“Almost 20 years ago,” [Gerald Jacobs wrote in 2003], “a man called to see me with a story. It was the compelling, tragic and terrifying account of the early years of his own life and he wanted me to write it with a view to publication…”
That man was Nicholas Hammer, born Miklos Hammer in Budapest in 1920. For a brief and terrible time in his young life he went by the name of ‘Peter Howard’ – the name of a dead man. His story was one of abysmal suffering, exceptional spirit and extraordinary survival. He and Gerald Jacobs worked together on its telling in book-form for four years, and the resultant work, Sacred Games, was first published in 1995, on the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. In 2011 Faber Finds is proud to be make Sacred Games available to readers once more.
Ian Thomson’s original review from the Independent is worth quoting at length:
This is a record of hideous times, and of a mind that refused to succumb to them. Miklos Hammer, a Hungarian Jew, was deported to Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Dachau; his determination to beat his tormentors is a parable of uncorrupted men… Superbly told by Gerald Jacobs, Hammer’s story is a triumph over tragedy in Hitler’s war against the Jews… Amid the abundant literature of atrocity which this century has produced, Sacred Games is exemplary. Miklos Hammer’s tribulations are narrated without the prurient tenor of so much Holocaust writing (Jerzy Kozinski’s The Painted Bird and Sophie’s Choice by William Styron, for example, often verged on the sentimental, pornographic, or downright kitsch); Gerald Jacobs records the enormity of human loss with a detached calm and appropriate sympathy.
Nicholas Hammer died in London on 23 October 2003 and Gerald Jacobs wrote his obituary notice for the Independent. Therein he set down this powerfully moving personal anecdote:
In 1986, I accompanied Nicholas Hammer on his first and only return to the sites of Auschwitz and Birkenau. He showed me the block in which he had been housed. It was not part of the camp open for exhibition and, as he stepped over the small barrier around it, a uniformed Polish woman attendant rushed over making stern, windscreen-wiper-like gestures of prohibition with an index finger. Hammer stopped her short with a gesture of his own: he rolled up his shirtsleeve to reveal the number tattooed on his arm. He was not going to be stopped. Neither was he going to be stopped from recording the events he had witnessed there four decades earlier.
Sacred Games is highly recommended, and available to order here.