‘I was never able to say goodbye’
Max Eisen is seated in a suburban Toronto coffee bar — his freshly brewed espresso forgotten as he relives the moment more than 70 years ago when he saw his beloved dog, Farkas, for the last time.
“I still think about Farkas a lot,” he says quietly as his mind travels back to the spring of 1944, to 15-year-old Max’s hometown, and to the night Hungarian gendarmes smashed their way into the house, only hours after a happy Passover dinner, and told family members they had five minutes to pack before being taken away.
Farkas was barking frantically as three generations of Eisens were hustled off to a nearby school where they would spend the night in an unbearably crowded classroom.
In the morning, they joined 500 other Jews to be marched to a railway station and a journey that would eventually end in Auschwitz and other death camps.
“We passed by our property and Farkas knew we were there, and he was wailing behind the fence,” Eisen recalls. That final memory of his loyal Alsatian — and don’t ask Eisen to think of him as a “German” Shepherd — sustained him through the horror of the coming months. One day, he would tell himself, all this would end and he and Farkas would be reunited.
So after he was liberated in May 1945 he made a solitary journey back to his home. He was alone because almost all his family and extended family — some 60 all told — had perished in the Holocaust.
“Farkas was the only thing that was bringing me back home.” he says now. “I had no home. I wasn’t expecting to see any of my family there. He was the only one calling me back — but he wasn’t there. Nobody knew what happened to him and it was a very sad disappointment.”
There’s an intimacy of detail as Eisen tells this story amid the bustle of a busy coffee shop in the Canada of 2016. And it’s being told through the prism of the boy he once was — a unique perspective also present in his extraordinary Holocaust memoir, By Chance Alone, published by HarperCollins.
Eisen is 87 now, but he still remembers. Indeed, to him it’s an obligation to remember. He owes it to his murdered family. And he owes it to Canada, his adopted country since 1949. For the past quartercentury, he has devoted his retirement years to telling people across Canada and elsewhere in the world about the Holocaust.
He’s a resilient man. But the book posed a particular challenge, the writing of it taking a far greater emotional toll than anticipated.
“You know, when you’re 80-plus, your long-term memory is very vivid. I was able to re-create these scenes — but it was very painful.”
The loss of his parents was perhaps the hardest to deal with in print — especially his mother. Without warning, SS guards had herded her away, along with his grandparents, his younger siblings and his aunt. Max never saw them again.
“I was never able to say goodbye. We were told we would see them the next morning — that was a deception the Nazis used. My mother did so much for me. I was a dysfunctional kid and she was my guardian angel. And I kept thinking of my mother being put into that gas chamber with her three children — 2,000 naked men and women being pushed into a gas chamber — this is something I could never forget — it was so traumatic that my mother had to leave this Earth in such a terrible way.”
Later, Max’s father would also die, but this time he and Max were able to speak to each other briefly.
“I knew exactly what was going to happen. My father had to say goodbye to his son, and I had to say goodbye to my father. That was a terrible moment. I was devastated. He gave me a blessing — ‘May God bless you and keep you’ — and then he said: ‘If you manage to survive, you must tell the world what happened here.’”
There’s good reason for the title of this book — By Chance Alone. Max was 15 when he arrived in Auschwitz-Birkenau and consigned to the slave labour units draining swamps in the area.
Then came the day when he sparked the enmity of a brutal SS guard and was beaten unconscious. Two other prisoners deposited him in a hallway in the Auschwitz infirmary. His injuries were such that he faced certain death, given that patients still unfit for work after three days were sent to the gas chambers.
It was the chief surgeon, a Polish political prisoner named Dr. Tadeusz Orzeszko, who saved Max’s life — nursing him back to health and appointing the boy his assistant.
“Everything was by chance,” Eisen says. “Other survivors said that unless a door opened for you, you could not crawl out of this hellhole. So at that moment, Dr. Orzeszko was very important. He saved my life. I worked in the op- erating room from the end of July to January 1945.”
The dying months of the war saw another ordeal when Max and other fellow prisoners were herded out of Auschwitz by SS guards who dispatched them on a wintry fiveday march, devoid of food and water. Many died along the way, some from physical collapse, others by a bullet.
Max was still among the living when they reached the open metal boxcars that would take them to another camp.
On May 6, 1945, they were finally liberated by a segregated battalion of African-American soldiers who were horrified at the death and physical carnage they encountered.
Four years later, Max Eisen was in Canada. In 1952 he married a Canadian woman and embarked on a happy and productive life. But he still remembers March 15, 1945, the day he turned 16, That’s because it was also the day he was asking himself whether he would make it to 17.
“I remember,” he says softly. “You can never give up, but I was struggling … like a drowning person. You’re using whatever strength you have to keep on going.
“It was moment to moment. I didn’t give up because I knew if I did, that would be the end of the story.”