The Art of Survival by Maurice Blik
A half-starved boy is sitting on the floor of a cold wooden hut, full of emaciated adults and children barely clinging to life. A female SS camp guard storms into the building in her jackboots, a pistol strapped to her waist and a fierce-looking Alsatian dog leashed at her side.
Eyeing the young Maurice Blik, the woman (Irma Grese) takes a shiny red apple from her pocket and crunches into it, taunting the five-year-old. Having eaten it, she places the core on the floor, unleashes the dog and leaves it to guard what’s left of the apple before walking off.
The hungry child is desperate to grab the core but knows that if he reaches out, the dog will tear him apart, so he and the hound silently eyeball each other. On her return, the sadistic Grese grinds the apple’s remains into the bare wooden floorboard, puts the dog back on its leash and heads off in search of another poor soul to torment.
The year is 1944 and the place Bergen-Belsen, the notorious Nazi concentration camp in northern Germany that has become a byword for horror and depravity.
The other way to obtain food was ‘to grab it from dead people’
Around 70,000 inmates, many of whom were Jewish, died at the camp from malnutrition or disease, among them Anne Frank, from 1941-1944. When the British Army liberated Belsen in April 1945, they found 13,000 corpses lying around the camp unburied. Eleven of the camp guards, among them Grese, were subsequently found guilty of war crimes and executed.
Blik was among those who got out alive — although his grandmother and 11 month-old baby sister Milly, who was born in Belsen, both perished in the camp. Now, more than 75 years on, the eminent British sculptor has written a moving memoir, The Art of Survival, which among other things recounts the devastating impact of World War II and the Holocaust on his family. Around half his extended family, including his father, were murdered.
Born into a Jewish family in Amsterdam in 1939, they were seized by German soldiers in 1943 and sent to a Dutch holding camp. There they were split up. His father Ben was sent to Auschwitz, never to be seen again. “I’ll never forget him turning to me before he was taken away, and saying that I was the man in the family now and must look after my mother, grandmother and sister,” writes Maurice. “I was four, but I could not cry; I was the man of the family now.”
Life in Belsen for Blik and his family was a living hell. “The trick was getting enough food to survive,” he writes. The guards would serve soup with potato, turnip and other vegetables floating in it “but the further back in the queue you stood the more chance you had of getting the good stuff which would sink to the bottom”. The other way to obtain food was “to grab it from dead people”. For light relief he and his sister made a game of seeing who could get the blood to spurt furthest when they crushed the lice that were everywhere.
He refuses to see himself as a victim
After the war Blik moved to Britain with his mother and sister. They settled in suburban north London, and he became an art teacher before becoming a full-time sculptor. He got married, had a family and sought to put the horrors of the past behind him. “I never really talked about it, like a lot of survivors, but every night I dreamed of being on a bus and glimpsing my father in the street,” he says. “It wasn’t until my late 30s when I got psychotherapy following the break-up of my first marriage, that I really spoke about it for the first time.” Paradoxically, speaking about it helped him come to terms with the events of the past.
It would be wrong to think of his book as a “misery memoir”, because he refuses to see himself as a victim. Indeed, despite all that he lived through as a child he is not just a survivor, but someone who has prospered in his adopted country, making his mark in his chosen field. This handsome, beautifully-illustrated book is as much about Blik’s life as a sculptor and how his childhood influenced his sculpture, as it is about his traumatic wartime experiences.
As the broadcaster Natasha Kaplinsky, who has written the foreword, observes, Maurice Blik is a sculptor “renowned for works of majesty and life-affirming power”, works which reflect the indomitability of the human spirit. That spirit illuminates his own personal journey from Belsen to eminent British sculptor — and for me, that is what makes this remarkable memoir so compelling a read.
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