story, and that of other survivors, and work towards never allowing the same kind of atrocities to occur again. ( )
  JaimieRiella | Feb 25, 2021 |
The book is repetitive at times, but it is well researched and shows the author’s deep attachment to the Sperling family. Although Mr. Smith’s conclusions are basically only suppositions because few facts are available, he does lead the reader on a logical and straightforward path as he presents a fount of historic information about the annihilation of the Polish Jews, and although he cannot walk in Hershl’s shoes in order to better understand Hershl’s destiny, the author attempts to follow the road he must have taken. This question haunts him in his exploration: Why would someone who worked so hard to survive throughout the war under the most horrific conditions, finally choose to take his own life? Hershl never found a way to adequately deal with or vent his own anger or work out his need for retribution for what Hitler put him through. Was suicide his ultimate expression of anger? The book then begs the question: Did Hitler actually win?
While the memory of the Holocaust continues for the few remaining survivors, the legacy of the Holocaust and keeping its memory alive, falls on the shoulders of their offspring, and it sometimes becomes too great a burden, even for them to bear. Few Jews escaped from either the experience or the memory of the Holocaust.
As I read the book, I was somewhat uncomfortable by what seemed to be the author’s over identification with Hershl’s experience. I began to feel as if it was his travelogue rather than a search for the reasons behind Hershl’s suicide. To me, that seemed to trivialize Herschl’s experience and glorify his own. Then I remonstrated because as a Jew, I thought I should try to absorb the message before I chose to criticize the writer’s style.
Many, including myself, have sometimes expressed the feeling that the topic of the Holocaust has been exhausted and we have read enough about it, but if we give in to our feelings of exhaustion on the subject, how can we expect others of different religions and different cultures to continue to educate themselves about it. Although sometimes I am tired of the subject, I do always discover some new horrifying fact, some new horrifying way Jews were humiliated and abused in every book I read. We, who are not mad, can never understand what was in the hearts and minds of those demented sadists who happily performed their vicious duty to Hitler’s cause, but if we choose to put it in the past and forget, will history repeat itself? With today’s current attacks on Jews it does no seem like such a far fetched idea any longer.
Perhaps these Holocaust books need to be read strictly for the information and historical content, exclusive of the emotional impact, to lessen our own personal exhaustion with the subject. There is always something else out there that we did not know about the genocide’s execution. The Jews in Germany and Poland, wherever, could not imagine what would take place and they let their guard down. Today there is a similar attitude of disbelief and they are often their own worst enemies by supporting causes that are not in their best interests and leaders that could not care less about their needs or standards. We have infantilized our children in this modern generation. They do not have to be responsible for themselves until they are well into their twenties, forget being 15 and separated from all those you love. One has to wonder if today’s young people could ever survive what Jews were subjected to, during WWII. ( )
  thewanderingjew | Jan 16, 2015 |
A combination memoir and biography. As a child the author, Mark Smith, was friends with the sons of Hershl Sperling. Hershl, at fifteen, was one of less than 100 or so people to come out alive from the Treblinka Extermination Camp, where almost a million people were killed, including his entire family. After Treblinka he passed through a series of Nazi camps and with ingenuity, courage and a lot of luck, survived them all. He had in my opinion one of the worst Holocaust experiences I have EVER heard of, and that's saying a lot, given all I've read on the subject. After the war he went on to marry a fellow Holocaust survivor, have children, and live a "normal" life. Yet as he grew older, Treblinka came back with a vengeance, taking hold of him, poisoning his thoughts. Forty years after the war, he committed suicide.

This is a brilliant biography and I believe it shows the "whole man." Smith had to do a lot of research into Hershl's life, and he also interviewed his sons extensively and traveled to Poland to see it all for himself. He doesn't just talk about Hershl but also records his own feelings and experiences as he researched and wrote this sad story. I ached for Hershl, ached for his family, ached for Mark Smith as well. This is a cliche, but it's difficult to describe how this book made me feel. This is one of the very few books I've read that brought tears to my eyes.

I should add that in the back of the book is an account in Hershl's own words, written shortly after the war, that describes his experiences in Treblinka, the rebellion there, and his escape.

Reading about his mental deterioration after the war, his suicide seems inevitable. I remember in 1984, O'Brien told Winston something like, "Things will happen to you that you will never, ever get over, no matter how long you live." And so it was with Hershl. He wasn't the only Treblinka survivor to take his own life.

I think it would be an interesting project to compare Hershl and other survivors who committed suicide, with survivors who did not commit suicide. Szymon Srebrnik, for instance, was about the same age as Hershl when he went through many of the same experiences at the Chelmno Extermination Camp, but he died of natural causes at 76. I think it would be useful to history and to psychology to figure out the differences there. ( )
  meggyweg | Apr 16, 2011 |
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In 'Treblinka Survivor', Mark S. Smith traces the life of a man who survived five concentration camps. Hershl Sperling's story - which takes the reader from his childhood in a small Polish town to his suicide in Scotland 50 years later - is testament to the lasting abuse suffered by those who survived the Nazis.

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