For the better part of 30 years, Holocaust survivor Max Eisen has been on a mission to educate people through volunteer speaking engagements. Sharing his first-hand experiences of the year he was incarcerated in Nazi death camps is part of Eisen’s ongoing effort to fulfill the promise made to his father before the two parted at Auschwitz for the last time: to “tell the world what happened here.”
By Chance Alone is another means of keeping that promise. Recognizing that, at age 86, he may not be around to tell his story much longer, Eisen has written it down to ensure that it does not die with him. And it is an astounding narrative, though more for its substance than its style.
Eisen’s memoir proceeds chronologically, giving an overview of his pre-war life that serves as a contrast to the devastation that befell his family. A Hungarian Jew born in 1929 in what was then Czechoslovakia, Eisen had a largely enjoyable childhood. With the 1939 annexation of eastern Czechoslovakia to Hungary, Eisen’s happy childhood came to an abrupt end. By 1941, Eisen’s father and uncle had both been conscripted to labour battalions, but were on leave in April 1944 when the gendarmes came crashing through the gates of their compound. The family members were deported to Auschwitz. A year later, only Eisen remained alive.
It is impossible to read a survivor’s account without being moved. The horrors that Eisen describes – from starvation, torture, and constant threat of being killed to the personal injustices he had to deal with – are incomprehensible and make our First-World problems feel ridiculous and abominably self-indulgent. What’s missing from Eisen’s account is a sense of the emotions that must accompany his recollections. That he is still holding his feelings in check is both justified and understandable, but it does render the storytelling a bit flat.
Still, Eisen’s memoir is a timely examination of the human capacity for cruelty, ignorance, and depravity. It is also a message of hope, a cri de coeur, and a reminder that small acts of kindness can have an immeasurable impact on another person’s life.