In the fall of 1944, Max Eisen stood outside a barrack in Auschwitz, bidding farewell to his father, who had been earmarked for the gas chambers.
He was only 15 and never forgot his father’s last request: that his sole remaining child should tell the world what happened.
Mr. Eisen would go on to survive the Nazi death camp; write By Chance Alone, a best-selling book about his life; and, seven decades after the war, enter a courtroom in Germany to testify in one of the last major prosecutions against an Auschwitz guard.
Mr. Eisen died July 7 in Toronto at the age of 93, according to a funeral home notice by his family.
In December, he had been appointed to the Order of Canada “for his contributions to Holocaust education, and for his promotion of transformational dialogue on human rights, tolerance and respect.”
For years he, like many other survivors of Nazi camps, tirelessly visited schools and commemoration events, giving a first-hand account of the evil they endured.
In 2015, Mr. Eisen appeared as a witness at the trial of Oskar Groening, the 93-year-old former SS in charge of tabulating the money seized from Auschwitz deportees.
Mr. Eisen told the court about his 13 months in captivity, from the chaos at arrival, to his liberation in 1945.
Afterward, the defendant’s lawyer, Hans Holtermann, asked that the trial be adjourned. “Mr. Groening said he is shocked by Mr. Eisen’s testimony. He said he is at the end of his energy,” the lawyer said, according to an account in The Times.
Mr. Eisen had honoured his promise to his father.
He was born Tibor Eisen, on March 15, 1929, in Moldava nad Bodvou, in what was then Czechoslovakia. He was the oldest of the four children of Zoltan and Ethel Eisen, whose family owned a lumber yard and distillery. In an oral history for the University of Southern California’s Shoah Foundation, he said he had a happy childhood but remembered that when he was seven, he saw adult relatives listening to a Hitler speech on radio – their faces turning somber.
By 1939, Czechoslovakia was annexed and divided between Germany and its Axis partners. His hometown became part of Hungary. As a satellite state of Germany, Hungary had adopted similar antisemitic laws. His father’s business was confiscated. They had to hand in their radio. They could no longer employ Gentiles, so the family’s nanny had to leave.
In school, Jewish pupils had to sit at the back of the classroom and were bullied. One teacher enjoyed yanking on their sidelocks: “I thought my scalp would fall off,” Mr. Eisen said.
The government, however, did not yet hand over its Jewish citizens to the Germans. This changed in the spring of 1944 when Hungary tried to sue for peace. The Germans retaliated by invading in March. The Hungarian Jews were no longer safe.
The first evening of Passover, April 8, was the last time the Eisens ate together. That night, a family friend came to report that he heard rumours that Jews would be rounded up the next day. The man offered to take them into hiding. But Mr. Eisen’s grandfather said they couldn’t travel on a religious day. And “what grandfather said, this was the last word and that was it,” Mr. Eisen recalled.
In the morning, gendarmes told them they had a few minute to pack and leave. They were taken to another town, where hundreds were jammed in a brickyard. When an SS said they would be “resettled in the east,” they looked forward to the journey. They were packed into cattle cars so tightly they couldn’t sit down. There was one pail of water for each car. After three days, some had died; others lost their minds and screamed.
They arrived at Auschwitz at night, blinded by spotlights and deafened by yelling guards and barking dogs. An SS officer asked how old Mr. Eisen was. He was 15 but said 19. He was sent to one side with his father and an uncle, along with other men. The rest of their family disappeared from their sight. The men were taken to a building where they had to undress and their hair was shaved. They could only keep their footwear.
Then they were sent to the showers, where they got a glimpse of the merciless life ahead. First, other prisoners tried to steal their shoes. Then, one man, who had dropped his eyeglasses and got down to look for them, was kicked and beaten to death by an SS.
The next morning, they asked about their relatives and were told, “your family has gone through the chimney.”
They were assigned work units. His father claimed that they were farm labourers, hoping this would put them in proximity to food. Instead, standing in the muck and working with pickaxes and shovels, they had to drain marshlands to turn them into agricultural fields. They had no clean drinking water, so they slaked their thirst with swamp water, which gave them dysentery.
At lunch, the SS tossed their leftovers to their dogs, ignoring the starving inmates. The prisoners’ soup was “absolutely revolting,” Mr. Eisen said. But his father forced him to eat and “eventually, the time came when the soup looked good.”
In the evening, they each got a piece of bread with a square of margarine. If he tried to save some of the bread, he had to hide it under him while he slept, with his shoes and soup bowl, so it wouldn’t be stolen. He saw a father and son fight each other for a piece of bread: “People would kill you for a crumb. Humanity was gone.”
One day, there was a selection, where the SS picked out the weaker prisoners who would be sent to the gas chambers. His father and his uncle were selected. He ran to the quarantine barrack where they were held. Their conversation lasted a few seconds. His father made him promise that he would tell the world what happened there.
When Mr. Eisen came back that night, his father and uncle were gone. He was on his own.
A week later, he was on a detail digging tree roots when an SS guard bashed his head with a rifle butt. Mr. Eisen tried to keep working but passed out. They pushed him into a ditch for the rest of the day, then dragged him by the legs back to camp.
He was stitched up at the infirmary, which was staffed by inmate-physicians. He hadn’t recovered after a few days and would have been selected for the gas chambers, but the doctors gave him a white smock and kept him as an orderly. “It gave me a new lease on life,” he said.
In January, as the Red Army approached, Auschwitz was evacuated. Mr. Eisen joined thousands of prisoners on a forced march in the winter night. They could see flashes from Soviet artillery in the sky. For six days and nights, they marched, barely conscious, their arms hooked together. Those who couldn’t keep up were shot.
Open train cars then took them through Czechoslovakia. They crossed a bridge over the Danube, then marched through an Austrian town. Filthy and frost-bitten, they were shocked to see nice homes with white curtains and women pulling their children on sleds, who avoided eye contact with them.
They arrived at Mauthausen, one of the most brutal Nazi concentration camps. It was crammed with thousands of death-march survivors. Mr. Eisen was sent to Melk, a satellite camp where prisoners dug tunnels in the mountains.
He had to operate a jackhammer he could barely lift, but a civilian foreman took pity on him and assigned him lighter tasks.
One day, the Germans discovered that someone had cut a piece from a conveyor belt. When no one would admit to the sabotage, the SS shot one out of every 10 prisoners.
In early April, Melk was evacuated. Mr. Eisen and other inmates were taken by barge, then marched for three days to another camp, Ebensee. By then they were so desperate for food that they were eating grass.
“The camp was chock-full of people, perhaps 20,000 people. Conditions were awful,” Mr. Eisen recalled. “Dead bodies were just piling up in the square … like cordwood, grotesque sights.”
He contracted typhus and was on his bunk on May 6 when other inmates said the guards had disappeared. He crawled outside and saw the camp gates come down and American tanks roll in. Mr. Eisen didn’t have enough strength to get the food the GIs handed out, which was fortunate because many prisoners ate and then died because their stomachs weren’t used to such rich fare.
Four months later, still recovering, he hitched his way back to his home town, where he discovered his family home had been looted and damaged. No other relatives had come back.
“I was looking for somebody with whom I could feel some comfort and there was nothing.”
He heard of a Jewish orphanage in Marienbad, now the Czech town of Marianske Lazne: There, “I became a normal human being again. We became a family. It was the only family we had.”
After the Communist takeover in 1948, Mr. Eisen and five others were smuggled by a Jewish organization to the American sector of Austria. After several months in a displaced persons’ camp, he got a visa to Canada in 1949.
His first job in the country was at a suitcase factory in Toronto. Eventually he started a manufacturing business, married and fathered two sons.
After he retired, he began speaking at public events about his experience.
Mr. Eisen didn’t just talk about the cruelty of the Nazis. He also paid tribute to those who remained humane in those tragic days.
He spoke about Tadeusz Orzeszko, the Polish surgeon and resistance fighter who headed the Auschwitz infirmary where Mr. Eisen became an orderly and escaped hard labour.
He spoke of the people of Plzen. When the train carrying Mr. Eisen and other evacuees from Auschwitz went across the Czech city in January, 1945, the town people threw bread loaves at the passing cars, despite warning from the SS guards.
“The Czechs kept throwing the bread and finally the guards started to shoot,” he said. “It meant something to see that people were willing to do something like that.”
Mr. Eisen leaves his wife, Ivy Cosman; their two sons, Ed and Larry; two granddaughters; and three great-grandchildren.