Toronto Holocaust survivor Max Eisen reflects on a divided world

Max Eisen, 90, stands at a podium in front of a crowd of people in an event room at Centennial College's Progress Campus. On the large screen behind him is a photo of him that was defaced in front of a synagogue.
Max Eisen speaks at a Holocaust Education Week event at Centennial College’s Progress campus on November 5, 2019. Victoria Redden/ Toronto Observer

Max Eisen stood at the podium delivering a talk about surviving the Holocaust. There were screens to either side of him showing photos of his life before, during, and after living at Auschwitz II-Birkenau during the last year of the Second World War. Eisen paused the slideshow at a picture of a poster of him that was vandalised in 2018, beside a synagogue in Toronto. 

“This poison of hatred against Jews is well and alive,” Eisen remarked. “It starts with the Jews, but it does not end with the Jews.”

Eisen, 90, shared his story Tuesday during a Holocaust Education Week (HEW) event held at Centennial College’s Progress campus. The program was part of a seven-day discussion around the theme The Holocaust and Now, leading up to Remembrance Day. HEW organizers recognize that as hate crimes, war, and genocide continue to flourish around the world, it is imperative to learn from humanity’s past atrocities to not repeat the same mistakes.

Eisen was born into an Orthodox Jewish family in Moldova, Czechoslovakia. He emigrated to Canada in 1949, at the age of 20, after surviving as a slave labourer in concentration camps. Out of his 60 family members, only three survived the Holocaust. Today, he volunteers as a speaker, educator, and author based out of Toronto. Eisen’s memoir, By Chance Alone: A Remarkable True Story of Courage and Survival at Auschwitz, won CBC’s Canada Reads competition this year.

“Terrible things happen when good people stand by and do nothing,” said Eisen, referring to the anti-Semitism he experienced as a child and continues to face today.

Eisen’s photo on a billboard, in front of Beth Jacob Synagogue in Toronto, was vandalised with the word “Achtung,” which means “Attention” in German, in July 2018. The word brings back grave memories of living in the concentration camp when Nazis would say “Achtung” before barking orders at the prisoners. It took Toronto police five days to declare the act as a hate crime.

Corey Balsam also knows the importance of protecting human rights. He is the national coordinator of Independent Jewish Voices Canada (IJV) and his grandfather is a Holocaust survivor. IJV is a Jewish, grassroots organization that stands up to racism and advocates for justice for everyone in Israel, and the Palestinian territories in Gaza and the West Bank. Balsam sees a link between discrimination now and in the past, for all groups of marginalized people. 

“I think it’s really important that we fight against racism, we fight against anti-Semitism, we fight against all these forms of bigotry,” Balsam said in a phone interview.

Balsam and his organization aim to work in solidarity with other people who have been oppressed. Balsam noted the importance of Jewish people adopting the mentality of “Never Again” for humanity instead of just never again for Jews. He believes if we don’t educate people on history, we will continue to see the re-emergence of fascism.

About this article

Posted: Nov 11 2019 3:33 pm
Filed under: News