Max Eisen felt like “a marked person.” The noted Holocaust educator, speaker and author reflected on the vandalism that saw his likeness defaced – indeed, marked – with the German word “achtung.”
The word was written on a UJA Federation of Greater Toronto sign outside Beth Jacob synagogue at Overbrook Place and Wilmington Avenue, which says, “We make Holocaust education happen,” and features Eisen’s tightly cropped face. Part of the ominous German word draped his forehead in black spray-paint.
It was discovered on July 21, on the eve of the fast of Tisha b’Av, which is traditionally the saddest day on the Jewish calendar.
The word has various meanings: “warning,” “danger” or “attention.” But for Holocaust survivors like Eisen, it’s fraught with meaning, conjuring Nazi-era memories of orders barked in a concentration camp or Jewish ghetto.
“I couldn’t add it up in my mind,” the prolific Holocaust educator, who is 89, told reporters at a July 25 news conference at the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre’s offices. “The reality came in afterwards. I felt that I was sort of a marked person.”
Police are investigating. According to Toronto Police Services spokesperson Jennifer Sidhu, the vandalism is not bring considered a hate crime, but as mischief to religious property.
The incident reminded Eisen of pre-Nazi Europe.
“It started with words and it’s the same thing here in Canada,” the Auschwitz survivor told reporters. “For us survivors to see this, it’s a creeping sickness. It starts with words and gets more powerful as we go along.…
“Here is my picture with a German word on it. Those are words that bring back all kinds of horrors. It started with words and led to terrible places. We survivors know this.”
Eisen said that he “would have thought that at a time like this, the entire community would have been out there hollering about this, not just the Jewish community, saying, ‘You cannot do this in my town. Have we not learned from the past?’ ”
Despite this, he told The CJN that following the vandalism, his email inbox and telephone voice mail were filled with messages of condolences and concern, including from non-Jewish schools where he has spoken in the past.
It was “amazing feedback,” he said.
For us survivors to see this, it’s a creeping sickness.
– Max Eisen
Toronto Mayor John Tory also condemned the incident. “This type of hatred has no place in Toronto. I stand with our city’s Jewish community in condemning this cowardly act,” Tory tweeted on July 22.
“We know that across the GTA and Canada, the Jewish community is the most frequently targeted minority (for hate crimes),” the mayor later added. “That’s why it is so important for all of us to condemn this hatred when we see it in our communities.”
Eisen called on people to speak up in the face of racism and anti-Semitism.
“Things in Europe started because good people stood by and did absolutely nothing. This is the way things start and it just gets worse. The Jews are first, but then everyone else follows.”
Eisen has spoken to tens of thousands of schoolchildren across Canada about his experiences. His powerful memoir of his time in Auschwitz and elsewhere, By Chance Alone, was shortlisted for the 2017 RBC Taylor Prize.
This type of hatred has no place in Toronto.
– John Tory
Asked what he would say to the vandal, Eisen said, “I would like to meet him face to face. I believe he has a lot of hatred that he carries. Come out, stand up and let’s have a conversation.”
Incidents like this “seek to strike fear in the hearts of Jewish Canadians, but our community is resilient,” said the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, which said it was “deeply disturbed” by the incident.
UJA Federation said there are 10 other signs bearing Eisen’s likeness at Toronto synagogues, Jewish schools and other properties.