How My Great-Grandfather’s Lost Shoah Stories Resurfaced 50 Years After His Death
Thousands of Holocaust stories have been published. Many, like ‘Sky Tinged Red,’ are rescued from oblivion by family.
In April 1960 my great-grandfather Isaia Eiger was lying in a Minneapolis hospital bed, dying from colon cancer, and began telling stories about Auschwitz to my grandmother, who wrote them down in English. He told her about a Greek Jew he met in the camp named Zidkiyahu. He relayed the story of a brave woman who, standing naked in the anteroom to the gas chamber, rebuffed the advances of an SS man and then shot him dead with his own pistol.
What he didn’t tell her was that, years earlier, shortly after the war, he had written a complete chronicle of the two-and-a-half years he spent in Birkenau from April 1942 to November 1944. He also didn’t tell her that there were three typed copies of his 116-page manuscript—which her brother David would eventually find among their father’s other writings three years after his death. And he didn’t tell her about the rest of the book—hundreds of narrow, yellowing pages containing thousands of handwritten words in his impeccable Yiddish script, which he never managed to type (he left his Yiddish typewriter in Germany when he immigrated to the United States in 1949) and that it would take her nearly 50 years to recover.
In 1963, when David found the three typed copies of a lengthy Yiddish manuscript in a box of his father’s writings, among newspaper clippings, drawings, and handwritten poems, it stood out for its heft and its format. But he didn’t have time to take a closer look. He brought one copy to my grandmother and left the other two in the box. My grandmother tried to read the manuscript, but she struggled to distinguish a reysh from a dalet. She only understood a third of the words—enough to know this was a narrative of her father’s experience in Birkenau, but not enough, she thought, to translate it. So, she put it away. In 1968 she and my grandfather took a trip to Israel for their 25th wedding anniversary, and she brought the third typed copy of the book to Yad Vashem. Donating her father’s writing to the museum’s archives gave her a sense of closure, even though she still had little idea of what the handwritten pages contained.
But about 15 years later, something triggered her memory, and she went back to the box and pulled out her copy of the manuscript. I suspect a bit of guilt had been nagging at her over the years, a sense that she had let down her father, whom she still speaks of today with the wide-eyed awe of a little girl talking about her hero. She decided to try again to translate her father’s memoir. The Yiddish was still difficult to read, but she came up with a plan. She would first transliterate the words into English letters, and then she would translate them. The two-step approach allowed her to focus on one or two words at a time and to make sense of them without trying to fit them into the larger context of the sentence.
As she began translating her father’s words, she quickly discovered that these were stories she had never heard before, stories he hadn’t told her when he was sick with cancer. They were stories about the early months of Birkenau’s existence, when Isaia and his fellow prisoners built the very barracks and fences and ditches and latrines that she would later encounter during her own time in the camp in late 1944. They were stories about his involvement in the Auschwitz underground. They were riveting, terrifying stories, told in gruesome detail, about the unbearable torture and beatings he endured and the numerous times when death seemed certain.
“I was absolutely in shivers the whole time,” she told me recently. “I had to slap myself on the wrist and say, ‘You know the outcome, what are you so worried about?’ ”
Isaia Eiger was an accountant, but he writes like an anthropologist recording the rhythms of daily life on the planet where he suddenly found himself. Birkenau was a factory of death, but it was also a society with its own social strata, roles, and norms. We often think of a concentration camp as a two-tiered system: There were guards, who held complete power and authority, and prisoners, who were subject to their whims. But in the world Isaia describes, the Nazis elevated certain prisoners, Jews and gentiles, as heads of work details or leaders of the blocks, creating a layered and complex hierarchy. Sometimes these prisoners did their best to help those under their charge. But in many awful cases, they abused their power and embraced their roles as surrogates for the SS guards, beating and killing their fellow prisoners with gut-wrenching ease and even enjoyment.
As my great-grandfather recalls the indiscriminate beatings he suffered and the torturous punishments he was given for “crimes” he didn’t commit, it’s impossible to understand how anyone survived Birkenau. Partially this is because of how vividly he describes his despair and his certainty that death is imminent. It is a refrain so common that it almost feels belabored, until you realize how raw the feeling still was even years later when he had escaped death’s grip.
But his survival also seems implausible because Isaia did have many near-death moments. In one instance, he was punished for having a sweater—even though it was another prisoner who had been found with the sweater—and sentenced to 10 nights in the standing bunker, literally the chimney of an old oven, with five other men. They were forced to stand all night, squeezed into a tiny space with no air to breathe, cursing one another and their desperate circumstances. By the third night, one of the six didn’t come back. On the sixth night, another man didn’t return either. “It is totally impossible to understand how we made it through those remaining nights,” my great-grandfather writes. “Like shadows we went to work in the daytime and the bunker at night. Everyone looked on us in wonderment.”
But the chronicle isn’t an exercise in self-pity. It’s a historical record, a primary source that documents the history of Auschwitz-Birkenau, a place so unnatural and otherworldly that my grandmother calls it “Planet Auschwitz.” My great-grandfather saw it as his responsibility as a survivor to tell the stories of those who perished. He tells of a boy, 4 years old, whom he pleaded with the chief of the crematoria to save. He copies the entirety of a love letter from a Czech woman to the man she met in the camp, written days before she was killed along with thousands of other Czech prisoners. He describes a father and son in the early days of the camp who were inseparable, always holding hands; two days after the son became sick and died, the father collapsed at work and couldn’t be revived. Many of these people crossed paths with Isaia only briefly, but his book is filled with their names and the few details he knew about their life and their death. In a single paragraph they enter and exit his world, their presence in the story as fleeting as their time on earth.
But the most disturbing part of the chronicle is the detail it provides about the Jewish prisoner-functionaries. Their brutality and inhumanity are unconscionable; the acts they committed are as gruesome as those ascribed to the German perpetrators. Several times, the lower-level block assistants even staged coups against the head prisoner, killing him so one of them could take his place. Leybisch, a thief from Warsaw who was made a block assistant, helped to plot the murder of the block elder and succeed him, only to be killed by his own assistants 10 days later. During his brief time as head of the block, he taunted an observant Jew and demanded that he admit publicly that there is no God. When the man refused, reciting the Shema instead, he beat him to death. “The reign of Leybisch lasted only 10 days,” my great-grandfather writes, “but the number of people that he killed was greater than at any other time, in weeks or months.”
As my grandmother transliterated and translated her father’s text, a co-worker was generously typing the finished translation. It took them about five years, and when they reached the end of the typewritten manuscript, they both realized that it wasn’t the end of the chronicle: The narrative stopped in September 1942, only four months into Isaia’s two-and-a-half year internment in Birkenau. There had to be more. My grandmother went back to the boxes of files she had from her father, but she didn’t find it. She asked her brother David to check for more of their father’s papers. He brought over a box that had been previously overlooked, but among the piles of photographs and handwritten stories, she couldn’t find the rest of the memoir. Eventually, she gave up.
The next two decades were some of the most difficult in my grandmother’s life. In 1984 she was diagnosed with a debilitating eye disease that slowly took from her almost all of her vision. By 1995, she could no longer drive. In 2000, my grandfather began a painful battle with dementia, and she became his primary caretaker. Finding the lost section of her father’s book was furthest from her mind.
My grandfather passed away in 2005, and my grandmother regained some of her mobility. In August 2006, she went to Israel for a wedding and she remembered the copy of the typed manuscript that she had given to Yad Vashem all those years earlier. She wondered whether, perhaps, that copy was the only complete one. But when the archivist brought it up from the archives, she knew almost immediately that it was incomplete, just like the version she had at home. It seemed like the end of the road.
The following year, my mother was planning a trip to Israel. My grandmother told her that she wanted to give her the rest of her father’s documents—all of them—to donate to Yad Vashem. She was sure there was nothing more that she would find. But as she paged through the yellowing sheets of paper one last time, she noticed a thick package, wrapped in a copy of the local Jewish newspaper. She had never noticed this particular package before, or maybe she had disregarded it, thinking it was nothing but old newspapers. She unwrapped it, and inside she found thin half-sheets of paper written in her father’s beautiful Yiddish script. On the top of the first page, there was a chapter heading, and one of the words jumped out at her. She hurried to the other room, where her transliterated copy was, and realized that it was a match. This was her father’s memoir, the same part she had previously translated. But it kept going. He had carefully numbered each page in the top right corner, and the numbers reached into the 400s. She had always been looking for more typed pages. But here was the entire book, which he had never finished typing.
My grandmother, who admits she is not the most ardent believer, is convinced this was divinely inspired. “I think my hand was directed,” she said. “I couldn’t have done it on my own. A voice must have whispered in my ear, ‘look again, look again.’ ”
She was eager to start translating again—to finish the job she had started 25 years earlier. But by now, her vision mostly gone, she could see only in shadows, dark lines against light lines. To read the thin pages, she had to hold each one under a reading machine, which magnifies each letter to two inches tall, and decipher each word letter by letter until she could spell it out. It was only possible because of her father’s impeccable handwriting. Unlike the typed Hebrew font, which she had found difficult to read even decades before, once magnified, her father’s beautiful handwritten Hebrew letters were clear and coherent.
Still, it took her two hours to transliterate a single page and another two hours to translate it. She took up the same two-step approach she had used the first time, transliterating a few pages and then stopping to translate them. Her grit and determination were nothing short of heroic. She worked eight-hour days, sometimes longer, and figured it would take her more than a year to finish. She was done in 10 months.
My brother Etan was the first in our family to read the entire book, and he was the one who convinced the rest of us that it should be read by a wider audience. After that, he became the project manager. He began adding paragraph breaks, fixing typos, and standardizing the spelling of German words. My mother found an outside editor to help us. Our cousins contributed a glossary, photographs, and moral and financial support.
It took us five years to finish and publish Sky Tinged Red: A Chronicle of Two and a Half Years in Auschwitz. What’s remarkable about the book—aside from my great-grandfather’s improbable survival, his exceptional storytelling, and the surprising tale of how my grandmother found and translated it—is that if Isaia Eiger were alive today, I’m not sure he would even recognize it. As soon as my grandmother began translating his stories into English, they became hers. Though her translation is true to his original meaning, she also brought to bear her own experience. Like with any good translation, the poetry and emotion in the words are hers. Etan compiled an index of names, listing each of the people our great-grandfather encountered in Birkenau and briefly summarizing their stories. I wrote a foreword and afterword, which serve as bookends to Isaia’s experience and provide context about the lives of our family before and after the war.
The result is a book that reflects not just my great-grandfather’s experience in Birkenau but the experiences of four generations of our family and that embodies the very act of the transmission of memory that brought it into being.
Last summer, more than 65 years after he wrote it, my family published Isaia’s chronicle in English, ensuring that his story will be read and passed on to future generations. That my great-grandfather’s collected memories of Birkenau didn’t languish forever in a dusty box in a basement is a testament to the determination of three generations of his offspring to translate his story, preserve it, and transmit it. But there were many times—first and foremost when Isaia died without telling anyone about his manuscript—when it seemed like his memories had died with him. The story of how his memoir was translated and published is also the story of how the testimony of Holocaust survivors will ultimately be passed on, even after the witnesses themselves are gone.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.
In ‘A Bintel Brief,’ Liana Finck draws a love-letter to the cowards, stoolies, brides, and sons who inspired Abraham Cahan