Obituary: Samuel Pisar, lawyer and holocaust survivor

Samuel Pisar: Holocaust survivor who moved an Edinburgh Festival audience to tears last year. Picture: Getty

Samuel Pisar: Holocaust survivor who moved an Edinburgh Festival audience to tears last year. Picture: Getty

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Born: 18 March, 1929, in Bialystok, Poland. Died: 27 July, 2015 in Manhattan, New York City, aged 86

SAMUEL Pisar, who was ten when he entered the Holocaust and 16 when he was liberated by an American tank battalion, moved his Edinburgh Festival audience to tears at the Usher Hall a year ago when he narrated the Jewish mourning prayer, the Kaddish, to a symphony by his fellow Jew Leonard Bernstein. At Bernstein’s request, Pisar had written lyrics to the symphony as a Holocaust Oratorio, which reflected Pisar’s years as a boy in the Nazi extermination camps of Auschwitz, Dachau, Majdanek and Sachsenhausen. His father had been murdered by the Gestapo and his mother and little sister were gassed in the camps.

At the Usher Hall last August, when he was 85, he was accompanied by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, conducted by the American John Axelrod, and by the Edinburgh Festival Chorus and the National Youth Choir of Scotland’s red-clad National Girls Choir led by Christopher Bell. The ensemble, and particularly Pisar, received a 15-minute standing ovation. Pilar said his recitals made him feel he was “saying Kaddish for all the six million”.

Bernstein had written the symphony and his own lyrics in memory of President John F Kennedy after his 1963 assassination.

But shortly before the great conductor died in 1990, he asked his dear friend Pisar to write new and stronger lyrics to reflect not only the tragedy of the Holocaust but the hope which drove the survivors.

Bernstein did not live to hear the new text, first performed to the backing of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 2003 and given added poignancy by America’s mourning of the 9/11 victims two years earlier.

Polish-born Pisar was a globally known lawyer based in New York and Paris, a foreign economic policy advisor to president John F Kennedy, the longtime lawyer and confidant of posthumously disgraced publisher Robert Maxwell, a lifelong supporter of human rights and a friend and advisor to French presidents François Mitterrand and Valéry Giscard d’Estaing.

He remained close to US presidents, including Barack Obama, for the rest of his life and represented movie stars including Elizabeth Taylor and corporate executives such as Steve Jobs. He also served as chief counsel to the International Olympic Committee and helped Sydney, Australia, a nation he had come to love, get the 2000 Olympic Games. He was an honorary ambassador for Unesco.

Pisar was one of the last people to speak to Maxwell, by phone, probably an hour before the chairman of Mirror Group Newspapers fell off his luxury yacht the Lady Ghislaine on 5 November, 1991.

“He had dined onshore in Santa Cruz (Tenerife), seemed his normal, confident self and discussed plans and appointments,” Pisar said. “He had planned to travel to London the following day and told his son Ian on the phone that he would see him tomorrow.”

Pisar attended the subsequent inquest in Madrid, which found that the publisher’s death was most likely caused by a heart attack and accidental drowning although conspiracy theorists maintain to this day he may have been murdered, something his family had at first contemplated but later rejected.

Pisar expressed shock when he learned, after the publishing magnate’s death, of his embezzlement of pension funds from his own Mirror Group.

Samuel Pisar was born on 18 March, 1929 in Bialystok, Poland, and was ten when the city was invaded by the Nazis in September 1939.

Young Sam, as he was always known, his little sister Frieda and his mother Helaina Suchowolski Pisar were taken immediately to concentration camps.

In his autobiography Of Blood and Hope, first published in 1979 and affirming the triumph of the human spirit, Pisar described how he got through the Holocaust through quick-wittedness, trickery and pitilessness – even to his fellow Jewish inmates.

When he was picked to die in the gas chambers, he grabbed an abandoned cleaning bucket and scrubbed the floor past the guards and back to his camp hut.

After the war, he maintained these “bad habits”, as he called them, to become a black marketeer and self-described “hooligan” in the American-occupied zone of Germany.

He sold American Lucky Strike cigarettes and coffee, stolen from the occupying troops, to German citizens, eventually earning enough to ride around on a BMW motorbike.

An aunt in Paris helped get him to Australia “to mend his reckless ways” and he later confessed: “If I had stayed in Europe, I might have become a terrorist or gangster.”

He got a Bachelor of Laws degree from the University of Melbourne in 1953 before moving to the US for a Doctorate of Law from Harvard (where he first met former student JFK).

“There was a strange cohabitation within me of these two disparate human beings,” he once said. “The little feral child – sunken eyes, shaved head, skeletal – and suddenly the scholar who is pretending to compete as if he had a normal childhood and education.”

He later went to Paris for a further doctorate from the Sorbonne and his life thereafter became a pendulum between the US and France. In 1961, he was granted American citizenship through an Act of Congress and in 1974 was short-listed for the Nobel Peace Prize.

The man whose concentration camp number remained tattooed on his arm throughout his life was also named Grand Officer of the French Legion of Honour by then President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2012, an honorary officer of the Order of Australia (AO) by the Queen and a commander of Poland’s Order of Merit.

Samuel Pisar died of pneumonia after a stroke. He is survived by his second wife Judith, their daughter Leah, who worked in the White House for Bill Clinton, and daughters Helaina and Alexandra from his first marriage to Norma Pisar.

His stepson Tony Blinken is deputy US Secretary of State and former deputy national security adviser to President Obama.

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