How My Great-Grandfather’s Lost Shoah Stories Resurfaced 50 Years After His Death
Thousands of Holocaust stories have been published. Many, like ‘Sky Tinged Red,’ are rescued from oblivion by family.
In April 1960 my great-grandfather Isaia Eiger was lying in a Minneapolis hospital bed, dying from colon cancer, and began telling stories about Auschwitz to my grandmother, who wrote them down in English. He told her about a Greek Jew he met in the camp named Zidkiyahu. He relayed the story of a brave woman who, standing naked in the anteroom to the gas chamber, rebuffed the advances of an SS man and then shot him dead with his own pistol.
What he didn’t tell her was that, years earlier, shortly after the war, he had written a complete chronicle of the two-and-a-half years he spent in Birkenau from April 1942 to November 1944. He also didn’t tell her that there were three typed copies of his 116-page manuscript—which her brother David would eventually find among their father’s other writings three years after his death. And he didn’t tell her about the rest of the book—hundreds of narrow, yellowing pages containing thousands of handwritten words in his impeccable Yiddish script, which he never managed to type (he left his Yiddish typewriter in Germany when he immigrated to the United States in 1949) and that it would take her nearly 50 years to recover.
In 1963, when David found the three typed copies of a lengthy Yiddish manuscript in a box of his father’s writings, among newspaper clippings, drawings, and handwritten poems, it stood out for its heft and its format. But he didn’t have time to take a closer look. He brought one copy to my grandmother and left the other two in the box. My grandmother tried to read the manuscript, but she struggled to distinguish a reysh from a dalet. She only understood a third of the words—enough to know this was a narrative of her father’s experience in Birkenau, but not enough, she thought, to translate it. So, she put it away. In 1968 she and my grandfather took a trip to Israel for their 25th wedding anniversary, and she brought the third typed copy of the book to Yad Vashem. Donating her father’s writing to the museum’s archives gave her a sense of closure, even though she still had little idea of what the handwritten pages contained.
But about 15 years later, something triggered her memory, and she went back to the box and pulled out her copy of the manuscript. I suspect a bit of guilt had been nagging at her over the years, a sense that she had let down her father, whom she still speaks of today with the wide-eyed awe of a little girl talking about her hero. She decided to try again to translate her father’s memoir. The Yiddish was still difficult to read, but she came up with a plan. She would first transliterate the words into English letters, and then she would translate them. The two-step approach allowed her to focus on one or two words at a time and to make sense of them without trying to fit them into the larger context of the sentence.
As she began translating her father’s words, she quickly discovered that these were stories she had never heard before, stories he hadn’t told her when he was sick with cancer. They were stories about the early months of Birkenau’s existence, when Isaia and his fellow prisoners built the very barracks and fences and ditches and latrines that she would later encounter during her own time in the camp in late 1944. They were stories about his involvement in the Auschwitz underground. They were riveting, terrifying stories, told in gruesome detail, about the unbearable torture and beatings he endured and the numerous times when death seemed certain.
“I was absolutely in shivers the whole time,” she told me recently. “I had to slap myself on the wrist and say, ‘You know the outcome, what are you so worried about?’ ”
Isaia Eiger was an accountant, but he writes like an anthropologist recording the rhythms of daily life on the planet where he suddenly found himself. Birkenau was a factory of death, but it was also a society with its own social strata, roles, and norms. We often think of a concentration camp as a two-tiered system: There were guards, who held complete power and authority, and prisoners, who were subject to their whims. But in the world Isaia describes, the Nazis elevated certain prisoners, Jews and gentiles, as heads of work details or leaders of the blocks, creating a layered and complex hierarchy. Sometimes these prisoners did their best to help those under their charge. But in many awful cases, they abused their power and embraced their roles as surrogates for the SS guards, beating and killing their fellow prisoners with gut-wrenching ease and even enjoyment.
As my great-grandfather recalls the indiscriminate beatings he suffered and the torturous punishments he was given for “crimes” he didn’t commit, it’s impossible to understand how anyone survived Birkenau. Partially this is because of how vividly he describes his despair and his certainty that death is imminent. It is a refrain so common that it almost feels belabored, until you realize how raw the feeling still was even years later when he had escaped death’s grip.
But his survival also seems implausible because Isaia did have many near-death moments. In one instance, he was punished for having a sweater—even though it was another prisoner who had been found with the sweater—and sentenced to 10 nights in the standing bunker, literally the chimney of an old oven, with five other men. They were forced to stand all night, squeezed into a tiny space with no air to breathe, cursing one another and their desperate circumstances. By the third night, one of the six didn’t come back. On the sixth night, another man didn’t return either. “It is totally impossible to understand how we made it through those remaining nights,” my great-grandfather writes. “Like shadows we went to work in the daytime and the bunker at night. Everyone looked on us in wonderment.”
But the chronicle isn’t an exercise in self-pity. It’s a historical record, a primary source that documents the history of Auschwitz-Birkenau, a place so unnatural and otherworldly that my grandmother calls it “Planet Auschwitz.” My great-grandfather saw it as his responsibility as a survivor to tell the stories of those who perished. He tells of a boy, 4 years old, whom he pleaded with the chief of the crematoria to save. He copies the entirety of a love letter from a Czech woman to the man she met in the camp, written days before she was killed along with thousands of other Czech prisoners. He describes a father and son in the early days of the camp who were inseparable, always holding hands; two days after the son became sick and died, the father collapsed at work and couldn’t be revived. Many of these people crossed paths with Isaia only briefly, but his book is filled with their names and the few details he knew about their life and their death. In a single paragraph they enter and exit his world, their presence in the story as fleeting as their time on earth.
But the most disturbing part of the chronicle is the detail it provides about the Jewish prisoner-functionaries. Their brutality and inhumanity are unconscionable; the acts they committed are as gruesome as those ascribed to the German perpetrators. Several times, the lower-level block assistants even staged coups against the head prisoner, killing him so one of them could take his place. Leybisch, a thief from Warsaw who was made a block assistant, helped to plot the murder of the block elder and succeed him, only to be killed by his own assistants 10 days later. During his brief time as head of the block, he taunted an observant Jew and demanded that he admit publicly that there is no God. When the man refused, reciting the Shema instead, he beat him to death. “The reign of Leybisch lasted only 10 days,” my great-grandfather writes, “but the number of people that he killed was greater than at any other time, in weeks or months.”
As my grandmother transliterated and translated her father’s text, a co-worker was generously typing the finished translation. It took them about five years, and when they reached the end of the typewritten manuscript, they both realized that it wasn’t the end of the chronicle: The narrative stopped in September 1942, only four months into Isaia’s two-and-a-half year internment in Birkenau. There had to be more. My grandmother went back to the boxes of files she had from her father, but she didn’t find it. She asked her brother David to check for more of their father’s papers. He brought over a box that had been previously overlooked, but among the piles of photographs and handwritten stories, she couldn’t find the rest of the memoir. Eventually, she gave up.
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