Canada Reads·In Conversation

Max Eisen on how a love of literature was key to his healing process as a Holocaust survivor

The author's memoir By Chance Alone is on Canada Reads 2019​, where it will be defended by journalist and TV host Ziya Tong.
Max Eisen is the author of By Chance Alone. (CBC)

For Max Eisen, books and reading played a key role in his life. Today he is an author, public speaker and educator. During the Second World War, he and his Orthodox Jewish family were deported to Auschwitz in the spring of 1944. He survived the Holocaust, but lost his entire family.

 By Chance Alone is his memoir based on his painful ordeal and serves as a warning that history must never repeat itself. By Chance Alone one of the five finalists on Canada Reads 2019​. It will be defended by science journalist and TV host Ziya Tong.

Canada Reads 2019 will air on CBC Radio One at 11 a.m. (1 p.m. AT/1:30 p.m. NT), on CBC at 3 p.m. (3:30 NT), live streamed online at CBC Books at 11 a.m. ET and will be available on the free CBC Gem streaming service.

Eisen spoke with CBC Books about being a writer and a lifelong reader.

How much of a book lover are you?

"I was an early reader. My aunt educated herself by reading books and read them constantly and I remember I would sit on her lap as she would read her stories. That's how I started out as a reader. As a child, I remember reading every one of Jules Verne's classic books. I think I was about five, six or seven at the time. I also read lots of Western stories and books about cowboys. Around 12 and a half, I was taken out of school and became a trade apprentice. There was no time for reading then.

I read a lot of the Holocaust books. I had to know what really happened.

"My life after the concentration camps, around 1946 or 1947, I was in Czechoslovakia. I read all the literary classics including Tolstoy's War and Peace and Anna Karenina and the works of Émile Zola. I was an avid reader. Living in Czechoslovakia, I had to learn Czech, and so I did that by reading these classic books. When I came to Canada, to improve my English I went to local libraries and I read the those same classics again but this time in English. I was also reading books by classic authors like Pearl S. Buck, James A. Michener, Ayn Rand and Ernest Hemingway."

How vital were books and reading for you during that time?

"I read a lot of the Holocaust books. I had to know what really happened. I read a couple of books by Max I. Dimont  — Jews, God and History and The Indestructible Jews in particular. I read these books to learn more about my history and my heritage, which was important for me. That's the only way I was able to better understand everything that happened to my family.

"I also tend to gravitate around books set in Europe during the Second World War. So books like The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, for example. And I also love action thriller novels — books by Tom Clancy in particular. Clancy is a genius, I tell you! I love Red October and a book like The Bear and the Dragon — with a plot that features political drama between U.S., Russia and China — has many parallels to today's real-world events around war, trade and politics."

Given your busy schedule as a speaker and educator, when do you find time to read?

"I don't find much time to read these days. It's hard because I travel and do a lot of speaking engagements. I would come back home and I'm often wiped out. You don't realize how hard it is to spend hours talking to people and answering questions. I have realized that I need at least eight hours of rest these days. Even though I'm a fast reader, I've got a pile of books to read in my home and don't know when I will get around to reading them!

I love reading and I regularly go back to some books if I need to recall certain events. I'm an individual who believes in self-directed learning.

"Because I speak at a lot of schools I receive a lot of gift cards from bookstores. I use them to buy books. I also go to the library on a regular basis. I love reading and I regularly go back to some books if I need to recall certain events. I'm an individual who believes in self-directed learning. I love reading at home or at the cottage. At home, I love reading on my nice leather chair, which was crafted in Montreal. A quiet day, when I don't have much to do, I will read a book. You can virtually travel the world by reading books. I can speak about and to any part of the world as a result."

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

The Canada Reads 2019 contenders


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