In his powerful memoir, Holocaust survivor Max Eisen details his early years, his internment in Auschwitz and his emigration to Canada.
When the 2019 Canada Reads longlist was announced, I had hoped By Chance Alone would be selected for the shortlist. I suppose I would have read it eventually, but in a year where the theme was “one book to move you”, By Chance Alone seemed to fit perfectly. I look forward to Ziya Tong’s defence because I believe this is a heavy favorite to win (although, I’ve yet to read the other four titles).
Books detailing the Holocaust are never an easy read and Max Eisen’s account is no exception. Like many, Max’s journey to Auschwitz is heartbreaking to say the least. The confusion surrounding his family’s removal from their home to the absolutely horrendous travel conditions leading to their arrival in the concentration camp is heavily detailed. The smell of death in the air coupled with the disappearance of over half of his immediate family unit set the stage for a period of time that will test the absolute limit of the human spirit and its fight for survival.
By Chance Alone is the perfect title for this book. There are several moments where Eisen’s longevity in captivity depends entirely on chance. That isn’t to say his survival is entirely random as there are long stretches of time where he perseveres through hope alone, but the moments where he lucks into more favorable (and I use the term very loosely) living conditions repeatedly save his life. Even after he is liberated from the Nazis, life doesn’t suddenly become magical. There is deep-rooted antisemitism that continues to grip Europe following the war as well as the advent of Communism in his home country of Czechoslovakia. Leaving for a new life overseas proves difficult and his road to resettlement is not a smooth one.
Obviously things work out in the end for Max, but that doesn’t make his journey any easier to digest. By Chance Alone is a compelling story of a life lived through the sheer power of endurance. I would not be surprised if it wins Canada Reads this year, but given its competition, it may be a difficult path to victory.