An exemplary life: Remembering Dr Samuel Pisar AO

By Norrie Ross

Speaking of his Holocaust survival, Melbourne Law School alumnus Dr Samuel Pisar AO told the New York Times: "I muted the past. I turned to the future with a vengeance."

Dr Pisar lived up to that pledge to himself. When he passed away in July he was lauded across the world as an international lawyer, humanitarian, human rights advocate, adviser to presidents, governments and major companies.

Dr Samuel Pisar AO
Dr Samual Pisar AO

As a child he lost his entire family in the Holocaust, but he somehow survived the Nazi death camps of Majdanek, Auschwitz and Dachau. He then spent 18 months as a black marketeer in the American occupation zone of Germany.

When he arrived in Melbourne to live with an aunt he described himself as a wild, barely-educated teenager.

Dr Pisar's decision to approach life with the same determination he used to cheat death led to a scholarship to Melbourne University and, helped by his great mentor Sir Zelman Cowen, he graduated with an LLB (Hons) from MLS in 1953 before going on to study at Harvard and the Sorbonne.

Dean of Melbourne Law School, Professor Carolyn Evans, has dear memories of a lunch she had with Dr Pisar in Paris when he talked of his struggles in the concentration camps and the great debt he owed to Sir Zelman.

"Dr Pisar was clearly very proud of what he achieved and wanted me to know of all the people he had met and events he had influenced.

"After his experiences during the war in Europe, he found Australia a paradise by comparison. He spoke very warmly of the experience that he had had at Melbourne University and, in particular, the way in which the support and sponsorship of former Dean Sir Zelman Cowen changed his life for the better."

Professor Evans says Dr Pisar was one of the first MLS graduates to go on to study at a prestigious overseas university and thanks to his help and inspiration Melbourne is building closer connections with Harvard through an international PhD program.

In a speech to the annual Harvard-Oxford dinner in 2012 Dr Pisar paid tribute to the enduring influence Sir Zelman had on his life.

"At (Melbourne) Law School an extraordinary pedagogue, a brilliant jurist and a great mentor, probably moved by my traumatic past, adopted me as a pet student," he told guests.

"That giant was Sir Zelman Cowen. It was he who guided my comeback from oblivion."

Dr Pisar's achievements and awards are voluminous. He was an adviser to President John F Kennedy, Chancellor Helmut Kohl and President Mikhail Gorbachev, an international lawyer admitted to the US, English and French Bars, a legal counsel and special envoy for Holocaust and genocide education for UNESCO, a Nobel Prize nominee, librettist for Leonard Bernstein, and author of Coexistence and Commerce, acclaimed as the "bible of east-west trade". He was also credited with helping Sydney host the 2000 Olympic Games.

Dr Pisar was also a Knight-Commander of the French Legion of Honour, a Commander of Poland's Order of Merit, an Honorary Officer of Australia, and in 2008 was awarded a Doctor of Laws by the University of Melbourne. He was also an adviser to Apple's Steve Jobs and actresses Elizabeth Taylor and Catherine Deneuve.

He said that before a special act of Congress granted him US citizenship he was "Polish by birth, a captive of Russia, a slave in Germany, a stateless waif in France and an Australian".

Professor Evans says that despite his worldwide acclaim and the honours bestowed upon him, Dr Pisar told her that he would never forget the debt he owed to Australia and Melbourne Law School.

"He came back many times to the importance of the Law School and Australia in turning his life around when all was looking so terrible," she says.

Dr Pisar once said that a feral child, "the little one with the sunken eyes and shaved head", still lurked inside him as a kind of conscience and to remind him of that extraordinary journey that started in Bialystok, Poland in 1929.

Image: Dr Samuel Pisar AO
Credit: The Washington Post/ contributor (Getty Images) 

This article originally appeared in MLS News, Issue 14, October 2015.