Wednesday, October 19, 2016

By Chance Alone by Max Eisen

This memoir of a holocaust survivor should be required reading for all high school students (and anyone else who has graduated high school and has never received a proper holocaust education).  Max Eisen is now in his eighties and living in Toronto.  He has devoted his post retirement years to holocaust education in schools, with police organizations and through the March of the Living.  The last time he saw his father, when they were separated at Auschwitz, his father blessed him then asked him to tell the world their story if he survived.  No doubt Mr. Eisen's father is immensely proud of the work his son has carried out in his memory and in the memory of all other victims.

Max was born in a small town in Czechoslovakia, near the Hungarian border.  He lived with his extended family of parents, paternal grandparents, aunts, uncle and siblings.  He was mischievous, not happy in school, but adored working the orchards with his grandfather.  He had a wide group of friends and by all accounts a normal, happy childhood.  He spent idyllic summers with his mother's extended family in a nearby town.

This all changed in 1944 when his town, which by then had been handed over to Fascist Hungary, liquidated its Jews and sent them by cattle car to Auschwitz.  Prior to this his mother's family had been sent to Madhausen where they were exterminated - though first sent the propaganda postcard about how happy they were farming in the East.  So until arrival at Auschwitz Max was quite naive about what was happening though it was relatively late in the war.  At selection, his mother, younger siblings, aunt and grandparents were immediately sent to the gas chambers.  His father and uncle became his "guardian angels" as he navigated the brutal work and living conditions, though eventually they too were taken from him.

By chance, as the title suggests, a severe beating on his head likely saved his life.  He was sent by an under Kapo to the camp hospital and there a Polish political prisoner doctor first nursed him to help then put him to work in the hospital - saving him from certain death.  They were together until separated on the death march in 1945.

Somehow Max managed to survive the unspeakable horrors of the death march and was eventually liberated by an American army unit from Ebensee at the end of the war.  He dragged his ill body back to his home town only to find his home had been taken over by neighbours who wanted to have nothing to do with him - except for one kindly woman who was now the mayor's wife.  She recognized how ill he was and arranged to have him hospitalized.  He then spent a couple of years at a school for orphans set up by the American Joint Distribution.  However when the communists took over Czechoslovakia he was caught trying to escape and imprisoned again.  By further chance a connection of his was able to get him released from prison and he made his way to a DP camp in Austria and eventually to Canada.

Max was fortunate enough to find employment and a wife whose family took him in and helped him rebuild his life.  It was years before he could fulfil his promise to his father and speak about his experiences, but now that he has started he tells a mesmerizing tale.  I also loved how he maintained his connections with his past - two cousins who were the only other survivors of his extended family, the family of the doctor who saved his life in Auschwitz and even one of the American soldiers who liberated him.  And most importantly he defied the Nazis by having children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.

The book is well written and hard to put down.  And a must read since there are so few with first hand knowledge left to tell their stories.

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