Holocaust survivor, Max Eisen, shared his story with a group of Saskatchewan students, during a virtual presentation Tuesday morning.
Eisen was born in Czechoslovakia in 1929, into an Orthodox Jewish family. He was nine-years-old when French and British leaders surrendered Czechoslovakia to Germany’s Nazi government. At this point, the part of Czechoslovakia where Eisen lived was surrendered to Hungary.
In the spring of 1944, when he was 15, soldiers came to the family’s home to take them away.
“They were yelling and screaming, ‘you have two minutes to pack up. We are taking you away,’” Eisen said during the virtual presentation.
Eisen, his parents, his 10-year-old brother Eugene, his eight-year-old brother Alfred, and his nine-month old sister Judit were taken to Auschwitz into locomotive cattle cars.
“Sadly for us Hungarian-Jews, 1944 was no longer a time when the Nazis needed more labour. Ninety-nine per cent of Hungarian-Jews were immediately sent from the platform to the gas chambers and crematoria,” Eisen said. “My mother, with three children, dying with 2,000 people together in a gas chamber. This horror will live with me for as long as I live.”
Eisen and his father were sent to Auschwitz I to work as labourers. One night, right before his father was taken away to be executed, Eisen’s father blessed him with a Jewish prayer.
“Through the barred-wire fence, he told me, if I manage to survive, I have to tell the world what happened here,” Eisen said.
Later on, Eisen suffered a serious head injury after he was beaten by a guard. A Polish doctor, Dr. Orzeszko, operated on him and then saved his life by taking him off a stretcher destined for the gas chambers. After that, Eisen worked in the operating room.
In January of 1945, Eisen was taken on a 13-day, 600 kilometre death march. He survived, but many other prisoners died on the march.
On May 6, 1945, Eisen was liberated by the United States’ 761st in Ebensee, Austria. He emigrated to Canada in 1949, and later met and married his wife, Ivy Cosman, who was born in Regina, Saskatchewan.
Eisen said he has been telling his story to students across Canada for decades, but presenting virtually is a bit different because he cannot see all the students faces. However, several students said the presentation was no less compelling through a screen.
“The fact that he was the same age that me and my friends are when he went to these concentration camps was really surprising. To be able go through such a horrific thing at such a young age was really surprising,” said Georgia Montgomery, a grade 10 student at Archbishop M.C. O’Neill Catholic High School.
Montgomery said Eisen’s words ‘really opened her eyes,’ as she didn’t know much about the Holocaust prior to Tuesday’s presentation.
Jaxsen Popowich, another grade 10 student at Archbishop M.C. O’Neill Catholic High School, said he found it very interesting to learn about the Holocaust from a survivor.
“I’m going to do more research on it, and I will share it with my friends and family and whoever wants to know, and keep that history alive,” Popowich said.
Around 3,000 students in grades 7 - 12 viewed the presentation, from schools in Regina Catholic, Regina Public, Prairie Valley and Holy Trinity Catholic School Divisions.
Eisen said he had never experience anti-semitism in Canada, but has noticed it increasing in the country over the past few years.
“I would have never thought that I would see this poison follow me to this wonderful country,” said Eisen. “And you need to know, it starts with the Jews, but it does not end with the Jews. It is a threat to our very society and our way of life.”
He said he continues to share his story because he ‘cannot afford to be a bystander.’
“There is no better instrument than to here from a survivor, or read how to avoid a catastrophe coming. They need to know, simply the truth,” Eisen said. “Because I see shades of pre-World War II.”