AURORA, Ont. (CCN) — When a gang of pretty high school girls spot 87-year-old Max Eisen they all shout “Max!” and shuffle over for a hug and a chat with the man who showed them the inside of Auschwitz last summer.
Eisen spent three days with 30 “amazing kids” from the York Catholic District School Board last summer as they toured Poland and examined the history of the Holocaust. As a 15-year-old boy who lived in Auschwitz for nine months before liberation (the fifth of the five camps he survived) and a man who has only two cousins left out of 55 members of his extended family, Eisen was something more than a tour guide to the students.
At the May 19 launch of his new book, By Chance Alone, the kids were anxious to catch up with one of Canada’s few remaining living survivors of the planned, organized murder of six million European Jews — the Nazis’ “final solution.”
The kids’ interest in Eisen is more than matched by Eisen’s interest in them. Most of them are graduating this year and the old man wants to know about their plans for the future. Though his book recalls events that are now more than 70 years old, Eisen’s most ardent interest is in the future. His family today includes three great-grandchildren aged eight, six and three. They are the first subject of conversation he brings up.
As students ask him again how he found the will to survive even after his father and uncle had been gassed and he was living alone in the camp, Eisen again talks about family.
“We were living in a place where life was not worth a plug nickel. My father tried to instil in me the will to go on,” he said. “You needed to be very resilient and you needed a lot of luck.”
Luck came in the form of a Polish doctor in the camp who treated Eisen for a serious head wound that resulted from a run-in with one of the SS guards. He was still weak and woozy after his treatment, so the guards put Eisen on a stretcher to carry him to the gas chambers. The doctor pulled him off the stretcher, gave him a lab coat and made him his cleaner and general dogsbody.
Dr. Tadeusz Orzesko also survived Auschwitz and 50 years later Eisen met the doctor’s children and grandchildren in Rome. He still gets a call every March 15 from Orzesko’s son. One of Orzesko’s grandchildren has named her son Max, after Eisen.
The Catholic school board north of Toronto began organizing trips to Auschwitz for students after deciding to name one of its schools after St. Maximillian Kolbe, a priest who died in Auschwitz.
After the initial 2012 trip, the last three have been offered as credit courses. York Catholic superintendent of education Michael Nasello has organized the annual trips, but will take a break this summer and instead make a presentation at an educational conference on his experience introducing high school students to the history of the Holocaust.
No one knows more than Eisen how remote the Holocaust can seem to a Canadian teenager.
“This is such a far stretch from that time. We live in a country of such plenty,” he told the students. “Be thankful for what you have here. Tell your parents that you love them.”
Eisen’s memoir of life in the Nazi camp system is published by Harper Collins and is available on amazon.ca in paperback for $13.62.