Featured Image: Rabbi Mendel Slavin of the Chabad Jewish Center of San Clemente introduces Holocaust survivor Jacob Eisenbach as the speaker for a Standing Up Against Hate presentation at San Clemente High School on Tuesday, Nov. 29. Photo: C. Jayden Smith
By C. Jayden Smith
Sophomores at San Clemente High School received a sobering lecture about the dangers of letting hatred manifest into tangible action on Tuesday morning, Nov. 29.
Jacob Eisenbach, a 99-year-old Jewish survivor of the Holocaust, spoke to Triton students about his traumatic experiences during World War II that resulted in the losses of most of his immediate family.
“Guard your precious minds against accepting ideas of hatred,” Eisenbach told the young audience. “Hatred is just a word, but it can lead to the deaths of millions and millions of people.”
He maintained that the sophomore class, which would graduate leaders of the future, could positively contribute to counteracting bigotry locally, regionally, nationally, and beyond.
Born in 1923 in Łódź, Poland, to a family that also included his sister, Fela, three years his senior; Sam, his younger brother by two years; and Henry, his youngest brother by five years, Eisenbach told of a loving environment in which his mother and father adored each other and treated one another like royalty.
“They had a special talent, to make each one of the four children feel that they were the most important person in the world,” he said. “No matter what (Adolf Hitler) said or did to us, he could not possibly destroy those feelings that our parents instilled in us.”
Eisenbach was 16 years old when Nazi forces invaded a “completely unprepared” Poland on Sept. 1, 1939. The Nazis quickly occupied Łódź and began building a ghetto to house all Jewish residents in the area, who were mandated by punishment of death to move inside by May 1940.
His sister, Fela, fled the German-occupied region to the Russian-occupied part of Poland with a few friends, but Eisenbach lost all contact with her because of the isolated nature of the ghetto.
He wouldn’t learn until after WWII ended that his sister had been killed after the Nazis took over her new city.
Back in Łódź, the Nazi officers implemented a “starvation diet” meant to give residents just enough food to stay alive but led to many succumbing to starvation. Another condition that took lives was the typhus epidemic, with which Eisenbach’s brother Henry was diagnosed.
The day after the diagnosis and Henry’s transportation to one of two hospitals in the ghetto, trucks arrived to load numerous levels of patients to take to concentration camps such as Auschwitz and Treblinka.
After evading gunfire from a Nazi officer to make it to Henry’s hospital, Eisenbach found that he was 15 minutes too late to save his brother. Henry would soon be killed in a gas chamber at the age of 11.
“No one ever comes out of (Auschwitz),” Eisenbach remembered. “You could smell burning flesh in the air, because after gassing those people, they burned their bodies.”
He recalled how his father, Max, a successful businessman in the textile manufacturing industry, was ordered to report for deportation from the Łódź ghetto. His father was one of about 600 men transported to a camp where he was placed on another starvation diet, and worked to death as officers forced the men to carry heavy rocks from place to place.
A touching moment occurred one day when Eisenbach received his own order for deportation, which he equated to a “death sentence,” but his brother Sam didn’t. Yet, Sam wouldn’t let his older sibling go alone, as only the two of them were left in the family.
“I am not staying here by myself,” Eisenbach said Sam told him. “Wherever you go, I go, and whatever happens to you will happen to me.”
Eisenbach characterized what happened next as a miracle.
While the two were on a train to Auschwitz, the train conductors were directed away from the death camp and toward a munition factory that enabled the brothers to survive the Holocaust. There, Eisenbach made bullets for the Nazi military, but the tragedies he would endure were far from over.
His best friend fell and broke his leg one day at the factory, and a soldier shot him dead while the friend was screaming in “excruciating pain.”
“My blood was boiling, and every time I talk about it, I shudder to the bones,” Eisenbach said.
What angered him further was that the soldiers at his factory were volunteers who signed up to join Hitler’s cause of persecuting and killing Jewish people.
After Eisenbach was liberated by the Russian army and the war ended, he moved back to his hometown of Łódź, where he found work at a factory and met his future wife. His brother Sam joined the Polish army and earned the rank of colonel within two years at the age of 22.
The army sent Sam to Białystok, a known anti-Semitic city, where Sam changed his name to avoid being identified as a Jew. However, the disguise would soon be uncovered.
“One day, he came home from his office and an anti-Semite was already waiting for him inside his home,” Eisenbach said. “When he came in, (the assassin) put a bullet in his head, and he killed him.”
Eisenbach would move to the United States three years later in 1950, and practiced dentistry for 62 years. Since his move, the Yorba Linda resident has traveled the world to speak at engagements about his experiences.
He elaborated on his answer to whether he had lost faith in humanity because of what he saw during the Holocaust.
King Christian X of Denmark and other Danish officials’ support of Jewish citizens was the first example, as their stance against persecution and other citizens’ efforts to smuggle Danish Jews to neutral Sweden saved thousands of lives.
Other examples included the work of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg and Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara, who gave visas to nearly 6,000 Jews to escape to Japan against his government’s wishes while working in Lithuania.
Wallenberg issued protective documents and releases from deportation trains as part of his work to help 200,000 Jews in Budapest, Hungary in 1944.
“Did I lose faith in humanity?” Eisenberg asked. “How could I possibly lose faith in humanity when all these non-Jewish people have risked their lives to save the Jews from the gas chambers?”
He added that he could never lose his faith in God, and maintained that he was proud to be a Jew.
Rabbi Mendel Slavin, who organized the event along with his wife, Tzippy Slavin, as directors of the Chabad Jewish Center of San Clemente, said the young audience needed to experience the fading message of Holocaust survivors to avoid repeating history.
He also informed the students that anti-Semitic incidents are on the rise in the United States, a fact that should give everyone cause for concern.
Within the month of November alone, 51 incidents occurred across the country ranging from vandalism with swastikas to bomb threats into local Jewish community centers, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
“It’s more important than ever to hear (survivors’ stories), take heart, and resolve: Never again,” Rabbi Slavin said. “Never again will we allow hatred and intolerance to become the norm among us.”
San Clemente High principal Chris Carter instructed the students present for the lecture to reflect on Eisenbach’s words, so that they could move forward to create a more supportive, accepting, and inclusive environment.
“Hate is a very scary thing,” said Carter. “It ruins lives. It ruins cultures. It ruins societies.”
C. Jayden Smith
C. Jayden Smith graduated from Dana Hills High in 2018 before pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in digital and broadcast journalism from the University of North Texas. After graduating in December 2020, he reported for the Salina Journal in Salina, Kansas. Jayden loves college football and bothering his black lab named Shadow.