TORONTO — Max Eisen’s memory is a thing to behold: he rattles off names, places and precise dates with ease. Complementing those is a full palette of sensory impressions: smells, sounds, pains, tastes. Even at 86, which he turns next month, Eisen is as sharp a witness as anyone could wish for.
If the look on Thomas Walther’s face was any indication, Eisen’s horrific memories of Auschwitz will be useful.
A retired German judge turned Nazi hunter and prosecutor, Walther was in Canada last month to interview survivors of the infamous death camp in the case against Oskar Groening. It’s hoped the videotaped testimony of at least 23 Canadian “co-plaintiffs,” and dozens of others worldwide, will help secure Groening’s conviction as probably the last Auschwitz guard to face justice.
Now 93, Groening has been charged with 300,000 counts of aiding and abetting murder.
Known as “the Bookkeeper of Auschwitz,” the SS sergeant was in charge of collecting the cash, jewelry and valuables of Hungarian Jews between May 15 and July 12, 1944. In that time, 437,000 Jews from Hungary and neighbouring territories arrived by train at Auschwitz, and 300,000 were sent to the gas chambers right away.
The testimony of co-plaintiffs—those whose loved ones were murdered at the camp—will be used as evidence against Groening, who, though he did not participate directly in killings and worked behind the scenes, is seen as a cog in the Nazi murder machine.
Eisen, a well-known local Holocaust educator and speaker, was born in the Czech town of Moldava nad Bodvou and arrived at Auschwitz in May, 1944 as a 15-year-old along with his parents, two brothers, a sister, three grandparents, aunts and an uncle.
Sitting before Walther and a video camera last week at a Toronto hotel, Eisen calmly recalled his nightmare, with occasional gentle prodding from Walther on specifics – dates, visuals, times of day.
Eisen arrived at the camp in the dead of night after a hellish train trip from the town of Kassa (Kosice). There were blinding floodlights and shouts of “Raus! Schnell!” (“Out! Fast!”) There was a horrible stench and he saw “big” flames shooting out from “something.”
“We were in total shock. Everyone was numb.”
His mother, grandparents, aunts and siblings were shunted to the left for “disinfection,” and gassed. Eisen, his father and uncle were directed to the right.
Their hair was shorn and Eisen saw gold crowns yanked out of mouths with pliers. In the shower, he witnessed a new arrival who had dropped his glasses being stomped to death by an SS guard. “I remember hearing his ribs cracking. This was the first killing I saw. I was in total shock. My father said, ‘keep your mouth shut.’” The three males were tattooed, given uniforms and sent on back-breaking work details.
One day, Eisen’s father asked fellow prisoners when he would see the rest of his family. The reply was: “Your family has gone through the chimney.”
A few months later, his father and uncle were “selected” for death. “That’s it,” Eisen said. “I was an orphan. I was devastated.”
Caught “loafing” one day, he was beaten nearly to death. “My head was smashed in. I lost a lot of blood and was thrown into a ditch. I knew my life was over.”
Carted back to the camp’s hospital, Eisen received surgery, survived and was appointed the operating room’s cleaner. He worked 19 hours a day but in relative safety.
In all, he survived five concentration camps. Of his 60 prewar relatives, only three survived the Holocaust.
Groening’s trial is set to begin April 21 in the northern German city of Lueneburg.
Eisen said he would like to see the former guard convicted and get a life sentence, but instead of jail, spend the rest of his life doing community work and speaking to students.
“That would be the only productive thing to do,” he said.