How can you not know about Auschwitz? I mean, really.
And yet, there was Alex Johnstone, NDP candidate in the Ontario riding of Hamilton West-Ancaster-Dundas, admitting this week she had no knowledge of the most infamous Nazi death camp, a place where more than one million people died during the Holocaust.
Never heard of it, she told the media, after an intrepid reporter unearthed a 2008 Facebook comment in which she jokingly compared the electrified fence posts surrounding Auschwitz to, of all things, a penis. (She also managed to spell “Polish” incorrectly.)
People make mistakes, sure. And seeing as we’ve only just finished atoning for our own errors, perhaps we can forgive Johnstone’s, too. But her ignorance should not go unchecked, and if Ontario’s education curriculum – which Johnstone is surely familiar with, given her years of service as a school trustee – failed to clue her in to what happened at the hellhole that was Auschwitz, then perhaps the Jewish community can assist.
And who better to take on the task than an actual Auschwitz survivor?
So, Ms. Johnstone, allow me to introduce you to Max Eisen.
Eisen was deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau in the Hungarian transports of 1944. His family was murdered there and in the Majdanek death camp. Out of approximately 60 family members, only three survived the concentration camps.
For the last 22 years, Max has been speaking about his experiences at Auschwitz on behalf of the Sarah and Chaim Neuberger Holocaust Education Centre in Toronto, Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center, and Names, Not Numbers, among other groups. He talks to elementary, high school and university students, police officers and politicians about the horrors he witnessed. A few years back, he even made a presentation at Hamilton City Hall.
Auschwitz was a place of brutality and dehumanization, Eisen told me over the phone this week. “You were fortunate to live from second to second… One minute was like 1,000 years.”
“There were no quarters given to anybody,” he said. “You were either being starved to death or beaten to death, or for sure you went to the gas chambers.
“I have seen the worst that barbarians can dish out,” he added. “I’ve seen it. I’ve smelled it.”
Eisen himself almost didn’t live to tell of the destruction he witnessed. He said he was “barely hanging on” when an American tank unit liberated him on May 6, 1945. So when I told Eisen about Johnstone, he just couldn’t believe it. “For us survivors to hear this is very painful,” he admitted. “To claim ignorance – you can’t tell me that.”
The good news is there is no shortage of material to help fill in Johnstone’s Auschwitz blind spot – documentaries, memorials, testimonials. Eisen suggests that she read Elie Wiesel or Primo Levi. (Eisen’s own memoir is set for release next year.)
“Let her sit in on a few sessions of high school Holocaust education,” he recommended. “There are so many ways to get educated. There’s no excuse.”
And if all that isn’t enough to correct the miseducation of Alex Johnstone, Eisen has one more idea.
“I would be more than happy to educate her,” he says. — YONI