Dr. Jason Eisenbach stands onstage at the Alkek Teaching Theater as he recounts his experiences in Poland living under the Third Reich and his survival during the Holocaust. Daily Record photos by Denise Cathey
Dr. Jacob Eisenbach, a 96-year-old Holocaust survivor, spoke to a full house Tuesday evening at the Alkek Teaching Theatre on Texas State University campus.
Eisenbach was 16 when his home of Lodz, Poland, was invaded by Nazi Germany 80 years ago. As a retired dentist, he is now working on what he refers to as his “second profession,” telling the story of the Holocaust and speaking about the topics of hate, discrimination and genocide.
“As an eye witness to the Holocaust, I feel a moral obligation to keep speaking about it. It is important that we do not allow this to keep on happening. Because if we allow this to keep on happening, we contribute to our annihilation,” Eisenbach said in the opening of his presentation. “For the sake of our children, our grandchildren and all future generations, this story has to be told and retold.”
Eisenbach recounted his childhood as a happy one with his three siblings – Vela, Sam and Henry – and loving parents.
“My parents adored each other and they adored their children and they had a special power of making each of their four children feel that that child was the most loved and important child in the world,” he said.
With a photo of his mother, who died before the war, on screen, Eisenbach discussed the life his family lived before being forced into a Jewish ghetto.
Eisenbach’s mother would be the first loss he experienced. She died when she was 41 of a weak heart, a year before the war broke out. But her love, according to Eisenbach, was a beacon of hope through the Nazi regime, because she instilled worth and value into each of her four children.
“She would put her arms around us and hold us and blessed us by saying to us that we are her greatest possession,” Eisenbach said. “She didn’t realize what this blessing did for us under the Nazi regime because she did not go through the Holocaust. But no matter what Hitler said about us, no matter what he did to us, he could not possibly destroy the strong feelings we had that we were loved and that our lives were important.”
Nazis take over
Eisenbach grew up in Lodz, a city with a large and prosperous Jewish community – approximately one-third or 233,000 of the city’s population were Jewish, making it the second largest Jewish community in Europe. The German army entered Lodz on Sept. 8, 1939.
“A few days after they took over my city, they started building a wall which was to be a future ghetto, the Lodz ghetto where Jews lived,” Eisenbach said. “The wall consisted of a barbwire fence and every 200 feet along that fence was a watchtower guarded by Nazi soldiers with machine guns and searchlights. It was impossible to escape.”
On March 1, 1940, the Germans organized a pogrom and drove Jews into the ghetto and the ghetto was officially sealed in May 1940.
Many of the Jews of Lodz escaped the city before the ghetto was sealed to settle in Warsaw and other cities in the General Government or to the territories occupied by the U.S.S.R., and one of those who escaped was Eisenbach’s sister Vela. She left with a few girl friends and settled in the city of Lwów. But when the Lodz ghetto was sealed in May of 1940, they lost all contact with Vela. It was only years afterwards that Eisenbach learned what happened to his sister.
“I met a lady, who was in the city of Lwów and she told me what happened in the city when the Nazis took over in 1941. They built a ghetto with the same type of fence they had in Lodz, watch towers with Nazi guards with machine guns,” Eisenbach said. “And one day the Nazis came to that ghetto with machine guns and they killed all 110,000 Jewish men, women and children in that ghetto in two days. I never heard from her again. She died in that massacre.”
Eisenbach remained in the Lodz ghetto with his father and two brothers, where they lived and worked. A network of factories was built in the ghetto to produce goods for the Wehrmacht – an estimated generated $14 million in profit for the Germans was made off the backs of the Jewish ghetto.
Eisenbach recalls watching Jews die in the streets of the ghetto from starvation. And then disease hit, including epidemics of typhoid fever, dysentery, tuberculosis and typhus.
“My brother Henry was 11 years old, he developed a high fever of 105,” Eisenbach said. “We called a doctor and he diagnosed him with Typhus and told us to take him to the hospital, so we did.”
The next morning Eisenbach was walking to his job and he passed one of the two hospitals in the ghetto – It was not the one Henry was in. He saw a large truck, “the sort of truck that’s used to transport cattle,” guarded by Nazis with machine guns. Eisenbach saw them stacking live people, 30 layers on top of each other, all patients from the hospital.
“When I saw that I started running towards the other hospital – it was three miles,” Eisenbach said. “On the way I saw another truck moving away from the other hospital. The streets were deserted, I stopped for a minute to look between the bars to see if I could spot Henry, I didn’t see.”
The driver of the truck and his companion, a Nazi soldier with a machine gun, started shooting at Eisenbach when they laid eyes on him. Eisenbach retreated into an apartment building. The truck continued away from the hospital and Eisenbach continued running toward the hospital.
“When I get there I see a third truck like this loading patients surrounded by an 8 foot fence. I couldn’t get in,” Eisenbach said. “So I went to the back of the hospital, there were a crowd of people waiting outside the fence and nurses were handing over patients to the crowd to save them from the Nazis. I climbed this 8-foot fence – to this day, I cannot figure out how I climbed the 8-foot fence. I walked up to the room we put Henry in the day before and Henry was not there. I asked the nurses ‘Where is Henry?’ He was taken out 15 minutes ago. He was in that truck I passed in the street.
“Those patients were taken directly to the gas chambers of Auschwitz,” Eisenbach said. “I never saw Henry again.”
The Nazis issued mass deportations of people from the ghetto by the trainload. Then one day Eisenbach’s father received an order to report for deportation with 600 other men, he went and Eisenbach and his brother never saw him again.
“After the war I met a man that was in that group of 600 that managed to escape from that group,” Eisenbach said. “He told me what the Nazis did to those 600 men. They had them carry heavy rocks from place to place – useless work – on a starvation diet, which they all died of. I would never see my father again. That left me and my brother Sam.”
Notice of deportation
When Eisenbach received a notice to report for deportation – a death sentence – he and Sam went into hiding. They hid in multiple places, always changing location. But eventually they ran out of places to hide and they returned to a room on third floor of an abandoned and padlocked building.
“We hid in several places and we could not stay to long in one place,” Eisenbach said. “One day, we ran out of places to hide and we decided to go back to that room.”
The room was completely empty except for a pile of straw in the corner. Eisenbach and his brother hid under the straw in the 20 below zero frigid air.
“One night we hear heavy boots coming up those squeaky stairs, loud voices,” he said.
It was two German policemen looking for him. Sam and Jacob Eisenbach listened to the police search the home, while hiding beneath the straw.
“They found a crowbar and knocked off the padlock, and the first policeman says to him ‘the home is empty, there’s no one here let’s go,’ the other guy said ‘no let’s not go, let’s look at that pile of straw in the corner.’ He finds us and I thought ‘this is it.’
“But Sam did not have to go, he could have said to me, ‘I know where you are going, you are going to the gas chambers, I am not going with you.’ But this was not what Sam said. What he did say was ‘Jack all of our family is now gone, now they are taking you away. I am not staying here by myself. I am going with you. Where ever you go, I go. Whatever happens to you, will happen to me.’ He said that knowing full well that meant going to the gas chambers,” Eisenbach said.
“They loaded us into trains, cattle trains, three days and three nights, and we arrive at the destination, the Auschwitz gas chambers,” he said. “But they did not unload us. At the last minute, the train conductors got orders to change directions.”
Jacob and Sam Eisenbach were instead taken to a munitions factory in Skarzysko, Poland, where they worked 12 hour days, six days a week on a starvation diet.
“They put us to work on a precision grinding machine,” Eisenbach said. “We were grinding bullets and shells. Can you imagine us Jews making bullets for the Nazis that want to kill us?”
Liberation at last
But the eastern front was moving closer, as Soviet troops moved into Poland. “We could hear artillery shells,” Eisenbach recalled, so they were transferred to a second munitions factory in Czestochowa, Poland – where Eisenbach would meet his future wife, Irene.
On Jan. 15 and 16, 1945, only months before the war ended, the watchtowers of the munitions camp were abandoned by their Nazi guards that were fleeing for their lives from the ensuing Soviets.
“We couldn’t believe it,” Eisenbach said. “Our Jewish leaders of the camp told us to not leave the camp in the middle of the night, it was too dangerous, wait until the morning. So we did.”
The next morning, Jacob, Sam and Irene walked out of the labor camp. After the war, Eisenbach married Irene and his brother Sam went on to join the Polish Army. Within two years, at the age of 22, Sam was promoted to the rank of colonel and was in command of a division of 10,000 soldiers. He changed his name to hide his Jewish identity – the war had ended but anti-Semitism was still alive and well – but he was discovered.
“One day he comes home from his office, an anti-Semite was waiting inside his home, just waiting for him. As soon as he came in, he put a bullet in his head and killed him,” Eisenbach said. “Two years after the war. Two years after the Holocaust.”
At the end of his speech the crowd errupted with applause.
Eisenbach has an indomitable faith in humanity, even through all of his loss. He sees light in the darkness through the stories of people that saved Jewish people through heroic feats during the war.
“How can I possibly lose faith in humanity, when such great humanitarians walk the earth the same as I and save hundreds of thousands of Jews from Nazi tyranny,” Eisenbach said.
His faith also remains in the God of his ancestors, because to Eisenbach, God’s word still holds true in the Torah.
“One of the great teachings is ‘treat your neighbor the way you would like to be treated, do not do anything to anybody that you would not have done to yourself,’” Eisenbach said. “And your neighbor is not only the man living next door, he’s the man living across the country, he’s the man living in Timbuktu or the Far East, any place in the world. Every human being has humanity.”
Eisenbach said he sees a day coming when humanity will not repeat past mistakes and will actively work to create a world without genocide.
“The day is coming, when people will be able to say with confidence, ‘Never Again,’” Eisenbach said.