It’s not always easy to talk about history—not the most wrenching and shameful periods, the heinous events and people without conscience that have high-jacked us and ripped us apart over the centuries.
It’s especially hard for those who witnessed it, endured it and survived it.
For those who stared into the eyes of evil and breathed death each day.
Max Steinmetz survived the Holocaust. He was just 16 years old when the police came to his home in Romania and herded his family—along with Jewish families from throughout the region—to an abandoned brick factory, a holding place until…
He survived what happened next—the very worst, most frightening elements of that sadistic chapter of global history.
He survived three days and nights in a freight car bound for no one knew where, and with only a few loaves of bread and a couple of buckets of water per car, each one so packed the prisoners had to either stand or sit because once they chose a position there was no moving.
He survived staring into the eyes of the Angel of Death, the infamous SS officer Josef Mengele, and being waved into the direction of those deemed work-worthy and thus who would live.
He survived seeing his parents and 6-year-old sister being waved in the other direction—toward those deemed unable to work and thus murdered in the gas chamber and burned in the furnace at Dachau—and being held back from saying good-bye by SS soldiers.
He survived returning from work duty one day to discover that his brother—too weak to rise from his cot and work that morning—had been put to death, just as were others on any day they could not work.
But for more than half a century, Steinmetz—now 91 and resident of Birmingham since 1960—would not talk about the things he’d seen, the emotions he felt or the pain he endured during those three unfathomable years of captivity.
He would not talk about the fear, the unconscionable hate, the loss. Not to his co-workers, not to his spouse, not to his children.
“Maybe it hurt too much,” he says now, with a hint of the accent of his Romanian homeland. “They say time heals a lot. After 60 years, it became easier to speak. I wouldn’t even speak to my own family about it, it was so painful. As time progressed, it become easier to talk about it.”
It’s hard to live in Birmingham and not be at least intrigued by history. Oh, you may choose to ignore it, and, Lord knows, our parents and schools could do a better job of teaching it to our children. But in this city, history is standing next to you in the grocery store, sitting at the next table in your favorite restaurant, or sharing Bible study in your Sunday School class.
Thankfully, many of them will talk about it, sharing it in a manner no book, no teacher can convey: from the heart, or that place even deeper where our most painful memories go to reside—impossible to ignore, impossible to forget.
When Steinmetz tells his story—which he, along with Alabama’s 90 or so remaining Holocaust survivors, has done dozens of times at area schools and other places throughout the state—when he recounts the smallest details, the vivid recollections, he all but becomes the teenager he once was, the teenager, whose fortitude he describes, simply: “They tell me I’m very stubborn; I would not give in.”
I’m a bit of a history buff, fascinated by long-forgotten details about the people who shaped our path—potholes, ditches and all—and the occurrences we’ve either omitted from our curriculums or condensed into classroom posters, flash cards or social-media posts. One recent afternoon, I was blessed to hear Steinmetz recount his Holocaust experience, so vividly that it was at times agonizing to hear, yet impossible not to listen.
I cannot recount in this space the full depth of his story, which took him almost an hour to share. But consider this just a sense of the experience:
Steinmetz set up the tale with a history lesson, outlining the effects of World War II and the twisted tug-of-war between Hungary and Romania over Transylvania, where he was born; it was then part of Hungary. Following the war, Romania won the area, and aligned with the Axis of Powers that included Italy, Germany and Japan, after which things began to change for Jews and others within German-controlled nations…
“Things started going bad for Jewish people. There were all sorts of new restrictions, such as only up to six percent of university students could be Jewish. And you had to be drafted into cavalry and had to bring you own horse. But after six months you were discharged and the cavalry took your horses.
I had problem with my own parents. We stood a chance at one time to get out, but they said no, we were born here, our parents were born here, and you were raised here. I was 15. Who am I to override them? We didn’t go. They were totally wrong.
One day the police came and rounded up all Jews and put us in ghettos in Hungary. By then it was too late for anything.”
After about a year, Steinmetz, his family and other Jews were gathered and loaded into railroad cars.
“One day there was an announcement to line up at the main gate six abreast, and not to carry any belongings. They opened the gate and started marching us out. We walked to the railroad station, less than a mile east, downhill. Freight cars were lined up; they usually hauled cement, lumber, brick or cattle. But they packed us in like sardines. We were so tired. If we stood, we could not sit down; if we sat down, we could not stand up. They closed the gates and the German SS took over. They took all the Jewish people. If a baby was born that day, they took the mother and baby; they would not leave anybody behind and shoved us all into the railroad cars. There were just two holes for air. I saw the SS guy on the outside point to the locomotive guy to move one. It was 10 or 11 a.m. We traveled like this until midnight when they pulled up somewhere in the woods, opened the doors and told us to go out and take care of our needs then climb back in. The young helped the elderly; those that could not go just didn’t go. We talked about escaping, but didn’t know where we were and thought sooner or later we would get caught and shot. We rode two more days and two nights then arrived at Auschwitz. They opened the cars and those that could climb down did; about one-third couldn’t make it out, they were already dead.”
There on the platform stood Mengele, the SS officer who gloated over the duty of determining, by his whim, who would live and who would die:
“I will never forget his outfit; he was dressed in a leather jacket and gloves, and he had a switch two feet long made of leather. He pointed at you, then right or left. He wouldn’t talk, just point. If you didn’t follow his direction, the gendarmes grabbed you and threw you where he said to go. He dispatched more people to death than anyone in history. He was also in charge of experiments conducted at Auschwitz, so he chose twins, triplets and some children younger than six. Later he would dip them in boiling water to see how long they could stand it. That was the last time I saw my parents and sister; I tried to go to them and say goodbye but was shoved back in line. Later, I saw the smoke and smelled the odor coming from the area of the other barracks. I asked one of my barrack mates if he knew what it was. I told him I had just gotten there and that my parents went to the other side. He said what I saw was them burning. I accepted it. I knew it could happen to me, too, but I was not going to give in. I was going to stretch it as long as I could.”
For the next few weeks, Steinmetz, his younger brother and others remained at Auschwitz:
“They made us undress, cut our hair and opened our mouths. If you had gold fillings, crowns or bridges, they used pliers to pull them out. After they pushed us to the showers then handed us a two-piece suit, blue and white striped, jacket and pants. They looked like pajamas. The did not ask our size. I was six-one and got one for a guy five-four; we had to find someone to exchange with. We were there just few weeks, fed once a day.”
From there the prisoners were transported by train again—this time a regular passenger train, though it was small comfort. The destination: Dachau, Adolph Hitler’s first concentration camp, about 40 miles outside of Munich:
“Our barracks were made out of aluminum; we slept on the floor, on the dirt. They gave us a blanket and a hand towel. My brother used the blanket as a mattress and put the hand towel on top of him. We slept in our clothes; I don’t remember taking off my clothes one time in a year.”
There were no names at Dachau, only numbers, and Steinmetz can recite his today as easily as you can your own phone number: “72041!”. Each day the prisoners were marched to gates and selected by local businessmen for various day-labor tasks. Their “pay” went to the SS. This went on day after day, and the penalty for being unable to work was an ultimate one:
“One morning my brother said. ‘I can’t go to work; I can’t get up.’ I grabbed him but he simply couldn’t move. If you stayed behind, they had a group of prisoners assigned every morning to go to barracks and pick up all those who could not work. They were considered dead. One day I was assigned that duty. We took anyone who was left in the barracks and, loaded them onto an ox cart with two wheels, then go to the next barrack. They were arranged in a huge building where there was a gas chamber and killed, every morning. We had a hospital; it was a joke, but I knew the doctor there. He was from my hometown; he had delivered me and my brother. He said, ‘You know there’s nothing I can do, I don’t even have an aspirin. Just go to work and I will take care of your brother.’ I went and came back and went back to the hospital but the bed where I took him was empty. The doctor said: “Don’t ask me anything. He’s better off than he was. Go back to your barrack. That was the end.”
Steinmetz and other prisoners would see Switzerland across the Baltic Sea. They often thought about how they could get there, but those were only dreams. “We knew we couldn’t swim that far,” he says. “Besides, they would shoot us.” By early 1945, Jewish prisoners often found themselves on work duty alongside American prisoners of war, who were kept in a “stalag” not far away.
“As little as we spoke English and they spoke German we still communicated. They gave us candy and cigarettes from the Red Cross packages they received, which we only got twice in a year. The cigarettes were most important; American cigarettes. We could sell them in camp, where the capos were in charge. They were like us, except they had position. They didn’t work but walked around with sticks and made sure we worked. They had enough food so they bought our cigarettes and gave us cheese. Maybe by March, they stopped taking us to work. The Americans were coming closer and closer. So were the French and British. We knew it was matter of time.”
With Allied forces drawing near, the SS moved the prisoners, gathering more than 5,000 for a death march, about 60 miles from Dachau, to dig trenches supposedly deep enough to stop American tanks. For no reason were they called death marches. But one night, it provided Steinmetz with an opportunity.
“They gave each of us a shovel and marched at night so people could not see us. We rested in the woods by day. The Americans kept coming closer and closer. We could hear the dropping bombs. If we had not left Dachau we would have been incinerated. If the SS saw anyone having a problem walking, they would put a gun behind their neck and kill them with one shot. The trucks would come pick up bodies. I saw them do it. At one point, German guards started deserting; they didn’t want to be caught by the U.S. At night they would take off their clothes and run. I began to think, if they do it so could I. One night I had had enough. I had a high fever. We were walking between bunch of fields; I saw a light and a road heading in that direction. I look around. No one was next to me. I broke away and followed the light.”
In about a half mile, Steinmetz came to a house. He knocked. A young boy, 5, answered, and began screaming, “Mommy! Mommy!”
“She said, ‘Peter, what’s going on?’ He said, ‘Look, look,’ pointing at me. You can imagine how I looked, but she said, ‘Come in, sit down; you must be hungry.’ I hadn’t eaten in three days. She started bringing food and I started eating and throwing up. But I kept eating. Nothing could stop me. Just then a man walked in from the another room. He was wearing a German officer’s uniform. In my favor, he was not SS. He said, ‘Who are you?’ I told him but he said, ‘They won’t come here.’ But they did. Someone knocked on the door and said they were looking for escaped prisoners. The officer gave his name and rank and the man at the door said, ‘Yes, sir,’ and went away.”
Steinmetz stayed in the house for three days. He took his first bath in three years and slept—until more men came to the door.
“The officer told me, ‘These are people you want to meet,’ but he wouldn’t tell me who they were. It was three guys in military uniforms but I didn’t know what they were: French, Italian, American? Finally, they said they were Americans. My God, was I glad to see them. They asked me what I was: German, Hungarian, Romanian? I said I was Jewish. They went out and came back with another guy; he was different. He had gold bars and the other guys didn’t. He said, ‘Speak to me in Jewish; say anything you want.’ I said, ‘What do you want from me?’ in Yiddish, of course. He said, ‘Yes. He’s Jewish. I’m a Jew from Brooklyn.’
Steinmetz was taken to a hospital the following day. There, he recovered from walking pneumonia, was placed in a DP (displaced persons) camp, where he saw the commander of American troops, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower. “He told us how glad they were to liberate us and said they would make sure it never happened again.”
“I applied for American visa. I had a cousin who lived in New York. In 48 hours I had a call from the American embassy in Germany saying my visa was approved. I came to New York and ran into some guys I knew from Europe, who knew about a job someplace making 25 cents an hour. It paid time and half for overtime. It was in Denver. I went to school at night; I had to learn English or I would have to go back. I later took job with company in Albuquerque. That same year they said they had some stores in Birmingham, Alabama, and wanted to send me there. I said. ‘Where is that?’ The man said, ‘Did you know Albuquerque?’ I said, ‘No.’ ‘So what difference does it make?'”
Long-time Birmingham residents may remember Bargain Town USA, the company that brought Steinmetz to our city and where, a year later, he met and married his wife, Betty.
The have three children and six grandchildren. “I lost my family,” Steinmetz said. “Everything I had was destroyed. I had to build my own family, my own roots. To me, my family is the most important thing there is, ahead of how much money or even if I have anything else.”
Once Steinmetz began to speak, about 20 years ago, he didn’t stop. Young audiences often don’t know what to make of him, this old man, especially when he begins to share the most horrific details of his experience. “I am there to tell stories, not pleasantries,” he says. “Nothing that makes you feel good; it makes you feel sick, depresses you really. I’m telling them about atrocities, murders, and they’re looking at me like, ‘What is he talking about?’ But I don’t blame the kids. No one ever told them.”
With the number of Holocaust survivors dwindling, Steinmetz is concerned, but not just that the horror he and others lived—and in which 6 million Jews perished—would be forgotten but that we have become complacent in our thinking about whether such a hell could ever occur again.
“Anything can happen with anyone, even anyone you elect in a democratic process,” he said. “Hitler and [Benito] Mussolini were elected and then turned around and became dictators. It could happen with [Hillary] Clinton, it could happen with [Donald] Trump, anybody.”
When speaking to groups Steinmetz tries to lighten the mood toward the end by telling his audience a story:
“What did we talk about in captivity? All we talked about was food; that was the most precious thing. We knew our families were gone, but good food, a good meal, was still our hope. So there are two things I want before I die: One, I want to see Germany lose a war. Two, I want one good meal, all I want and want to eat. Then I can die.”
Most often, Betty, who drives her husband to his engagements, is in the audience. She just rolls her eyes, long ago having stopped being insulted at her husband’s implication he hasn’t had a “good meal” in the 66 years of their marriage.
One day, however, Steinmetz received a letter in the mail, from an Auburn student who had heard him speak, and tell the two-things-then-I-can-die story. Out of the enveloped slipped a check for $24 and a note reading: “I want you to take your wife out for good meal.”
Steinmetz laughed out loud for the first time all afternoon. “Poor little girl,” he said. “She didn’t know the only place you can go for a meal for $24 is McDonald’s.”