By Heather Greene, a graduate assistant in the Office of Public Relations at JSU
“If you would ask me where I am from, I would tell you ‘from Hungary,’ but this changed every few months because there was a different occupation of the territory every few months,” Holocaust survivor Max Steinmetz explains as he recalls the social and political upheaval of Europe during the 1930-40s.
As a teen during World War II, Steinmetz recalls how his family, along with the Jewish people of Hungary, were arrested and placed in ghettos. Several months later, they were forced onto a freight train “like animals or bags of cement.”
“They gave each railroad car a bucket of water and two or three loaves of stale bread,” said Steinmetz. “You had a variety of people on the cars…We were very, very crowded. If you stood up, there was no room to sit down and if you sat down, there was no room to stand up.”
After three days of the appalling conditions on the railroad car, they arrived at Auschwitz in Poland, the largest of the Nazi concentration camps, to face even more atrocious nightmares. By the time of their arrival, a third of the people had already died on the train ride.
Steinmetz recalls being pulled from the freight cars with the other passengers only to come face-to-face with “The Angel of Death,” Dr. Josef Mengele, the infamous Nazi doctor known for his interest in performing gruesome experiments.
“He was the German officer in charge of the selection,” explains Steinmetz. “He decided who was going to stay alive and who would die.”
Mengele signaled Steinmetz and his little brother to the right, which was towards the concentration camps, and Steinmetz’s parents and 6 year-old sister to the left, which was, unbeknownst to them, to the gas chambers.
“That was the last time I ever saw my parents or my sister. I never saw them again,” said Steinmetz.
Steinmetz and his brother were taken to Birkenau where they were given prison uniforms. Their hair was cut off and all personal belongings were removed from them, even teeth with gold fillings were yanked from people’s mouths. After a shower, they were placed in barracks and stayed there for a couple of weeks.
Soon they were sent to Dachau in Germany. After a week, Steinmetz found himself assigned to a slave labor camp outside of Munich. Steinmetz, along with the other prisoners, was given a cup of coffee and piece of bread to start off their day of labor and then given a bowl of soup, which was usually just warm water with some flavor in it, for their supper at night. To make up for the inadequate diet, they would go through the garbage cans to find more food.
Eight weeks before liberation, Steinmetz’s younger brother died of starvation.
“My brother starved to death, absolutely starved to death…Many starved to death. Millions starved to death,” states Steinmetz.
After escaping during the dissipation of the German army, Steinmetz found kindness from a German lady’s hospitality, was taken to a military hospital, and finally placed in a former prisoner camp with other survivors until they could decide whether to return to their homes or relocate to another country. After liberation on May 2, 1945, Steinmetz was 20 years old, 6-1 and weighted 80 pounds.
Steinmetz recalls when General Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces, came to visit the camp to see the survivors he had seen pictures of and heard about.
“He came to our camp after it was over and I was there and saw him. He said, ‘I cannot believe. I just cannot believe what we found after we came into these camps.’ He could not get over how malnourished, how bad we looked, how miserable we looked,” recalls Steinmetz.
Steinmetz applied for an American visa and came to New York in 1945. His employment in the retail business eventually landed him in Birmingham, where he met his wife. They have three children and six grandchildren. In his late eighties, he is still learning and enjoys taking non-credited classes at UAB.
When asked what his advice for the world today would be, Steinmetz said, “Well, one thing is to make sure it never happens again. The most important thing is we must tolerate each other. We need to listen to each other. We don’t have to agree with each other…We cannot, just because we disagree with people, jail them and kill them or put them in concentration camps. We cannot allow it. We have got to speak up…It’s really just tolerance, acceptance, understanding.”
To read more about Holocaust survivors, please visit the JSU Holocaust Remembrance archives.