Canada Reads

Holocaust survivor Max Eisen on sharing a cautionary tale through Canada Reads

By Chance Alone, the memoir by the Toronto-based Holocaust educator, is being defended by Ziya Tong during the debates, which take place March 25-28, 2019.
Max Eisen is the author of By Chance Alone. (CBC)

Max Eisen is a 90-year-old Holocaust survivor who has spent over 25 years travelling across Canada telling his story and educating young people about the horrors committed by the Nazi regime. 

His memoir, By Chance Alone, recounts his childhood, the time he spent in the Auschwitz concentration camp and his eventual rescue. The book was a finalist for the 2017 RBC Taylor Prize. It won Canada Reads 2019, defended by Ziya Tong. The debates took place March 25-28, 2019 and can be watched online — on CBC Books or Gem — and be listened to as a podcast.

Before the debates, Eisen spoke with CBC Radio's Chris dela Torre on the London, Ont. program Afternoon Drive and with Adrienne Pan on Edmonton, Alta.'s Radio Active about what it means to have his memoir chosen for Canada Reads

Sharing a message of tolerance

"It is a very good thing to bring this message to as many people as possible. We are not living in an ideal world. The nice way of saying it is anti-Semitism, but I say it's simply that hatred against Jews — and it's alive and well. This is a very big concern for me and for other survivors who came to this wonderful country. There is no place for any hatred of that sort because it reminds us survivors that this is exactly the way it started in fascist and Nazi Europe.

"It starts with words and ends in terrible places. It's like opening up Pandora's box and if you don't put a stop to it it takes on a life of its own." 

Surviving by chance alone

"I did hard labour 12 hours a day on a 300-calorie diet — imagine what that does to your body. You're demonized, dehumanized — they simply grind you away, body and soul. You have to deal with all these terrible things and you need to survive from second-to-second from minute-to-minute. You put one foot in front of the other, many could not carry on and they simply gave up and they were immediately taken out and gassed."

"My head was bashed in in Auschwitz while I was outside on the job. I lost a lot of blood and I went into shock. The chief surgeon and assistant surgeon were Polish political prisoners and they operated on me. The deal was that if you couldn't walk away two days later from the hospital, you were loaded on a stretcher and taken to the gas chamber. That Polish doctor pulled me out of a stretcher, brought me into the surgery prep room, gave me a lab coat and I became the cleaner — he saved my life. I worked in the operating room for six months and those six months truly boosted my strength so I was able to withstand the last three months, which were absolutely horrible.  So that was the biggest chance. Without him doing this, there would have been no story to tell."

Reliving the past

"When I started to write my book, this is when the nightmares came back. I speak four or five times a week and when you are speaking you know how far you can go, where you want to take your discussion and your presentation. But when I sat down to write and I was looking at this movie in my head, it brought back demons from the past. When you get up at two or three in the morning and you can't go back to sleep it's a good time to start writing. I wrote this book with a pencil on paper for two years."   

Max Eisen's comments have been edited for length and clarity. 

Listen to Max Eisen in conversation with CBC Radio

The author of By Chance Alone speaks with Chris Dela Torre on the London, Ont. program Afternoon Drive.
The Holocaust survivor speaks with Adrienne Pan on the Edmonton, Alta. program Radio Active about writing a Canada Reads contender.

The Canada Reads 2019 contenders