By Shelby Wye
BELLEVILLE – Nine-year-old Max Eisen knew in his gut that things were going to change the first time he heard Adolf Hitler speak on the radio, in 1938. Eisen has survived all odds to speak across Ontario about his experience as a Jew during the Second World War.
A Holocaust survivor, Eisen, now 85, travels with Tour for Humanity, a mobile operation that aims to teach Canadians about diversity, democracy and civic rights and responsibilities.
Tour for Humanity visited Loyalist College campus Thursday, and Eisen was a speaker in Alumni Hall.
He recounted, with vivid detail, a multitude of stories about what the Jewish people went through while the Nazi Party rose to power and war approached. It was his birthday when German soldiers first entered his family’s town in Czechoslovakia. He remembers the soldiers first taking his bike and his family’s radio away. Later the restrictions escalated and they went after the family’s livelihood, banning Jews from operating businesses.
“I remember when it was made law that Jews were to wear yellow stars. I used to walk to school, about a kilometre, with the other children in town, both Jews and non-Jews. But on this day, I remember we who wore yellow stars walked alone,” said Eisen.
He was 12½ when Jewish students were kicked out of school. With no access to jobs or education, Jews had no reason to stay in the small town. They were offered a deal: come and work in factories and farms in Germany and Poland. But the condition was that they would never be able to return home.
Many families took the offer. Postcards from them came back to Czechoslovakia, saying they were doing well. These postcards, Eisen said, are something he will always remember, because he learned that they were a farce. In reality the families who had left were being abused, tortured and slaughtered.
On the day after Passover in 1944, Eisen, his family, and all other Jewish families in the town were rounded up and taken to Auschwitz. He was separated from his mother and younger siblings as soon as they walked through the gates, reassured that he would see them the next day. He was sent with his grandfather and father to work in a factory.
“When the guards found out we were family, they would beat us. My father said the only way to survive was to separate,” Eisen said. They stopped working alongside each other. Many years later Eisen found out the grim fate of his grandfather and father: they were given to a pharmaceutical company to be test subjects. They died during the process.
When he asked where his mother and siblings were, a few days after arriving in the camp, the guard laughed and told him they had been sent to the ovens. It seemed, Eisen said, that “the only way to leave the camp was to go up in smoke.”
It was 69 years ago that he was proven wrong about that. Eisen and other Jews in the camp were sent away wearing little more than rags. The group began what became a death march to new camps. Of the 90 people who made up his group, only 30 survived the trek and arrived at Ebensee, in Austria. The camp was quickly engulfed by disease.
On May 6, 1945, Eisen was in bed, feverish and dying, when the few people well enough to still go outside told him that the guard towers were flying white flags. He crawled from the barracks.
“I knew if I didn’t crawl from there, if I didn’t leave that bed, that I would die there,” he said.
American soldiers had arrived and began tearing down the walls. It took them days to bury the thousands of bodies in the camp.
The horror of the camps was over for Eisen, but he still had a long road ahead to find a home, and never again would things be entirely “normal.” He said it took him three years to learn how to eat like a regular human being, after having survived on a diet of 300 calories a day for a full year.
By foot, wagon and train he returned to Czechoslovakia. There were still people in his town whom he recognized, but they didn’t recognize him. And when he told them who he was, they were far from welcoming. He lived with a rabbi at an orphanage for displaced Jewish people for three years.
He found that of the 400 Jewish people who left his town, only 20 returned. Out of his 70-person extended family, only he and two of his cousins survived. They tried to go to countries like Canada and Australia, but the embassies turned them away.
“We were trying to run from a fire, but there were no doors open for us to escape,” said Eisen.
It wasn’t until 1949, a year after communism was established in Czechoslovakia, that Eisen managed to get a pass to leave for Canada. He lived in Toronto, where he married and had children. He retired from work in 1991, and now he works with the Tour of Humanity.
“My grandfather said to me, before we were separated, that if I survived, I must tell everybody what happened to us,” he said.
Eisen was true to his word, and now spends up to seven hours a day giving presentations to schools and clubs.
His parting words to his Loyalist College audience were these: “Indifference to the Holocaust is indifference to democracy.”