By Chance Alone is a heartrending memory of the holocaust

Canada Reads novel follows child through traumatic history

By Chance Alone is the Canada Reads winner for 2019.

By Chance Alone tells the harrowing true story of Tibor “Max” Eisen’s imprisonment in concentration camps across Europe during the Holocaust. 

Eisen’s experience begins with his middle-class upbringing in a small Slovakian town. Set against the background of authoritarian, fascist regimes emerging across Europe, Eisen’s childhood was filled with family, friendship, and childish adventures. 

Eisen’s memories bring to mind the joys and pains of a normal childhood: he steals cigarettes, runs through the forests with his friends, disobeys his parents, and loves his siblings. 

At the same time, the fascist government enacted laws that ostracized and persecuted Jews. Eisen recounts his disbelief and confusion when his father bar is closed and when he’s forced to sit at the back of his classroom. 

Through the eyes of a child, the cruelty of these acts is driven home. In happier times, his father’s bar had been a hub for the entire community, and religious differences between he and his classmates presented no challenges. As a young child, Eisen didn’t understand what had changed. 

It was the morning of a Seder in 1944 that the SS showed up and brought Eisen and his family, including his newborn sister, to be sent to Auschwitz. As any young child on a holiday, Eisen was excited for the upcoming big meal. Instead, he was about to experience one of the largest crimes of the 20th century. 

Despite the atrocities, Eisen never seems to lose his childish innocence. His deep appreciation for his family, and his humanity is present in each moment. 

In a last-ditch attempt to save Eisen’s baby sister, one neighbour ran into the house and insisted his mother hand her over. It was a heartbreaking decision that no mother should ever have to make. In the end, she decided not to part with her baby, a decision that would prove fatal. Eisen seems acutely aware of the challenging decision that his mother faced, a choice that asked her to choose between life and family.  

As the Eisen’s and other Jewish families were marched out of town, a young Max was shocked as the community he’d loved stood by. Seen through the eyes of a young person, this speaks to the ability of the masses to stand idly by as innocent people—children even—are targeted and murdered.

When he arrived at Auschwitz, it was luck that kept him alive. Despite his innocence, Eisen’s acutely aware that it was pure fortune, and goodwill of others, that protected him from the brutal conditions of the concentration camps. 

Many were not so fortunate. Eisen’s entire family were murdered in Auschwitz, along with 11 million others who died in Nazi concentration camps, 6 million of whom were Jewish. 

While he was only one year older when the concentration camps were liberated, Eisen had lost much of his innocence. 

His eyes were opened to the evil in the world, and he was confronted with the human capacity to do harm. 

Despite experiencing such extreme acts of inhumanity, Eisen was able to rebuild his life, that was filled with family and love, much like he knew on his farm in Slovakia. 

Throughout this time, Eisen’s stayed true to his father’s final request of him before he was murdered at Auschwitz. 

“If you survive, you must tell the world what happened here.” 

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