By Marvin Ross
I’ve just finished reading By Chance Alone, a book of Holocaust survival, life as a refugee and eventual settlement in Toronto. Max Eisen, the author, is a Hungarian Jew who was rounded up with his family, neighbours and relatives from a small city in Hungary and sent off to Auschwitz. He was a young teenager at the time and the only one in his family to survive.
For many years, he has travelled across Canada lecturing about his life to schools, universities and even the York Region police cadets, the Ontario Provincial Police and the Canadian Forces College. He is one of many who devote their senior years to reminding us of what happened but, sadly, few of us listen. The world today is full of refugees fleeing war, poverty and misery while fascism, Neo-Nazis and white supremacy are once again growing.
In 2015, Eisen went back to Germany to testify at the trial of the SS official who was known as the bookkeeper. He was in charge of gathering valuables such as money, jewellery and gold crowns pulled from the mouths of gassed Hungarian Jews. When enough was accumulated, he carried the ill gotten gains in a large suitcase to a bank in Berlin a few times a week. The man was convicted but still maintained his innocence as a man simply following orders.
Mr Eisen commented “I have a great deal of concern for humanity should a supremacist ideology take hold again. It will be a threat to our way of life and our freedom.”
Sadly, this is exactly what is happening in many parts of the world and Mr Eisen puts into words the warning signs that we are presently seeing in many countries today. One of those warning signs is the increasing anti-semitism in the US particularly among Christian evangelicals.
Prior to and during the war, Canada and the US were reluctant to take in refugees fleeing Hitler. Canada’s policy towards Jews fleeing Hitler as described by historian, Irving Abella was “none is too many”. The refugee ship, the St Louis carrying 900 Jewish refugees was denied entry into Canada and the US and the passengers all returned to Europe and their deaths.
After the war, both Canada and the US began welcoming refugees. First the Holocaust survivors, then thousands of Hungarians in 1956 fleeing Communism after the uprising. All have been an asset and contributed to the nations they settled in. Then there were the boat people from Vietnam, the South Asians kicked out of Uganda by Idi Amin and countless others.
Thankfully, Canada has been quite open in letting in many from the wars in the Middle East and we now have a situation where in the past two years an estimate 45,000 people have come here via unofficial border crossings into Quebec from the US.
Refugees from Trump.
The US, in contrast, rounds up undocumented workers in its country and separates children from their parents on the southern border and locks them up in abysmal conditions.
The pressure of refugees is growing and, thus far, Canada has continued to offer them sanctuary although some are referring to those coming from the US outside of formal border posts as illegal entrants. These are the right wing politicians who do not understand that under international law, refugees are to be accommodated. Right wing politicians in Canada have argued for tests of Canadian values to determine who should be let in. They have also proposed a tip line to report those with barbaric practices.
Sadly, parts of Europe are forgetting their own history and acting despicably. Hungary, which gave the world so many fleeing people in the 50s, is now barring any refugees from its land. Recently, the news reported on a refugee boat in the Mediterranean that was not being allowed to land in Italy despite the horrible conditions on board. Italy has conveniently forgotten that so many of their countrymen migrated to North America for better lives which they found.
What stuck me about Max Eisen’s survival (a Jew) was the help he got from a Pole. Eisen was struck on the back of the head with a rifle butt by a German guard and carried unconscious to the camp hospital. The chief surgeon was a Polish physician, Dr Tadeusz Orzeszko, who was being held as a political prisoner. As Eisen recovered from his surgery, he was offered the chance to work in the camp hospital assisting with operations.
Max and the doctor became separated with the advance of the Red Army and the start of the Death March where the Germans forced the prisoners to march away from the camp and freedom to another one closer to Germany. They never did meet again but in 2010, Max met the now deceased doctor’s family at a reception in Warsaw. He has maintained a close friendship with the doctor’s son and then learned that Dr Orzeszko’s granddaughter, Julia, named her baby son Max in his honour.
The camp that Eisen was moved to after the Death March was liberated by the 761st Tank Battalion or the Black Panthers – a segregated unit of the US Army as, by law, Blacks were not allowed to serve alongside whites. One officer in that unit had been Jackie Robinson who broke the colour bar in major league baseball.
If we are not to descend into the actions of Nazi Germany, we will need to begin acting with more humanity than we have been. Germany, after all, has been trying and Angela Merkel deserves a great deal of praise. The hordes of refugees will continue to grow and we need to develop a compassionate policy to help them.