Max eisen bracingly honest in his holocaust memoir gum swelling after tooth extraction

If there is a trick to this genre, it might be to strike a balance between turning readers off with too much horror, and pulling one’s punch with too little. Eisen is bracingly honest in his telling; while not sparing the reader tales of brutality, deprivation, death and gore, he manages to be cool enough to make one want to turn the page.

Eisen’s story begins in the town of Moldava, Czechoslovakia, and a large, Orthodox family that was content and well-off. The extended clan numbered about 60, many living together in a family compound. The author relates a happy early life, with summers spent on a farm.

By 1940, anti-Jewish edicts banned Jews from owning radios and forbade them from selling alcohol and tobacco, meaning his father was out of work and an income. The next year, all Jewish males between the ages of 18 and 45 – including Eisen’s father and uncle– were shipped to forced labour battalions, including Eisen’s father and uncle.

All members of his mother’s family were deported.

Jews in Hungarian-speaking regions remained relatively safe until the spring and summer of 1944, when in a span of just eight weeks, some 437,000 of them were deported to Auschwitz, Eisen among them. His descriptions of the three-day cattle-car ride and, on dazed arrival, of blinding floodlights, shouts of “ Raus! Schnell!” (Out! Fast!) and prisoners’ striped uniforms aren’t new but they are no less searing.

But Eisen does pause for many asides (the barely edible rations, the sickening smell of burning flesh, the dead-eyed prisoners) and to describe one scene readers are not likely to forget. While showering, a young prisoner’s glasses slipped off and he got down on the floor to search for them. “A guard came over and kicked him in the side of the head with his jackboot,” Eisen writes in an almost matter-of-fact way that so jars with the content. “The young man rolled over and the guard stomped on his chest. I could hear the cracking of ribs. The guard, who was now in a frenzy, continued to stomp on the man until he was dead.”

Caught loafing on his work detail one day, Eisen himself was beaten and thrown in a ditch to die with a head injury. Carted back to the camp’s hospital (which existed for guards as well as inmates; Eisen explains why), he received surgery, survived and was appointed the operating room’s cleaner and all around surgical assistant.

A later task involved removing the gold fillings and crowns from the teeth of the recently gassed. Their owners had been alive just a few moments earlier, Eisen pondered. “And now they were just a pile of ash.” He worked there for six months.

Eisen also witnessed the hanging in January, 1945 of four young female prisoners who had smuggled gunpowder into the camp in a successful bid to blow up one of the crematoria. He relates how before being executed one at a time, each spoke the final Hebrew words “ chazak v’amatz” (be strong and brave).

Eisen’s postwar meanderings took him through Austria, back to his much-changed hometown, to a battle with wet pleurisy and recovery under the wing of a Jewish organization in a Czech town where he lived for three years; a hair-raising escape from newly-communist Prague, a displaced persons camp, and finally, arrival in Canada in 1949 with images from Jack London novels dancing in his head.