Written by March of the Living Holocaust Survivor Max Eisen
I don’t know who you are. I can’t imagine we’ve met. But last Friday you chose to spray-paint the word achtung on my photo, featured on a sign outside Beth Jacob Synagogue, promoting UJA Federation of Greater Toronto’s Holocaust education.
Perhaps, in this shocking act, you simply craved headlines. Or maybe you meant to offend and frighten Toronto’s Jewish community. Whatever your “reason,” you obviously knew that achtung – German for attention – is a word that struck fear into the hearts of millions of Jews who heard it screamed by their killers.
Well, you’ve got my attention. And now I’ll use it to tell more people, through this newspaper, the dangers of indifference to antisemitism. I will turn your dark act into a sliver of light.
The sign you defaced bears my image because I bore witness to the genocide of the Jewish people in Europe. Out of an extended family of more than 60 loving members, all but three of us were murdered in the Holocaust.
Ironically, I would survive Auschwitz-Birkenau only because of a terrible beating by an SS guard. My injuries sent me to the camp hospital where a Polish political prisoner working as a surgeon gave me a smock and made me clean the operating room. Had he not done so, I would have ended up in the gas chamber along with the other prisoners unable to return to work.
After liberation I moved to Canada, where I met my wife, had children, and rebuilt my life in the greatest country in the world. I had survived, but not without images of inhumanity beyond the darkest imagination. As much as I may wish to forget, I can never betray a promise I made to my father, before he was murdered, that I would bear witness to all that I saw.
This is why I share my story through programs run by UJA of Greater Toronto’s Neuberger Holocaust Centre, as featured on the sign you vandalized, as well as Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. It’s why I lead groups of young Canadians on life-changing educational trips to Auschwitz-Birkenau with March of the Living Canada. And it’s why I volunteer with the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), which advocates for stronger hate crime and human rights laws to protect all vulnerable groups.
My promise to my father is also why I wrote my memoirs, a nightmarish process of recalling my experience in detail. At age 89, my time is limited. But, when I am no longer here, my voice will still be heard.
Even today, events remind me that the Holocaust took place because countless individuals gradually normalized grotesque acts of evil. During the trial of SS guard Oscar Groening, one of two such trials at which I testified, he described an incident of the SS finding a crying baby that someone had desperately hidden in a bundle of clothes.
Groening didn’t refer to the guards’ decision to smash the baby’s head against a train car as murder or even cruelty. He simply noted that the crying stopped, as though such barbarism were a part of the job. His choice of words showed how an entire society could turn dehumanization into a matter of routine.
Indeed, what we often forget is that the Holocaust started in a German society that, by many standards, was “normal.” Germany was a place of high culture and higher education. A few years before the Holocaust, it was considered among the most progressive and advanced countries in Europe.
From this we should learn that anti-semitism and hate in all forms thrive when dangerous words are met with complacency and indifference. To think ourselves immune is to remove that which inoculates us: awareness, self-scrutiny, and vigilance.
I am an eye-witness to the power of words. Which is why, when you use achtung as a weapon, I will not be frightened or silent. I will continue using my testimony – my words – to help heal this world. Given the shocking violence that just took place on the Danforth, our great city is especially in need of healing this week.
Originally published HERE