Survivor Story: Max Tibor Eisen

"I was born in Moldava, Czechoslovakia in 1929 into a large religious family. I was deported to Auschwitz from Moldava (which was then in Hungary) in 1944, at age 15, where I was imprisoned from May 1944 until January 1945.

My immediate and extended family was made up of approximately sixty persons which included my parents, two younger brothers and a baby sister, three grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins. Three of us survived, myself and two cousins. One cousin lives in Israel and the other in the U.S.A.

Prior to the end of my stay in Auschwitz, I had been assigned to the prisoners’ operating room where I worked for the last four months. I recall the chief surgeon in the operating room was a Polish political prisoner, Dr. Orzesko. This job allowed me to keep myself clean and better fed then most of the prisoners in Auschwitz. As a result I had a better chance to survive the forthcoming death march.

On a black freezing night, January 18, l945, those prisoners who were able to walk were forced to march out of Auschwitz. There were SS guards with dogs and guns on both sides of the column of prisoners. We had no idea where we were being taken, whether it was to be shot or marched to death in the cold. The prisoners were wearing wooden clogs and were slipping in the snow. Many prisoners were shot when they could not keep up the pace or had dropped out from exhaustion. It was total chaos.

By this date the Russian front was only a few kilometers away from Auschwitz. The sky was lit up by artillery explosions and other sounds of war were all around us. It gave me hope. But the guards were pushing us hard as they were afraid of the approaching Soviet army.

Ironically, a little while before the march, some prisoners were brought into Auschwitz from neighboring camps including some people from my town of Moldava who were in my barrack. They were so emaciated from overwork and starvation in a camp called Buna they could no longer stand on their feet. I begged them to come to the assembly for the march for I feared that they would all be liquidated, but it was in vain. They could not do so. It turned out that they were liberated by the Soviet army only four days later while I endured four more torturous months.

We were slipping and sliding, walking five abreast with arms locked together. We walked the entire night and following day without stopping. I couldn’t imagine how long we could go on like this. Yet, for four or five days we continued to march without food or water. As we went along the road, I managed to pick up a few handfuls of snow and put it in my mouth to keep some moisture in me. We walked, barely conscious. All of a sudden I could feel the person who was marching next to me hanging down on my arm and the arm of the person on his other side. When we realized this person was dead, we just dropped him. When a prisoner dropped out of the column, a guard usually dispatched a bullet into his head to make sure he was dead. I guess this was the rule.

As the march continued we turned black from frost. All we had on our bodies were the striped prisoners’ garb. We had no gloves. We had little caps, but nothing to protect our ears. I managed to find a paper cement bag which I put under my top. This helped a lot. As in my days in Auschwitz, to be resourceful meant life.

One night we were brought into a large farm with huge stables that housed big storage places for straw. It was a relief to burrow into the straw and experience a few hours of rest. I kept thinking that maybe I should hide myself in the straw but I was really scared. I was in Poland and I didn’t feel secure to do so wearing prisoner garb and not knowing the local language.

The next morning we were marched again, this time to Loslau. There we were loaded onto metal boxcars made for transporting coal so there was no top to them. When we climbed over the sides to get in, it was so cold we just about froze to the metal. We were packed into the boxcars like sardines in a can.

In the boxcars, we were taken from occupied Poland into occupied Czechoslovakia. In the middle of the night, we stopped at a railway station . In the morning I saw a sign with the name Pilsen on it. I was familiar with the name of this town from my history classes in school. As we were waiting in the boxcars frozen into a block of ice, some Czech people appeared with bakers’ baskets on the overhead bridge and began to throw pieces of bread into the open boxcars. I can never forget this act. After what I had been through, I could not believe that people would do this for us. How did these people know we were here and know what was happening to us? This act boosted our spirits.

All of a sudden the guards were yelling, “Don’t throw any bread. These are Jews.” But they just kept on throwing bread into the boxcars below until the guards started to shoot at them. Unfortunately, I was too far from the bridge to receive any bread, but it made me feel happy to see there were still some people on our side. It was like a hand reaching out after these terrible few months. I was going through such a tremendous change during this vicious treatment and was ready to give up on humanity. And here was someone reaching out and giving us bread.

I will never forget this incident.

(As an aside I have recently learned that Dr. Erik Kulka, a professor who resides in Israel, was on the same transport together with his son. Both jumped off the train at Pilsen and were hidden by Czech people until the end of the war.)

Our transport continued on until we came to a stop several days later at a bridge which crossed the River Danube. It was early February and there were huge ice flows floating down the blue water of the Danube river. I thought they were going to do away with us right there. The bridge was heavily damaged by Allied bombing, and many of the railway ties were missing. Nevertheless, we were made to cross the bridge, and many people fell through into the freezing river. I didn’t know if I would ever make it across.

Somehow I made it across this bridge and we came into this beautiful little town of Mauthausen. About a thousand of us Ñ filthy, frozen, and covered in grime Ñ were slogging right through the middle of the town, with these picturesque storefronts on either side of us. The homes had beautiful filigree woodwork, typical for Austria. I looked up and saw these beautiful clean curtains in the windows. I kept thinking I would give my life if I could go inside, have a bath and lay down in a bed. Because every bone in my body was sore by this time.

The next thing that happened, I will never forget: I saw four young women approaching on the sidewalk. They were pulling little sleighs with kids on them, healthy children with rosy cheeks, all bundled up in warm winter clothing. The children looked at us with their eyes wide open, but their mothers all stared the other way, and focused their eyes on the storefronts. They wanted no part of us.It was like we didn’t exist. You know, the two places, Pilsen and Mauthausen, show you how people reacted differently. The people in Pilsen were not bystanders; they tried to help us. But in Mauthausen we were utterly rejected.
I’ll never forget this rejection.

[The marchers spend four tortuous days in Mauthausen, before marching to Melk, where they were forced to do labor in underground shafts, drilling rock from the side of the mountains. They were forced to march, yet again, in early April.]

It is early April, and we are being moved again. We were loaded into river barges on the Danube, and were taken to Linz, an Austrian city west of Melk. For days we marched into the mountains. People were dying all the time. The more we marched, actually slogged, the more people died. When somebody died, we tried to look at what we could save, if we could salvage a piece of clothing or shoes, anything that would help us survive. The dead person didn’t need these articles anymore. That was a terrible thing but that’s the way it went.

Finally we arrived at a work camp called Ebensee, where survivors of many other camps had been marched to. But there was no work to be done as everything was disintegrating in the closing days of the war. In the remaining three weeks to liberation, scores of people died in their bunks from malnutrition and typhus which was sweeping through the camp. Our meager rations were discontinued and the water supply in the camp was shut off. I myself had typhus and did not know how long I could hang on.

May 6 came and I could hear airplanes overhead. I had a high fever and I thought I was dreaming. Somebody came shuffling in and said that the guards were no longer in the tower and there was a white flag flying over the main entrance gate. I rolled out from my bunk and dragged myself along the ground on my stomach to the camp’s central square. I found myself laying amongst thousands of other bodies that had not been disposed of in over a month.

I was looking at the entrance to the camp. All of a sudden the gate came crashing down and a tank rolled through with a white star on it. I saw soldiers on the tank. I know now it was the 80th U.S. infantry division, with black soldiers that were manning the tanks. Their eyes were like saucers because they were absolutely shocked by what they saw. I was so happy. I was liberated, the Nazis are not going to kill me anymore! I dreamed of being reunited with my family, and never having to be alone again. But I didn’t know how much longer I could survive as we were all in such terrible condition. Our body clocks were winding down and there was no way of stopping this cycle. Thousands of people kept dying even after liberation.

The Americans tried to do their best for us, but although they were compassionate, they were not equipped to handle our situation. Army nurses wearing masks tried to clean us up. They cut off our rags with big scissors and held us up like spindly little rag dolls under the shower trying to wash us down. They housed us in a big hospital tent with army cots. I thought I was in heaven. Every bone in my body was sore, and now, finally, I could rest on a canvas cot and not on rough boards. It was the best bed I ever slept in.

Over the next few months, I slowly regained some of my health. In August of that year, though not completely recovered, I made my way back to my home town of Moldava with the help of the American army. A farmer from a neighboring town gave me a lift on his horse and buggy and left me off in front of my house. My heart was really beating hard. I always dreamt that I would open the door and everything would be the same as it was before, that someone from my family would be there to welcome me and finally this whole march, this whole nightmare, would come to an end. Somebody would take care of me and I would be able to rest my tired body. (Remember, I was only sixteen years of age at the time.)

Was I disappointed. A neighbor opened the door, a neighbor of ours who was now living in my house. I could see our furniture inside, and I caught a glimpse of the credenza in our kitchen. She didn’t recognize me because I didn’t look like the same person who left the year before. When I told her who I was, I could see she was not at all happy to see me. I had this strange feeling that somehow I was intruding, that I was not really safe here. She wouldn’t let me into the house, or even give me a glass of water.

I realized that I was now 16 years of age and all alone. No one of my family had returned, and I suspected they would never return. My weakened condition caught up with me and I ended up in hospital for another several months fighting pleurisy, an inflammation of the lungs. Eventually I made my way to an orphanage in Marienbad supported by the American Joint Distribution Committee where boys from several European countries were being housed. In the Marienbad Yeshiva, which was near Prague, we were allowed to learn a trade and study Torah under the supervision of a kindly Hasidic rabbi by the name of Rabbi Stern. The time I spent in Marienbad was the beginning of my road to healing. Three years later, in October, l949, I came to Canada and began a new chapter in my life. I married, raised two sons, and eventually became the grandfather of two granddaughters.

But the past was never far from my mind. I never stopped remembering the names and faces of my family, of my grandparents, of my mother and father, and of my 12 year old brother Shmuel, my 8 year old brother Moshe, and my nine month old sister Judith Ñ who all perished in Auschwitz. Yet sometimes, the pain eased a little. Not long ago, a sensitive young man dedicated his Bar Mitzvah in honor of my brother Shmuel who never had a chance to celebrate his Bar Mitzvah. I attended shul that morning, watched Adam read from the Torah, and remembered how brilliant my brother was in cheder, how he was cut down before he could reach the age of mitzvot. But Adam was still carrying on the tradition in the name of my brother, and in the name of so many other children like Shmuel who were lost in the Holocaust, and I was comforted.

In 1992, together with a friend, I returned again to Moldava, the home of my childhood. I pictured it as if everything was the same as when I left, forty some odd years ago. My grandfather had a lumberyard and a big orchard behind my house where three families lived. But now the house was made into a warehouse. There were metal bars on the windows of the house and instead of the lumberyard there was a big scrap yard in its place. We were welcomed by the manager, a friendly woman who ran the scrapyard. When the owner arrived later in the day, the manager told him that I was born here, in this house. Within earshot of me, he said to her, in Czech: “Yeto Zid” (“Is he a Kike” ?)

My friend and I were taken aback, since ‘Zid’ is a very demeaning way of referring to someone who is Jewish. I walked up to him and said, “Yes I’m a Jew.” And this man started to yell at me, shouting that I’m a rotten Slovak for running away. Then he asks me: ” Do you want to buy this house?” I said: “I don’t want to buy the house, this is my house”.
This was such a shock. In 1992, in democratic Czechoslovakia, people could be as racist and as insensitive as they were fifty years ago! The manager put her arm around me and asked me to come inside the house. Most of the house was storage, used as a warehouse for the scrap yard. They had opened up one side of the house where they attached huge metal doors where the kitchen used to be so that trucks could back in and load and unload parts. Everything was so unreal.

My friend and I left my old home and walked through the centre of Moldava.
It was a dead town. I pointed and said: “The Rosenberg’s lived here, the Deitche’s lived here, the baker, the butcher..” and on and on. It was such a disaster going back, I can’t tell you. It was a dead town because they were all dead.
I left with such a bitter feeling.

This year I am returning to Poland on the March of the Living. Together with thousands of Jewish teens, I will march on the same ground I marched through some fifty years ago. As I walk on this familiar soil I will recall all those who perished and I will say a prayer in their memory. I will also look at the young people marching with me, arm in arm, among them my sixteen-year-old granddaughter Amy, and Adam, the boy who honored the memory of my brother on his thirteenth birthday. And I will be comforted knowing there is a future for the Jewish people and that the memory of our six million will always be cherished.

And I will leave feeling full of hope."

As told to Eli Rubenstein prior to the 1998 March of the Living.
Toronto, Ontario

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