review by Stephanie McCully
Why is By Chance Alone by Max Eisen, ‘the one book to move you’? Why should we care about a work that tells a story that took place almost 75 years ago? Why is what Max has to say important and relevant to our lives today? Elie Wiesel, Holocaust Survivor, writer and Nobel Peace Prize Winner once said, “Human suffering anywhere concerns men and women everywhere.” If that is true then this is why we must read this book and remember what happened.
Max Eisen was born in 1929 in Moldava, Czechoslovakia. He lived with his family on a farm and enjoyed a happy, normal childhood. Max begins his story by telling us about his childhood adventures, family and town. In 1939, the area that Max lived in was annexed by Hungary and his family began to endure the many anti-semitic laws of the Nazi allied government of Hungary. Despite this, Max and his family managed to continue to live their lives relatively unscathed until 1944 when he and his parents, 3 young siblings, uncle, aunt, and his grandparents were abruptly removed from their home and taken by cattle car to the infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau, the Nazi extermination camp where over 1.1 million people, mostly Jews, were murdered between 1942 and 1945.
In the book, Max describes the horror of the 3-day transport locked in a train car with no food or water, unaware of what awaited him and his family. He tells of a chaotic arrival – lights, yelling, a terrible smell, confusion and selection – his grandparents, aunt, mother, two little brothers and infant sister, all sent to one line, he, his father and uncle sent to another. Max was 15; he writes simply, “There were no goodbyes spoken here.” What Max didn’t realize was that his mother and the others were sent immediately to a gas chamber where they were murdered.
The story continues to detail Max’s survival in Auschwitz I, where, when he arrived in May 1944, he became one of the Jews chosen for slave labour. He, his father, and uncle worked as field labourers until July when Max’s father and uncle also were “selected” and disappeared. In just a few short months Max, at age 15, was left alone, starving and worked nearly to death. He describes his life in the camp and its many horrors. Through a series of events Max eventually found himself working as an assistant in the camp’s hospital under a doctor who was also a Polish political prisoner there. Max explains that the kindness the doctor showed him was a major factor in his survival.
In 1945, with the Red Army approaching Auschwitz from the East and the German Army retreating, Max and other surviving prisoners were submitted to a “death march” – forced to walk without food or proper clothing, driven westward towards German concentration camps until, finally, at one of the camps he was liberated by the Allies.
What is also interesting about Max’s memoir is that he does not just tell of his survival as a Nazi prisoner but also about how difficult it was to reclaim some sort of life and health after liberation. Many people do not know what survivors experienced after their traumatic incarceration during the Holocaust, having suffered the total loss of family, home, health and trust.
This book is written simply, the language is not flowery or elaborate. Max tells his story in a straightforward, chronological way, the writing very contained, and at times the voice lacks emotion. However, this is understandable as to tell such a story must take great fortitude; to relive the loss of what turns out to be his entire immediate family, and the terrible conditions he is forced to live through, is nothing short of heroic. In 1998 Max retired and began to share his story with students in and around Toronto. Because his father implored him “if you survive, you must tell the world what happened here,” he realized that sharing his story, writing it down, was to live up to that promise. Survivors are aging, soon we will lose them. We must listen to their stories, pay attention, while we can. It is his story alone, he cannot tell the stories of the other millions murdered by hate. But we can listen to him and remember the others. As Max says, “We must be alert to the dangers of hatred, speak out against discrimination, and defend the fairness and openness of a free and democratic society with rules of law to sustain it.”
So to come back to my original questions about why we should consider this book as one to move us. Very recently, 50 people were killed, Muslims, by a shooter in New Zealand who was fuelled by hate, anti-Muslim, and anti-immigrant beliefs. In October, 11 people, Jews, were shot in a Philadelphia synagogue by an armed man shouting anti-Semitic slurs. In January 2017, a man shot and killed 6 Muslims while they worshipped in a Quebec City Mosque, motivated by hate and racism. The US anti-defamation League logged a 57 percent rise in anti-Semitic incidents in 2017. In France, offences against Jews have increased by 74% in recent years. In North America, Europe, and the world, the fact is that hate is on the the rise. If what Elie Wiesel said is true, that “to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time”, it is our individual responsibility to ensure that our eyes are open to the message of this book. We must remember the most terrible crime of the Shoah, remember the people who were murdered, hear the stories of the survivors and allow those stories, Max’s story, to change us.