Canada Reads·How I Wrote It

How a promise to his father inspired Holocaust survivor Max Eisen to tell his story

Max Eisen, a Holocaust survivor, shares why he decided to share his story with the world.
By Chance Alone is a Holocaust memoir written by survivor Max Eisen. (Julie Eisen, HarperCollins)

Max Eisen is a Hungarian Jew who was deported to Auschwitz in the spring of 1944. He is a passionate speaker and educator who travels across Canada telling his story of survival and warning youth about the dangers of apathy and the insidious nature of hate and intolerance. His memoir By Chance Alone chronicles his dehumanizing treatment at the hands of the Nazis. 

By Chance Alone won Canada Reads 2019 where it was defended by science journalist Ziya Tong.

The 2019 debates took place March 25-28, 2019 and were hosted by Ali Hassan.

In conversation with Ottawa Morning host Robyn Bresnahan, Eisen discussed writing By Chance Alone.

Last supper

"I remember very vividly, first of all being ripped out from our home. This was 72 years ago when we were celebrating Passover. We had a dinner where we told the story of the Exodus and my entire family sat together around this beautiful table that was set. This was our last supper. My family would never sit at a table again. And most of them would not be alive a year later." 

Terrible journey

"We were put on a train and taken to a brick yard. And after a three-day journey, locked up with 100 people in a cattle car — it was a terrible journey — we arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau II in the middle of the night and the selection began where the able-bodied were chosen for slave labour. The others — my mother, my siblings, my grandparents and my aunt — with just the flick of the hand, were sent to the gas chamber."

Slave labour

"My father, my uncle and I became slave labourers. We were given a tattooed number and that number and the star of David were stitched on our front and back. We were marched down the road to Auschwitz I and we did back-breaking work for 10-12 hours a day on a 300 calorie diet."

"Had my father and uncle not been with me I don't think I would have survived the first week. And thinking back I think what helped me survive, I believe, in some way you had to be very resilient but you also needed a lot of luck to survive."

Reliving trauma

"I had to write this book and I had to bring everything back. I had to sit in a quiet place and wrote these stories by hand. It meant a lot of restless nights. I would wake up in the middle of the night having nightmares but I couldn't go back to sleep, so I would start writing again. I can hardly believe that this book has been published now and I can actually see the book in front of my eyes."

A promise kept

"My father and uncle were selected on July 9, 1944 for medical experiments — never to be seen again. We had only seconds to say goodbye and my father gave me a blessing and told me that if I managed to survive, I must tell the world what happened. That was a big driver for my need to tell this story in the form of a book — and I've done this, and here we are today."

"I have thousands of letters from students and it's my big reward to read them and see how much they learned about how not to be a bystander, how not to be a perpetrator. Bad things happen when good people stand by and do nothing."

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

Listen to Max Eisen on Ottawa Morning

Author Max Eisen on his new book about living in the Auschwitz concentration camp during the Second World War....and the random acts of kindness that helped him survive and rebuild his life.

The Canada Reads 2019 contenders



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