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Samuel Pisar, 86; Nazi camps survivor became JFK adviser

Mr. Pisar with his wife, Judith, in Paris in 2012.
Mr. Pisar with his wife, Judith, in Paris in 2012.J. DEMARTHON/AFP/Getty Images/File

NEW YORK — Samuel Pisar, who survived Auschwitz as a boy to become a successful lawyer, an adviser to presidents, and the creator of the text for Leonard Bernstein’s symphony “Kaddish,” died on Monday in New York. He was 86.

His daughter Leah Pisar-Haas said the cause was pneumonia after a stroke.

Mr. Pisar had an extraordinary life from Bialystok, Poland, where he was born on March 18, 1929, through the Nazi death camps, and on to education in Australia, at Harvard, and at the Sorbonne.

He was 10 when Poland was swallowed by Hitler and Stalin. He somehow survived the camps of Majdanek, Auschwitz, and Dachau, emerging at 16, hardened, his family dead.

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He spent a year and a half with older survivors as a hooligan and black marketeer in the American occupation zone of Germany, living high for revenge, riding a liberated BMW motorcycle, and selling Lucky Strikes and used coffee grounds stolen from the kitchens of the occupying troops, re-roasted and repackaged for Germans.

Mr. Pisar was rescued by a French aunt, and with the help of uncles in Australia he slowly created a life of manifold accomplishments: becoming an adviser on foreign economic policy to John F. Kennedy, whom he met at Harvard, and a confidant to Presidents François Mitterrand and Valéry Giscard d’Estaing of France; pressing détente between the Soviet Union and the West through trade; and establishing himself as a lawyer to corporate executives and movie stars like Rita Hayworth and Elizabeth Taylor.

He became a citizen of the United States by an act of Congress and had homes in New York and Paris. The French government made him a Grand Officer of the Legion of Honor and an Officer of Arts and Letters. Poland made him a Commander of the Order of Merit.

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Mr. Pisar, pressed to confront his demons by his second wife, Judith, and his children, wrote a memoir in 1979, “Of Blood and Hope,” a saga of the nearly unspeakable, of survival and self-recovery.

Years later, Bernstein, always unhappy with the lyrics of the “Kaddish” Symphony No. 3 he wrote in 1963 and dedicated to the assassinated Kennedy, asked Mr. Pisar to write them. At first, Mr. Pisar refused.

But after Bernstein’s death, in 1990, and prompted by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, Mr. Pisar finally accepted the task.

Mr. Pisar called it “A Dialogue With God.”