By: Hailey Hayes
On Tuesday, October 29th, author, public speaker, and holocaust survivor Max Eisen addressed a packed Doc Brown Lounge at Algoma University to share his remarkable life story and to speak about his Canada Reads winning memoir, By Chance Alone.
By Chance Alone: A Remarkable True Story of Courage and Survival at Auschwitz was published in 2016. Eisen, who turned 90 in March, has travelled the world to share his story and educate others on the history of the holocaust and the neccessity of preventing bigotry and the spreading of hatred.
Eisen met with students in the ‘Algoma Reads’ program before the lecture began and discussed his experiences at Auschwitz as a Jewish prisoner, his life after liberation and answered questions from students related to the writing process. The ‘Algoma Reads’ courses look in-depth at all five ‘Canada Reads’ short-listed works and the students help to run the community events, as well as a community book club.
“I was not a good student, but I could do amazing things with my hands,” Eisen spoke of how he started working as an apprentice at twelve and a half years old and about his long and successful career in business after the Holocaust. He told students that he read many books and considered his grandfather to be his role-model.
An estimated 6 million Jews were killed during the Holocaust. “People simply gave up mentally and physically, and if you gave up mentally, you were gone,” Eisen said, describing the atmosphere and tactics he employed to survive his initial time at the prison camp. Eisen credited his grandfather and father with keeping him alive. Eisen’s father and grandfather were with him until they were both selected out in the middle of the night on July 9th, 1943. Eisen said he was able to say a rushed goodbye to his family and that his father gave him a blessing and told him that if he managed to survive, he needed to tell the world what had happened.
Further questioning on how he found the actual writing process led Eisen to discuss the many ways he had attempted to share his story. These included recording tapes and working with students and researchers, but Eisen shared that none of the methods gave him the results he wanted. Eisen found his preferred method when his wife had him sit down at the table with a pencil and a folded piece of paper. Eisen spoke with pride at how his memoir had been the first holocaust story published by Harper Collins. “You want to write?” Eisen asked the class. “Let your imagination go and put it down on paper.”
The public lecture portion began at 5:30 p.m., with a land acknowledgement and introduction by Dr. Alice Ridout, an English professor at Algoma University and the founder of Algoma Reads. Members from within the Sault Ste. Marie community, including Mayor Christian Provenzano and students, staff, and faculty from Algoma University made up the audience.
The first slide of Eisen’s presentation read “It starts with words…” Eisen spoke of how he always thinks of the lost children of the Holocaust and mentioned that he and Anne Frank would have been the same age had she been alive today. “How many books she could have written by now,” he remarked.
Words hold tremendous weight and Eisen made clear the many ways he has witnessed first-hand the impact and influence that words often hold. “I remember the poison coming out of the radio,” Eisen said, referencing the propaganda that was heavy at the time. He spoke of how he and his family had been listening to the radio when they heard the broadcast message that “all Jews were going to be eradicated from the face of the world.”
Eisen told audience members that Dr. Tadeuz Orzezko saved his life on the operating table after a beating by an SS guard. Instead of having Eisen return to the work he had been doing at the concentration camp, Orzezko had him work as his assistant in the operating room.
The discrimination and hatred Eisen faced did not end after his liberation. Audience members heard of how Eisen’s face on a billboard was defaced in Toronto in 2018 with the German word ‘Achtung’, which Eisen explained was used frequently in orders at Auschwitz, the English translation loosely being ‘Warning’.
Eisen also shared his experience of testifying in April 2015 at the trial that caught the attention of many. The nicknamed ‘Bookkeeper of Auschwitz,’ Oskar Groening, was on trial for being an accessory to murder for his role in the Holocaust.
Students in the Algoma Reads courses shared passages from the book and spoke about the reasons they chose them. One international student from Germany read a heartbreaking passage and then thanked Eisen for sharing his message and emphasized his desire to continue to share Eisen’s story and the history of the holocaust, “especially considering my endeavour to be a teacher, I will be sure to teach all about this.”
One of the final remarks from Eisen before the time had concluded was that “Education is one of the only tools we have.” Audience members were given the opportunity to ask several questions which ranged from the concept of forgiveness, to how Eisen found the process of reintegrating back into society.
“Not only does the ‘Algoma Reads' program provide an incredible opportunity to host speakers who are prominent figures in the Canadian literary scene, but the community of Sault Ste. Marie is offered the chance to join together and celebrate the importance of sharing Canadian stories.” said ‘Algoma Reads’ program development assistant, Ashley Johnston.
Johnston, who is in her third year of studies at Algoma University went on to discuss the importance of storytelling. “When we look at what happened to the First Nations people in the very building that Max spoke to us in, his words should hit close to home, and cause us to pause and reflect on the atrocities human beings are capable of, no matter where you are in the world”. Johnston added, “It’s clear that we need to stand strong as a community and I believe that having speakers and writers like Max visiting our school is a way in which we can do that.”
With the exception of some minor technical difficulties in regards to the microphone Eisen was using, the event went off without a hitch. Several audience members stayed behind to have Eisen sign their copies of By Chance Alone which is having its New York debut on January 7th.
Eisen’s memoir By Chance Alone is available for purchase at most major book retailers and online.
The next Algoma Reads event will feature Winnie Yeung, the author of Homes on November 12th in the Doc Brown Lounge at Algoma University. The event is free and open to the public.