Pierre Alsina was born in Paris, France, in 1919. When the war broke out in 1939, he was an engineering student at a technical university in Paris. Mr. Alsina’s family was "better than bourgeoisie,” in his words. He described his father as an industrialist, and their home and living conditions as lavish. The family was Christian. When asked about Jewish friends or acquaintances, Mr. Alsina responded that different social groups pretty much kept to themselves at the time. He did, however, later in the interview, refer to Jewish acquaintances and classmates and the contacts he had with them during the war.
When France fell in 1940, the Alsina home was taken over by the Germans. The family was put out with only a few moments notice. Mr. Alsina had one year of university remaining, and he continued as a student. At the same time, he became involved with the resistance, initially serving as a courier. He was arrested by the Gestapo in late 1941 when on a mission to organize an underground unit in Lyon. He did not speak of the details of the arrest or his assignments in the underground.
After several months in French prisons, including nine months in solitary confinement, he was put on a freight train headed East to Germany. His description of the train ride and the conditions during the journey were very detailed. He arrived at Buchenwald in November, 1942. He described in detail the intake process and the living conditions, as well as the various jobs he had and the hierarchy of the barracks. His situation improved as he moved from work in the stone quarry to factory work in the nearby town. He provided vivid accounts of morning and evening roll calls and the meals provided.
He indicated that he was selected for a less harsh work assignment because he was viewed as a Communist sympathizer, and the prisoner hierarchy of the camp which made these assignments was controlled by Communists. In describing the SS guards, Mr.Alsina recognized a range of decency and cruelty among them. Although the guards were rotated regularly, the prisoners in his compound knew the kind of day they were likely to have when they saw the guards at the morning roll call. Other aspects of the camp and his life there which he described include the resistance/intelligence network in Buchenwald, non-German guards, Allied bombardment of the camp, and the liberation by the American Army in April 1945.
Following his liberation by the Americans, Mr. Alsina played a role as an aide to the U.S. Army as they continued across Germany.
Eventually, in 1946, he received some sort of a scholarship to study in the U.S. and never returned to live in France. He married a woman from Rochester and settled here. Mr. Alsina was eager to relate his experiences. This interviewer had no trouble getting him to open up, and only rarely had to clarify dates by asking. Mr. Alsina seemed very concerned with being correct in describing details.
Several times he closed his eyes to visualize a scene in order to provide an exact description. He was generally emotionally restrained during the interview. Exceptions occurred when he described how some prisoners, while working in the stone quarry, deliberately ran toward the SS machine guns because they wanted to die. He also became emotional when he spoke of the prisoners who returned to Buchenwald from the salt mines just prior to the camp’s liberation by the American army. When asked about his own survival, Mr. Alsina talked about his luck and his never believing that he would perish. He described how one could tell when a person no longer believed he would survive; there were visual changes to that a person. In his interview he never mentioned having any religious faith, but emphasized that he never doubted he would make it, and that contributed to his survival.
Prior to, as well as after, the taped interview, Mr. Alsina was almost apologetic about the value of his experiences in understanding the Holocaust. He was not Jewish, was not in a death camp, and did not witness the attempted destruction of the Jews of Europe. In fact, several times during the interview he claimed that although he was broadly familiar with the Jewish experience, he was ignorant of the details. During his imprisonment in Buchenwald, he was kept with other French prisoners and had contact mainly with them as well as the Russian prisoners. It is interesting to note, however, that Mr. Alsina is married to a Jew, although I saw no evidence of Jewish life in the Alsina home.
In summary, although Mr. Alsina is not a Holocaust survivor in the strictest sense, his interview is valuable in that it provides details regarding the experiences of a non-Jew in the Nazi concentration camp system. It also provides interesting thoughts about how human beings can adjust to conditions which are far from “normal,” but which quickly are accepted as routine and normal. An interesting sidelight which might be pursued is Mr. Alsina's belief that a high ranking SS officer at Buchenwald was a British agent and was instrumental in emptying the factory of prisoners during allied air raids, thereby saving many lives.
Biography written by George Adler