Title: Memoirs of a Survivor
Author: George Sten
Publisher: Self Published
Place of publication: Sydney
Year of Publication: 1996
Location of Book: Rare Books Collection, Sir Louis Matheson Library, Monash University Clayton Campus
Cities/town/camps: Poland: Lvov, Luck, Tomaszow Mazowiecki, Warsaw, Milanowek, Majdanek, Russia: Smolensk, Vilniuss
Note: those cities/towns/camps underlined are those which are most central to the narrative
George Sten’s Memoirs of a Survivor tell the story of a Polish Jew who survived World War Two by pretending to be a Catholic Pole, ultimately joining the partisans and fighting the Germans. The 82 page book (81 pages of narrative, one page of photos) describes Sten’s experiences from the German invasion of Lvov in 1941 until the end of the war. Pages 1- 20 tell of the Germans’ arrival in Lvov and Sten’s escape to his hometown of Tomaszow Mazowiecki, where he moves into the Jewish ghetto. Pages 20-39 relate Sten’s decision to escape the ghetto and his subsequent life in Warsaw, Smolensk and Vilnius disguised as an ‘Aryan’. On pages 40-67, Sten describes his experiences in the Home Army partisan group. Finally, pages 68-81 tell of Sten’s time in the Polish Peoples’ Army until the end of the war. The book was published late in Sten’s life, in 1996.
Originally from Tomaszow Mazowiecki, George Sten moved in September 1939 from there to Luck, eastern Poland, in order to escape the Germans. In the summer of 1941, his family relocated to Lvov, where Sten graduated from high school. When the Germans invade, violence breaks out in Lvov; hundreds of Jews are killed by Ukrainian militiamen, and Sten’s step-father is arrested and taken away. Sten is able to move around the streets freely – despite the danger to most Jews – due to an error in his Soviet-administered passport, which identifies his nationality as ‘Polish’ rather than ‘Jewish’.
As a result of the violence in Lvov, Sten, his mother and his grandmother decide to sneak back across to their hometown, Tomaszow. By now under German rule for some time, the Jews of Tomaszow have already been confined to a ghetto. Sten describes the conditions there as a “nightmare” in comparison to those in Soviet-occupied Lvov, which he had previously thought were awful. Upon hearing rumours about the death camps and the imminent liquidation of the ghetto, Sten escapes to Warsaw. He manages to help his mother escape too, but his grandmother is unable to join them, as she cannot walk. The ghetto was indeed cleared of its inhabitants days after their escape, in October 1942.
Sten obtains false papers identifying him as a Polish Catholic, and finds employment in a German-run firm, with the help of a ‘protector’ who remains unnamed. Living disguised as a Pole, Sten moves from place to place and from job to job, leaving each as he suspects that his identity may be compromised. During the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, he has “conscience problems”, and considers going into the ghetto to join the fighters. His protector tells him not to – it will make no difference, he says, except that you will die, even though “all decent Poles sympathise with them.” Eventually, Sten moves to Smolensk to work for the Germans there, and then in November 1943, with the Russians advancing, he is relocated to Vilnius.
In Vilnius, Sten finally puts into action his previous thoughts about joining the underground. After making contact with Home Army partisans, he and a friend are successful in joining them. He describes in depth the time he spends with the Home Army – learning to use a gun, killing his first German, and slowly becoming an ‘experienced’ partisan fighter. As a partisan, Sten says, he did fear for his life, but he did not feel the same “soul-destroying” fear that he had felt in Warsaw and in the ghetto.
Sten rises through the ranks of the partisans, ending up as a platoon leader. He never divulges his Jewish identity, and he witnesses much anti-Semitism amongst his group. His colleagues are annoyed when they hear praise for Jews on the British radio channels on the one-year anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. On another occasion, Sten witnesses a group of volunteering Jews being turned away by his commander, though his unit has French, Dutch and Austrian members. Nevertheless, Sten remains with the partisans, determined to fight the Germans.
When the Red Army liberates Vilnius, they soon begin arresting officers of the Home Army. Sten escapes with two friends, and soon joins the Polish Peoples’ Army, once again allowing him to fight the Germans. During this time he is taken to Majdanek, where he sees the gas chambers for the first time. In May 1945, Sten is jubilant upon hearing about the surrender of the Germans, but he remains in the army until September 1945.
George Sten’s memoir is descriptive, articulate and reflective. Sten tries to convey not just the physical difficulties that he faced, but also the unique forms of despair and frustration which he felt in the harsh circumstances that he faced. “It is very hard to describe,” he states at one point. “It is not easy to understand”. Nevertheless, Sten manages to articulate – as best as one can – the tumults of the long years of the war that changed his life forever. “It had been a long journey for me,” he says, “in 1939 I could not make tea, and in 1944 I was carrying out executions.”