At 86 years old, after decades of speaking and educating on the topic, Max Eisen, an Auschwitz survivor, finally published his memoirs in 2016. Mr. Eisen, a Hungarian Jew from Czechoslovakia, was 15 years old when he reached the selection ramp at Auschwitz in 1944. This is his story.
The book follows Eisen’s life in chronological order, going pretty smoothly through his beautiful childhood, arrest, captivity at Auschwitz and other camps (including a communist prison shortly after the war), and a quick snippet of his post war activities. I thought the book was very well structured and focused on what the reader would likely find interesting. You can see Mr. Eisen had some really good editors helping him, and he gives them credit. I found this story pretty gripping, not necessarily in a page-turner kind of way, but I was always curious to see what happens next. It’s moving and rich in details.
Where this book suffers at, is style. Obviously memoirs are more about substance than style, but Eisen’s story seems devoid of any kind of personality. Despite the deeply personal horrors he says he went through, there is little emotion put into his writings. The uncertainty, the deep pain of losing his family, all read more like a report than a hurtful personal experience, and are quickly glossed over. The Germans (and often times his fellow inmates and friends) are portrayed like a foggy, collective unit, sort of evil versus good, without any nuance or particular character traits. Is it some kind of depersonalization? Does Eisen instinctively distance himself from his feelings as a way to protect himself? That may be a possibility.
The writing style is also a bit bland. “The tall fence surrounding our yard had a main gate for vehicles and a smaller gate for people”. I don’t know if that has too much importance given the subject at hand, though. And it kind of makes the book easy to follow. As previously said, it is well structured.
By Chance Alone is definitely a painful, thought provoking manuscript, and there is a lot happening in its 250+ pages. But it also isn’t any different than most other memoirs from Auschwitz survivors. The story is the same, and given that Eisen doesn’t put much personal feeling into it, I would say it falls somewhere in the middle of the pack regarding books on this topic. It is one of the highest (if not the highest) rated ones, but I’m not sure it quite deserves it. I would give it 3.5 stars out of 5 – above average.