A stroke of luck

By Thomas Pardee

Brian Brock knew he was on to something.

He could see it, because he had many times before. One question led to another, and then another. As a writer working on another man’s memoir, the 48-year-old Schaumburg, Ill. native and 1985 graduate of Columbia’s MFA Film program knew he couldn’t rely on his own imagination.

Brock needed details-those wild, tragic and bitterly ironic details that he knew would be critical. They were all there, just below the surface, waiting to be tapped.

All he needed was a bit of luck.

“What else did you see along that road?” Brock asked again, unrelenting, despite the old man’s obvious annoyance.

At 84, Pierre Berg’s mind was sharp, his memories vivid. That wasn’t the problem. Brock had learned this after almost two years of interrogating Berg for his memoir, which would depict the horrors he experienced in Nazi Germany, France and Poland during World War II.

Berg, one of the millions of non-Jewish “gentiles” who were also persecuted by fascist Germany, survived an 18-month journey through the unspeakable, including a stint as a slave laborer at the infamous Auschwitz-Monowitz and Dora concentration camps, not to mention the long journey home to normalcy afterward.

More than 60 years after Nazi liberation, it wasn’t the state of Berg’s memories of his traumatic experiences that was the problem; it was what Berg chose not to remember that made all the difference.

“Who cares what I saw?” Berg asked, a clear edge in his voice. “It was a road! What difference does it make?”

But Brock kept pushing. The two sat together every day after work just like this, for up to six hours at a time, Brock pounding away at his laptop and firing questions at Berg. His answers arose either directly from recollection or from the handwritten notes he had frantically jotted down.

Together, the two would slowly stretch the fabric of Berg’s memory until finally, whether Berg knew it or not, it would happen.

It was magic.

“What do you want me to tell you, that I saw a Russian man plowing a field pulled by six German women?” Berg asked.

Brock paused, looked up from his keyboard and smiled.

“Yes,” he said. “That’s exactly what I want you to tell me.”

Chance meeting

In Sept. 2001, not for the first time in either of their lives, both Brock and Berg found themselves in the right place at the right time. Both were working at the Cannon Theater in Beverly Hills, Calif. Berg as an usher and Brock behind the concessions counter. Berg was a retired cine-technician who had worked in a film post-production lab for more than 40 years, and Brock was a struggling freelance writer.

Brock had heard Berg was a Holocaust survivor, but he didn’t know much about the history of the period beyond what he had been taught in school. He said he wasn’t comfortable approaching Berg, even causally, about his experiences.

He was surprised, then, when Berg approached him.

“He said, ‘I heard you’re a writer,’ and I said, ‘Yeah,'” Brock said. “He said he had written about his time in the camps. I told him I’d like to read it.”

Brock said he expected a short treatment of the story—10 or 15 pages about Berg’s overall experiences. What he got was a 148-page manuscript hand-written by Berg in French and typed his mother in 1948. It had been translated into English several years later.

When he wrote it, Berg had titled the manuscript “Odyssey of a Pajama.” He tried selling the story to several publications in the 1950s but was unsuccessful. So he stuffed it in a drawer and left it there for more than 40 years.

Brock said he read the manuscript in one sitting and immediately knew he had stumbled across something rare.

“It was one in a million, that cliched ‘chance of a lifetime,'” Brock said. “I had read a few other Holocaust memoirs throughout the years, but the stuff he talked about I had never heard before. I knew this chance wasn’t going to come around twice for me.”


When Brock told Berg he wanted to help him turn his manuscript into a full-fledged, marketable memoir, he cautioned that it would be a lengthy and painstaking process. He said he wasn’t sure Berg believed he was invested in the project.

But Berg was soon convinced.

“Before I realized it, he had the manuscript all typed up and ready to start,” Berg said. “So, we started.”

Brock started visiting Berg daily, and the two began discussing new content. More stories of Berg’s experiences emerged, each one more dramatic, ironic and horrifying than the last, Brock said. It quickly became apparent to the documentarian-turned-writer that there was more to the story than he ever knew.

“There was a whole gold mine of events and stories that were still in Pierre’s head and nowhere on paper,” Brock said.

Brock and Berg spent the next six months constantly meeting, talking and writing—Berg scribbling in his notebook at work and Brock typing up their discussions on his own time at home until both could bring their notes together on the page the next day.

Because Berg’s most potent stories seemed to emerge from sudden sparks of recollection, Brock decided to use Berg’s original manuscript as a kind of blueprint and allow the structure of the story to follow a non-linear, almost stream-of-consciousness format.

“Every once in a while I would have Pierre go back [in time] and reflect on something,” Brock said. “I would try to have it stay true to how it unfolded when we worked together.”

Berg said he agreed with Brock on this structure decision, which gives the story a distinctively melancholic tone.

“It flowed better by putting a few episodes in between others,” Berg said. “After all, they were all true facts. Sometimes [when I was imprisoned] things would all happen in just a few days, and then months of nothing.”

Though the writing process was well on its way, the two continued to struggle to agree on what kinds of stories and details to include. Both had ideas of what readers wanted and needed from the story-ideas that didn’t always align.

“Sometimes it felt like a police interrogation,” Brock said. “Just like he had a strong sense of how he wanted his memoir to sound, I had a strong sense of what had to be on the page to make it stand out from all the other Holocaust memoirs. I felt that was one of my main jobs.”

One example found Berg recalling how he had once helped move dead bodies on a train from the passenger cars to the open “morgue car” while traveling between camps. He came across a man about his age who had been left for dead but was still alive. When Berg tried to help him back onto the train, an SS officer pulled out his side arm and shot the him in the head. He made Berg drag the man’s body back with the others.

Brock said Berg told him he “could still see the man’s face.”

“I asked him how it made him feel, and he said he didn’t feel anything,” Brock said. “I knew it had impacted him more than he wanted to deal with.”

Brock said he would return home from these sessions with Berg and “meditate on different kinds of emotional responses.” He’d try to place himself in many different scenarios as a young man separated from his loved ones and fighting for survival. Brock would reflect on his own reaction to these situations and use his notes as a springboard to try and tap into Berg’s psyche.

“Sometimes it would take weeks until something would just … crack,” Brock said. “Either [Berg] would let his guard down or be so exhausted by my questions that he would just let go. A lot of times I would get my best stuff out of him when we were out on the porch having a beer and smoking a cigar. Maybe it’s because we weren’t just sitting around a laptop.”

Slowly, after another year of constant revelation, revision and addition of details, a solid first draft started to take shape.

The pair decided then to re-name the manuscript Scheisshaus Luck, translated to “shithouse luck,” referring to Berg’s job carrying buckets of waste from a scarlet fever quarantine ward to its outhouse in Drancy, France. Berg’s immunity to scarlet fever (he had already contracted it as a child), not to mention his ability to speak five languages, including German, helped secure his job in Drancy, delayed his early deportation to Auschwitz and probably prevented his death. The writers said it was an effective-if inelegant-way to relate how bad luck often saved Berg’s life.

The co-authors took another six months to re-tool a second draft into something ready to market.

Brock contacted Dr. Joseph White, an associate history professor at the University of Maryland University College and a research assistant at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. He had been looking for information about British prisoners of war, which Berg had encountered during his ordeal, and White had done research on the topic.

“I became absolutely engrossed in [Berg’s story],” White said. “I told him immediately that it was publishable.”

Brock sent White a draft to edit, and White interviewed Berg to help confirm some of the historical details. He said his changes were “mostly cosmetic,” dealing with German phrasing. He also fact-checked extensively.

“With Holocaust memoirs, you have to be very careful not to allow eloquence to replace complexity,” White said. “This account neatly balances those two aspects.”

No room for “Luck”

Once they had a solid draft, Brock and Berg were able to find a literary agent in New York. But after months of more editing and waiting for the book to be pitched to publishers, the agent backed out of the deal, leaving Brock and Berg back at the beginning.

After the authors located another agent, the book entered a “painful” cycle of pitching and rejection as its writers tried different national publishing houses. Brock said the constant refrain from publishers was that though Pierre’s story was a powerful one, there was no market for another holocaust memoir.

“That’s when I started to sweat it,” Brock said. “It just seemed like after everything, we were running into nothing but brick walls.”

It took almost a year before AMACOM Books, which specializes in non-fiction works from various genres, agreed to publish Scheisshaus Luck.

Brock said the editing process with the publisher was “a dream.”

“I had always heard how terrible the editing process can be, but we didn’t have to cut anything from our manuscript,” Brock said. “There were no arguments, no us trying to defend why something needs to stay in. We actually ended up adding more.”

Lucky Break

Berg said when he wrote the story, he hadn’t been serious about selling it. He said he didn’t intend to try and push for his story to be told until he realized how much misinformation was being spread about the Holocaust.

“I’ve seen white supremacists parading around meeting halls with swastikas on their shoulders, claiming none of it ever happened, claiming Hitler was a god,” Berg said. “It convinced me I should write a rebuttal. And considering I’m not Jewish, a lot of people say it makes much more sense.”

Berg still works as an usher, now at the Wilshire Ebell Theater in Los Angeles, to keep himself busy. Brock is working on another nonfiction book with a World War II British prisoner of war who survived two years in the Auschwitz POW work camp. He’s using the expertise he gained while working with Berg and White, which he would have never been exposed to if he hadn’t been stuck behind a popcorn stand trying to make ends meet and directly in Berg’s path.

One of the critiques Brock and Berg received while trying to get published was that there were too many coincidences and instances of brutality in the story. Berg said that’s exactly how it should be.

“Of course there is brutality-if 90 percent of the people who went into Auschwitz died there, it wasn’t a country club,” Berg said.

White said the element of coincidence in the story reflects the madness of the period.

“Too often survivors are asked the question, ‘How did you survive this?’ Pierre’s account makes it clear that strategy had nothing to do with it,” White said. “You can see, and I think the title is appropriate in this way, that arbitrariness worked to his advantage, and also his disadvantage.

Berg, an atheist, said he’s never lost touch with how and why he survived when so many others did not.

“That’s why I call it Scheisshaus Luck,” Berg said. “This is all one big coincidence.”