REGINA — It was so quiet you could hear a pin drop as Holocaust survivor Max Eisen told his personal story to 1,200 students from three school divisions bussed to Resurrection Church April 26 to hear Eisen tell of his experiences.
The event was hosted by the Regina Catholic School Division, who invited students from Regina Public and Prairie Valley school divisions to sit in on the presentation.
The Prairie Messenger interviewed several students after the presentation and asked what they knew about the Holocaust. Some had heard a little about it but were shocked when they heard Eisen describing his personal experiences.
“I didn’t know it was so brutal,” said one, and her friend nodded in agreement.
The Holocaust story is familiar to most adults, but it became personal to the students when Eisen showed photos of himself with his two brothers in happier times. His two brothers, his parents and his grandparents did not survive.
Eisen also showed photos of the walking skeletons who were barely alive when they were liberated by Allied forces. There were also photos of piles of bodies and Nazi soldiers with rifles pointed at Jewish prisoners.
“All of this began with words,” Eisen said. “The Nazi propaganda machine was very efficient. It dehumanized Jews, took their property, their belongings, and all their possessions. They told us we were going to work on farms, but it all ended like this,” he said, showing a photo on the projection screen of conditions in the Auschwitz death camp.
“It all began with words,” he repeated. “Bad things happen when good people do nothing.” He urged his audience to be upstanders, and not bystanders. “You have freedom in Canada, but freedom comes with responsibility.”
Chief Commissioner of the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission, David Arnott, spoke prior to Eisen’s presentation, telling the students that words matter. He also told the students that Saskatchewan’s Human Rights Commission and all Human Rights Commissions as well as the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights were all the result of the Holocaust, and were all efforts to prevent anything like the Holocaust from happening again. Anti-Semitism still exists in Canada, he told the students, noting there were 1,700 documented incidents last year.
The Regina Catholic School Division has developed a curriculum on the Holocaust which next year will include visits to the German and Polish concentration and death camps.
Eisen credited a Hungarian doctor in Auschwitz for saving his life. Eisen had suffered a brutal beating about his head from a gun butt wielded by a guard. The doctor operated on him and later had him removed from a gurney that was likely taking him to the gas chambers.
“The standing rule at the camp was, if you could not walk away from the hospital after three days’ treatment, you were taken to the gas chamber,” said Eisen. “The Hungarian doctor had me taken off the stretcher and gave me the job of keeping his operating room clean.”
Eisen told the students, “Before he was taken to the gas chambers, my father told me if I survived I was to tell the world what happened here.”
Auschwitz was eventually liberated by an American army unit.
Eisen came to Canada in 1949. He has been speaking about the Holocaust for the last 29 years. His book, By Chance Alone, details his life and Holocaust experiences. Eisen has made speaking about the Holocaust his personal mission so that nothing like it ever happens again.
Max Eisen was in Saskatchewan to speak to the Saskatchewan Police Chiefs Association meeting in Warman. He came to Regina at the invitation of Domenic Scuglia, director of education for the Regina Catholic School Division. Contact was made through the Simon Wiesenthal Centre in Toronto.
While he was in Regina, Eisen took part in a Yom HaShoah Holocaust memorial service at Beth Jacob Synagogue.