As a Holocaust survivor, reliving the horrors of Auschwitz is difficult, but he channels the pain into a message of hope, issuing a challenge that calls for future generations to remain vigilant.
“This is something I live with every day of my life,” he said recently in a phone interview from his home in Birmingham. “It’s always with me. And I just try and live with it ... the memories. Part of that is telling people because they are the only ones who can make sure it never happens again.”
Steinmetz will be the guest speaker for Jacksonville State University’s Holocaust Remembrance, April 11, an annual event that aims to put a face to the millions who suffered and died as a result of the systematic, state-sponsored persecution and murder of the Jews at the hands of the Nazis.
Recently, Steinmetz has been participating in a unique project. With Ann Mollengarden, education coordinator for the Birmingham Holocaust Education Center, serving as facilitator, Steinmetz has been interviewed extensively by students from Shades Valley High School in Birmingham and their teacher, Amy McDonald, as part of McDonald’s semester-long study of the Holocaust. The students submit questions and Mollengarden presents them to Steinmetz.
The questions have gone beyond his life in the camps, delving into his childhood, life after the war and his views on humanity after surviving the Holocaust.
“We were in uncharted territory with a lot of this,” Mollengarden says. “And it was a challenge for Max. It’s different for (each survivor) telling their story. Some don’t talk about it at all; some, like Max, only tell certain parts and really don’t get emotional because they’ve told it all so often.
“He keeps certain boxes closed because it’s too hard. Those are boxes we want to open.”
One of the things Steinmetz talked about was his childhood growing up in Romania, playing soccer. Other kids would throw rocks at him on the way to school just because he was Jewish — all before the Nazis took control. During one of the informal sessions with the students, who were asked to try and put themselves in Steinmetz’s shoes as a young boy, one of the students asked, “What did he want to be when he grew up?”
Steinmetz answered, “I never thought I was going to grow up.”
It was a moment of heartbreaking honesty and emotion for a man who has learned to face the past bravely, even defiantly — a glimpse into what it must have felt like to exist in such utter despair.
“I couldn’t let myself think that way,” Steinmetz said. “You couldn’t look that far ahead. Every day you thought about death and every day you didn’t die was a blessing.”
‘I just wanted to survive’
Steinmetz stared death in the eye as its casual gaze passed judgment, allowing him and his younger brother, Henry, to live. The rest of his family — mother, father and little sister — were not so lucky.
In the fall of 1943, standing on the wooden platform of a Polish train station along with thousands of other terrified and confused Jewish prisoners, Steinmetz and his brother were deemed healthy enough for work and sent to the right, toward the labor camps of Auschwitz. The rest of his family was sent to the left and the ovens, where nearly 1 million Jews were reduced to smoke and ash.
Nine million Jews lived in Europe in 1939 when World War II erupted. By 1945, six million had been slaughtered. Overall, only 33 percent of the Jews living in Nazi-occupied Europe survived Hitler’s campaign of mass extermination. The survival rate for children was roughly 7 percent.
At Auschwitz, Steinmetz’s fate was decided by a monster. Dr. Josef Mengele, the so-called “Angel of Death,” is regarded as the most sadistic of all Nazi doctors, and a wave of his hand was the difference between a life of torture, starvation and disease in the labor camps or immediate death in the gas chamber.
Steinmetz was 17. He would survive two years in the camps. Henry died of starvation on Feb. 4, 1945 — almost two months to the day before American forces liberated Max.
“I just wanted to survive,” Steinmetz said. “I was going to prove that it could be done. I took things day by day. I never looked too far ahead. I never gave up on hope.”
In April 1945, while on a forced march through the Tyrolean Alps, Steinmetz simply walked away and found safety in a local farmhouse. Filthy, sick and hallucinating, the 6-foot-1 Steinmetz weighed 80 pounds. He was officially liberated on May 2, 1945. He spent several months recuperating in a camp for displaced people and was granted an American visa in 1948.
Between 1945 and 1952, 800,000 Holocaust survivors immigrated to the United States. Many were penniless, scared, didn’t understand the language and were completely alone, having lost their entire families to Nazi atrocities. But they survived yet again, and many, like Steinmetz, thrived.
In 1992, New York sociologist William Helmreich traveled across the country interviewing 170 Holocaust survivors. The resulting book was “Against All Odds: Holocaust Survivors and the Successful Lives They Made.” What he discovered was a population that was remarkably well adjusted.
Survivors are financially solvent with 34 percent making more than $50,000 annually. Survivors also had more stable marriages with only about 11 percent divorced compared with 18 percent of American Jews. And survivors made fewer visits to psychotherapists than did American Jews.
After arriving in New York, Steinmetz found a job that payed 24 cents an hour. In 1955 he moved to Birmingham where he worked as a clothing executive. In 1962, he married his wife, Betty, and together they have three children and six grandchildren.
“I just started a new life,” Steinmetz said. “It was a beginning, a gift that I never thought I’d get. And I’m not unique. There were thousands of people just like me.”
Helmreich identified 10 characteristics that accounted for the success of Holocaust survivors in life including flexibility, assertiveness, tenacity, optimism, intelligence, the ability to assimilate, the capacity to find meaning in life and courage.
“That they lived to tell the tale was, for most, a matter of chance,” he writes. “That they succeeded in rebuilding their lives on American soil is not.”
Survivors weren’t particularly special before the Holocaust. In fact, it’s because they were so normal that their successes are such an inspiration.
“They were ordinary individuals before the war, chosen by sheer accident of history to bear witness to one of its most awful periods,” he writes. “The story of the survivors is one of courage and strength, of people who are living proof of the indomitable will of human beings to survive.
“It’s not a story of a remarkable people. It’s a story of just how remarkable people can be.”
2013 Holocaust Remembrance
What: Featured speaker is Max Steinmetz
When: Thursday, April 11, 7:30 p.m.
Where: Ernest Stone Center Theater, Jacksonville State University campus
Cost: Admission is free