Tibor ‘Max’ Eisen still wakes from his sleep with the smells of those cattle cars in his nose – the smells of a hundred people wedged in place for three days and three nights. And somewhere in those cars, among all those bodies, strangers and neighbours alike, all saturated in the same rotten stink, was his family. Somewhere, his mother stood with his still-breastfeeding little sister. Somewhere, his brothers, 8 and 10, were terrified among a forest of bodies far bigger than them.
Born into an Orthodox Jewish family in Moldava, Czechoslovakia, Eisen lived with his parents, three siblings, paternal grandparents, an uncle and an aunt. In the spring of 1944, the morning after the Passover Seder, military police arrived at the family home, removed the entire clan and loaded them onto those cattle cars bound, eventually, for the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.
When the train stopped, and the passengers unloaded, he believed the worst was over.
“We had a few minutes of safety, I thought, when we were all together again when they unloaded the cars. But we were systematically separated. My family simply disappeared. They were told to go to the left. I knew a few days later what happened to them – they were taken to Crematoria II, a gas chamber. What was my mother thinking? My grandfather? My grandmother? These were private, modest people, forced to get undressed together with 2,000 people, and then the doors were locked. Imagine the horror. Pellets were thrown in through the roof; the gas started to rise from the bottom. People were trying to gasp for air. To die with 2,000 people for 25 or 30 minutes is a terrible, terrible thing – something I can never get over. These soldiers, they were watching through glass peepholes, watching what was going on inside the gas chamber. When I see them today, I want to ask, ‘Did you look through those peepholes?’”
Eisen was 15 years old. And he was alive.
* * *
Max Eisen had a story, but Amanda Grzyb helped him find his voice.
In March 2010, Eisen and Grzyb met on the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s inaugural mission to Poland. Eisen had been speaking as a Holocaust survivor educator for decades, but he could never put his experiences down on paper. Grzyb, a Faculty of Information and Media Studies professor, is a noted genocide scholar, with expertise on the Holocaust and Rwandan genocide. The pair talked about working together on a book.
Ask him and Eisen will tell you a book was never his idea. Others suggested it to him often; he just wasn’t interested. He had plenty of opportunities to share his story as a public speaker. What more could a book do besides unnecessarily torment him. “I had a phobia. I just could not sit down and start writing. I think this goes back to my school days – I was a talker not a writer,” Eisen laughed.
But when ‘A Book’ was raised by someone, somewhere, yet again, he had an idea. A shortcut. Stored on six cassette tapes, somewhere in Southern California, Eisen’s voice is among more than 50,000 Holocaust survivors recorded by the University of Southern California Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education, a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating audio-visual interviews with survivors and witnesses of the Holocaust and other genocides. When he first considered a book, he thought of those tapes – and how easy a book would be.
“I thought I might make a transcript of these tapes and I would have a ready book. When I received those transcripts, however, I realized it wasn’t going to work. And so, I let it go.”
From time to time, the idea resurfaced. He worked with a ghost writer for a bit and produced a short manuscript. But even that wasn’t correct. Grzyb read it and knew immediately it lacked – something. “It didn’t have the depth of feeling that I knew Max could bring to it,” she said.
In the summer of 2012, Eisen began working directly with Grzyb. Together, they compiled 16 hours of recorded interviews. The professor transcribed the tapes and worked with those words to compose the story. She sent him a chapter that opened in those cattle cars.
“I thought it was an important place to start. It is a transitional moment,” Grzyb said. “But when I sent it to him, he said, ‘It doesn’t sound right – it doesn’t sound like my voice.’ I said, ‘But this is your voice – this is you speaking.’ All I had done was have it transcribed and round out the edges.”
Eisen took the chapter away to “make a few changes.” What came back was a different sounding chapter of the same story – a story written by a writer who was starting to find his voice.
“Max has an important story to tell, but the way he tells it is amazing – beautifully written. He kept saying he couldn’t write. That’s what was so amazing about it. The revelation of reading that first chapter he rewrote was really powerful,” Grzyb said.
His wife devised a system. She set him down and folded a sheet of paper in half, forming a small, four-page book. On those, he began to write. For a year. By hand. He once tried to count how many pencils he went through “I sharpened a lot – I know that.” When he finished a page, his wife, or son, or granddaughter, typed up the manuscript and sent it to Grzyb, who edited it and organized it into chapters.
Eisen had to find a quiet place, the right place, to write during the week – to contemplate, to think, to train his mind how to go back. He explained, “I started to focus and it started coming. I kept thinking. I kept putting myself into that space, that place. This book was in my head for two years.”
So much so, it woke him up in the middle of the night on countless occasions. Still does – even now that it is finished. The writing process had a way of chasing nightmares from the corners of his memory. Long ago repressed, they still come. He spoke of the smells. But there are so many more memories – ones this very public face seemed hesitant to share even now. The writing process was forcing the public speaker to confront so much more than he expected.
“Often, when you speak, you have all these time constraints,” Grzyb explained. “You have a particular story that you need to start somewhere and get to somewhere in 45 minutes or an hour and then that’s it. It is well-rehearsed. But writing and remembering these small details provoked a lot of traumatic memories, memories that came to the surface about things Max had not thought about in a very long time.”
During the process, Eisen and Grzyb spoke several times a day on the phone. They visited in person in his Toronto home. They became close collaborators and friends.
“Your thoughts come, and you keep writing. There was no pressure. I learned to discipline myself,” Eisen said. “I was very surprised at what I did. She brought the best out in me – that is for sure. She got me writing.”
And now, the fruits of a years-long collaboration between The Survivor and The Professor will be released this month. By Chance Alone: A Remarkable True Story of Courage and Survival at Auschwitz will be published April 19 by HarperCollins Publishers.
“In this climate where we are tending to monetize research so much, and always tie its value to outputs, a lot of us can shy away from these kind of public-interest projects,” Grzyb said. “We didn’t”
“She gave me this time,” Eisen said. “It would not be the book it is today without her.”
* * *
Eisen survived the selection process and he was inducted into the camp as a slave labourer.
When he was severely injured by an SS guard, he landed in the camp hospital where a Polish political prisoner and physician operated on him. Eisen’s injury would have marked him for death, but that doctor saved Eisen from the gas chambers by giving him a job as a cleaner in the operating room.
“That experience of working in the infirmary in Auschwitz I, and his view, his ability to witness the work of the prisoner doctors, who are overshadowed by all the other things that went on in the camp, this is an important part of the story,” Grzyb said. “There were many heroic people who worked in that infirmary helping prisoners on a day-to-day basis. That perspective was really unique.”
The bulk of Eisen’s books focuses on survival – back-breaking slave labour in Auschwitz I, the death march to another camp in January 1945, the painful aftermath of liberation, a journey of physical and psychological healing. It is a story of man’s infinite capacity for evil against his fellow man – but it is also a story of hope.
On May 6, 1945, the gates of his camp came crashing down beneath the tracks of an American tank with a white star painted on its sides. Atop its turret sat several U.S. soldiers, each shocked at the nightmarish scene before their eyes and the smell of thousands of decomposing bodies in their noses. Under the command of U.S. Gen. George S. Patton’s Third Army, the 761st Tank Battalion was comprised of mainly African-American soldiers, unable to serve alongside white troops by federal law.
“The notion that people, in some cases the grandsons of slaves, were liberating these, essentially, slaves of the Nazis, was so compelling,” Grzyb said. “It’s another piece of this wonderful story Max had to tell. And he tells it so well.”
Eisen immigrated to Canada in 1949, where he has since dedicated his life to educating others about the Holocaust across Canada and around the world.
* * *
Eisen still has the first thank-you card he received for speaking about his life. It came from the teacher who recruited him out of the blue to speak in 1992. Eisen overcame a nervous stomach for weeks prior to stand in front of that Grade 13 class – they all seemed like they were six-foot-five, folding themselves in half to fit through the doorframe of the portable classroom. He was so nervous he couldn’t read his notes. So he just talked. And talked. On the drive home, he promised himself he would never do it again. Never.
Since that day, however, he has told his story to thousands around the world.
He has also lent his voice to the search for justice. Earlier this year, he was one of three Canadians to testify against 94-year-old Reinhold Hanning, the former Nazi guard who stood accused of being an accessory to the murder of at least 170,000 people while he was in Auschwitz from January 1943 to June 1944. It was not his first testimony.
But it is telling his story to students, however, that gives him the most joy. When he opens young eyes to, yes, the horror of the world, but also to its possibilities, Eisen finds great connections. The story he tells is not that of the old man in front of them, but of a young boy. Just. Like. Them.
“It’s the life of a teenager. The things you have to go through. You should see the letters I get from kids – ‘You taught me never to give up.’ I have met kids, kids who were going to commit suicide. One pulled me aside to talk – she was going to commit suicide because her mother had committed suicide. These are things that I have experienced. If I can give anyone a leg up, give anyone a ray of hope that would be wonderful. I tell kids to never, ever give up.”
In his home, he has 12, two-inch binders full of letters from kids thanking him.
And now, with this book, Eisen hopes his story will live beyond him.
“We survivors are few and far between now. I hope this will be remembered for the sake of everybody, for all societies. This is not a Jewish problem. It is a problem for everybody. It starts with the Jews, but it doesn’t end with the Jews. I hope generations remember this as a warning.”
The Survivor and The Professor have done their part to see to that.