By Chance Alone, winner of Canada Reads, is essential reading for all of us

In the Spring of 1944, in Moldava, Czechoslovakia, 5½ years after the region had been annexed to Hungary, Max Eisen’s entire family was rounded up, put into cattle cars, and deported to Auschwitz. It was on the morning after their Passover Seder.

In this memoir, Max Eisen describes how at 15, he entered Auschwitz became a slave laborer, and managed, against all odds, to survive.

How he survived the brutality of the camp, the loss of his mother, brothers, baby sister and grandparents and later the loss of his father and uncle all to the gas chambers, how he endured the beatings, selections, body-breaking labor, starvation, and finally the death march is one of the most incredible stories I have ever read. I finished these 250 pages in one day, unable to put the book down. I was surprised and proud as a Jew that a memoir about the Holocaust had won Canada Reads, chosen over four popular and excellent Canadian writers.

Eisen’s story and the taut, straightforward way he recounts more than a year of the daily horrors he suffered at the hands of the Nazis fills me with awe and inspiration. It seems to me a most accurate description of hell that we could ever imagine.

Eisen describes the work that broke his body and his spirit, the whippings, the diseases, the open wounds, feeling he could not take another step or pick up another impossibly heavy piece of steel and we are dumbfounded by his will to live, by the sacrifices of a few who risked their lives to save him: his father, an Orthodox Jew who stole bacon for him and insisted he eat a piece every night to give him the necessary nutrients to live, the doctor who saved him when his head was bashed in by a guard when he faltered during his work day.

We wait with him for his watery soup at midday and follow him as he trudges back to camp for his evening piece of bread and we simply can’t believe anyone could survive this.

Later he would say goodbye to his father, who was marked for medical experiments and then for the gas chambers. Why? No one can ever know or try to understand what went on in that camp of horrors. There is no reason, no explanation, no motivation for people to inflict such unbearable pain, such gratuitous cruelty, to starve children, to perform medical experiments on them, to deprive them of every shred of human dignity simply because they were Jewish. Of course, Jews were the lowest on the hierarchy, below the homosexual, political prisoners, and criminals.

That any survived is a miracle.

Max Eisen was ‘lucky’ to be deported to Auschwitz in 1944, in one of the Hungarian transports, one year before the camp was liberated and this in part may explain his survival. But it does not explain it sufficiently. He was unlucky in that his family was warned by a neighbour on the night of the first Passover Seder that they should flee to the forests because the Jews of the town were about to be deported to the East. But his father, a devout Jew, was unwilling to forego Passover and go into hiding with his family.

Eisen remembers a neighbour pleading with his mother to take his nine-month-old sister but his mother refused, unable to imagine she was being taken to a place where babies were murdered in horrific ways. Eisen could not talk about losing his family for a long time. It was too painful and after what he witnessed in the camp — the billowing smoke of the crematoria, the castrated boys huddling in the building where medical experiments were conducted — who could blame him?

Some will feel they can’t be subjected to such pain. Why read such a book? Haven’t we heard enough? The answer is that as citizens of the world, we owe it to ourselves, our children and grandchildren to read this book especially during this turbulent time in our country and in the USA, where the curtailment of freedom and human rights is threatening our way of life. Attacks on synagogues, mosques, and churches have become all too common this year alone.

Please read By Chance Alone. If you are a high school teacher of history or literature, add it to your curriculum. Thank you Max Eisen for your years of educating elementary, high school, and university students on your experience during the Holocaust. We are indebted to you for your courage in what must have been an extremely difficult writing process, and as you do, I thank all those who helped you along the way, in the camps, in the aftermath and the painful homecoming, and in your journey to start a new life in Canada.

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