Max grew up during the ’30s and ’40s. As a child, he loved spending time with his grandparents, his aunt and uncle, and his immediate family all under one large roof. When Hitler came to power, Max’s life rapidly changed. As a Hungarian Jew, he and his family members were targeted and witnessed the horrors of the Holocaust.
Now, as a Holocaust survivor, Max’s testimony to the atrocities at Auschwitz reminds fellow survivors and listeners alike that it’s important to never forget such a terrible time in history.
Other Holocaust Survivors
I’ve read two other Holocaust survivor stories before reading Max’s account, and each one has resonated and stayed with me: Gerda Weissmann Klein’s All But My Life and Art Spiegelman’s Maus. I read Gerda’s book in ninth grade, and Art’s graphic novel last year. I also read The Book Thief–Marcus Zusak’s historical fiction about the Holocaust.
I remember vividly holding my breath while reading the worst parts of Klein’s and Zusak’s books. As an adult, I still find the Holocaust terrifying–and rightfully so. So far, I am currently able to sleep without having any nightmares. While I cannot fathom the loss of life, I cling to the stories about these survivors, which give me hope.
When Max was 15, he was taken from his home. He and his family–including his aunt and uncle, as well as his grandparents–were forcibly removed from their home in the middle of the night after celebrating Seder, which is a celebration that takes place a month before the Jewish Passover.
I will always remember our final Seder; it is deeply etched in my memory. I remember my entire family seated around a beautifully set table–my grandfather and grandmother; my father and mother; my uncle Eugene and aunt Irene; my two younger siblings, Eugene and Alfred; and baby Judit in her crib. The candles burned in their candelabra, the beautiful dishes were laid out, and the heads of the family–my grandfather, my father, and my uncle–were leaning on cushions to symbolize relaxation and freedom from slavery in Egypt. After the reading and singing of the story, we had a dinner of several courses that lasted about four hours. For us, this was our last supper together.Max Eisen, By Chance Alone, pg. 57.
Max and his family are ripped from their lovely home and eventually taken to Auschwitz. There, they are immediately separated. Max doesn’t have time to say goodbye to his mother, or his grandparents, or his younger siblings, who are put in a separate line, where they will sadly be sent to the gas chambers.
Max’s Fight for Survival
Max endures further hardships: a limited amount of watered-down meals, hard intensive labor, and the loss of his father and uncle. (He later learns that they were two of many, many people who were experimented on. In the back of the book, it shows the records of what happened to his father and uncle.)
Max continues to fight for his daily survival, and he ends up getting very lucky. A head injury–from someone hitting him in the head with the butt of a gun–results in him being sent to the surgery barracks, where he eventually recovers and cleans the rooms, disinfecting tools, as well as helping occasionally with patients.
Towards the end of the war, Max endures a death march that leads him–and people who were deemed strong enough–to Ebensee, a camp in Austria. Somehow, Max manages to survive days without food or water: “That evening, I received my first sustenance after ten days without any food–a piece of bread and a cup of ersatz coffee. This ration tasted very good to me, but it did not fill my stomach. I was beginning to wonder how I’d managed to survive for this length of time” (pg. 163).
Reading this true story made me wonder: Could I have survived such harsh conditions? As a 15-year-old, could I have worked as hard as Max to ensure my survival?
I cannot imagine the horrors of the Holocaust, but I believe in the narratives of the survivors–men, women, and children–who fought daily to keep themselves alive.
I believe that the Holocaust happened, and I believe in the power of love and hope during such a terrible time in history. Like Max, I believe that he’s right when it comes to supremacist ideologies: “I have a great deal of concern for humanity should a supremacist ideology take hold again. It will be a threat to our way of life and our freedom” (pg. 245).
Max is a hero in my mind because he not only survived but because he kept his hopes up in a very volatile time in history.
Thank you, Max, for sharing your story with the world. Thank you for your tireless education about the Holocaust. Thank you for educating not only adults, but young people as well. Please keep educating everyone that you meet. Your work is very important.
Note: Because this is a Holocaust survivor’s true account, I feel that I cannot give this a star rating. I feel like that would be an insult to the memory of all of the lives lost at Auschwitz, as well as the testimonies and many books written by survivors of the Holocaust. Instead, I urge you to read Max’s book and to share and think about it with others. I believe that it is important to share and elevate the memories of survivors of the Holocaust, as well as the millions of lives lost during such a horrific time in history.
Links & Resources
Here’s the website where Max is mentioned: Museum of Jewish Heritage: A Living Memorial to the Holocaust.
I enjoyed your summaries of the book as you read it. We always need to cherish the memories of Holocaust survivors and the history of the Holocaust, because they are reachable events that we can all learn from and draw strength from in our daily lives.
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