Food was scarce in war-torn Europe during World War II.
Max Steinmetz recalls being required to present food ration coupons while he was a teenager in Romania. Jews received more restrictive ration coupons than non-Jews and did not receive coupons for meat or milk.
“I would walk to a large warehouse where there was total chaos. I waited for hours in a long line for food, usually potatoes. Many days, the food ran out before I reached the distribution area. Along with hundreds of people, I left with only the ration coupons in my hand. There would be no food for my hungry family that day.”
Seventeen-year-old Max Steinmetz arrived at Auschwitz with his family after a grueling three-day train ride in the blistering heat of the summer.
“We were roughly pulled out of the cattle car and sent to a long line. My mother, father, and five-year-old sister were sent to the left. My brother and I were ordered to the right. We were issued striped prison uniforms with identification numbers. Our head was shaved, and we were sent to the barracks. A few hours later, I stepped out of the barracks. There was a thick, heavy smoke and a nauseating odor that made me physically ill. I asked another prisoner what was happening, and he began to ask me about my arrival. I told him that I had just gotten off the train with my family and that my brother and I had been sent right. The rest of my family had been sent left.”
“That smoke and odor is your family burning,” he explained. “The line to the left goes to the crematorium.”
That was the tortured moment of truth for Max.
More than three million Jews were murdered in gas chambers. New arrivals to the camp were told to hang their clothing on numbered hooks in the undressing room and, as a ploy, were instructed to remember the numbers for later. They were taken into the adjacent gas chamber which was disguised as a large shower. Pellets of the commercial pesticide Zyklon-B were released into the chamber. When the pellets made contact with air, lethal cyanide fumes were released and rose toward the ceiling. Children died first, since they were closer to the floor. Pandemonium erupted as the bitter, almond-like odor spread upward, with adults climbing on top of each other until a tangled heap of dead bodies reached to the ceiling.
Special squads of Jewish slave laborers called Sonderkommandos bore the grim task of untangling victims and removing them from the gas chambers. Next they extracted any gold fillings from the victims’ teeth and searched body orifices for hidden valuables. Clothing, money, jewelry, eyeglasses, and other valuables were sorted and shipped back to Germany for re-use. Corpses were disposed of by various methods including mass burials and cremation, either in open fire pits or in specially designed crematoria such as those used at Auschwitz.
Today, Max is comforted by a happier memory of his family. By using a tattered, wallet-sized photo that was preserved by a relative and given to Max, a close friend painted a portrait of Max and his family. Young Max is seated on the right.
The losses of that day at Auschwitz affected Max profoundly, leaving him deeply attached to his wife, children, and grandchildren.
“To Max, family is everything,” says his wife, Betty.
“As the Americans closed in on the Germans, we were taken out of camp. I was in a group of 15,000 prisoners on a death march through the Tyrolean Alps.
“Realizing I was getting sicker and weaker each day, I escaped from the death march. I walked through the forest to a house where I could see a light, and I knocked on the door. A small boy opened the door and began to scream. My disheveled and filthy appearance frightened him.
“The little boy’s mother came to the door, and I told her I was a Hungarian political prisoner. Later, when the SS soldiers knocked on the door, she told them there weren’t any prisoners inside.
“On May 2, 1945, the Americans came to the house and let everyone know they had taken control of the area.
“I was 20 years old.”
“Welcome to hell.”
Those were the words spoken to 18-year-old Joe Sacco by a fellow infantryman when they entered the gates of Dachau on May 29, 1945. Fashioned atop the gates was a sign reading “Arbeit Macht Frei” or “Work Makes Free.” Yet it wasn’t work that freed the prisoners of Dachau. It was the American troops.
Joe grew up in Birmingham, where he still lives today, more than 60 years after he witnessed the atrocities at Dachau. “Everywhere I looked, in every direction, I saw dead women, children, old men, babies, beaten, starved, stabbed, shot, butchered, and left to rot on the ground,” he recalls in Where the Birds Never Sing, a book written about his experiences by his son, Jack Sacco.
Max Steinmetz spent time at Dachau but wasn’t there when Joe and the 92nd Signal Battalion arrived. He had left weeks earlier on a death march before being liberated by American troops. He realizes that without the American, British, and Russian forces, liberation day might never have arrived.
“I met Joe several years ago,” says Max. “It’s been amazing to hear him talk about that day and how the troops felt when they learned the truth of the Holocaust. And it seemed that a circle had been completed – the Liberator met the Liberated.”
The order was given: Confiscate the sacred scrolls of the Jews.
During the madness of the Holocaust, the Nazis decided upon a particularly fiendish plot. They stole all of the sacred scrolls from the Jewish congregations in Czechoslovakia and other European countries for the explicit purpose of later building museums to exemplify what they, in their depravity, perceived to be Jewish “decadence.” The focal point of these museums was to be the scrolls.
The Nazis stored some of the scrolls in a warehouse in Prague, where they were discovered after the war. In 1964, 1,564 scrolls were brought to the Westminster Synagogue in London.
Max Steinmetz is holding one of these sacred scrolls, also known as a Torah, a Hebrew word meaning teaching, instruction, or law. It includes the five Books of Moses and is the central scriptural document in Judaism, containing
G-d’s instructions to the Jewish people.
This refurbished Torah is on permanent loan to Birmingham’s Temple Emanu-El.