In 1925, the year Max Kirschberg was born, Breslau was a city populated by merchants, tradesmen and professionals from all walks of life. Despite the onset of a depression caused by the punitive reparations Germany was obligated to pay France and Great Britain with the Treaty of Versailles and which ended World War I, the capital of Lower Silesia was a tolerant place, where synagogues and churches stood side by side, streets were connected by bridges over canals and a consolidated Jewish community went about their every day activities as they had done for centuries, contributing to the well-being and prosperity of this important cultural city at the heart of the Weimar Republic.
As Max Kirschberg was growing up in Breslau, his interests were same as any German boy: to play conkers with chestnuts and kick a football along the canals. He attended the local Volkschule and did his homework every night in German, English and Latin. Accompanied by his younger sister and parents, the Kirschberg home was about “living well” and if the young Max wanted something, “I always had it.”
When Max turned 10, he sensed that he was being singled-out in school for being Jewish and confirmed when his best friend approached him one day with an inauspicious comment: “My Dad has told me not to have Jewish friends.” The year was 1935, Adolf Hitler was Chancellor of Germany, and the Brownshirts of the SA were making their ominous presence felt across the city of Breslau. “It was the first time, I sensed things were wrong,” states Max, and recalling another episode at school, when a boy turned up claiming it was the duty of every German to “go to the Gestapo” and denounce Jews.
Max Kirschberg was one of nine million Jews living in Europe when the Nazis stormed to power in 1933 and even though he enjoyed a relatively normal childhood in Breslau, the family decided to move to Berlin in 1938 and on the eve of Kristallnacht – the “Night of Broken Glass.” A tragic series of events began to unfurl for Max and his family, when on the night of November 9th 1938, the SA set fire to synagogues, looted Jewish businesses, vandalized cemeteries, and resulted in a mass destruction of property across the German territory. Max’s father, Heinrich, was one of many thousands who walked out of their homes in the daylight hours of the pogrom, never to return. Desperation overran the Kirschberg homestead and Max’s mother, Devorah, was forced by tragic circumstances to raise a son and a daughter, alone. As a reign of terror of Hitler’s National Socialism gripped Germany, Max could not return to school. His mother stood in line for food outside shops where window signs proclaimed: “Kauft nicht bei Jude!” (Don’t buy from Jews!).
In a show of youthful defiance and dangerous boldness, Max wanting to find out what had happened to his father during Kristallnacht headed to the Gestapo headquarters on Prinz-Albrecht street, walked through its stone entrance and approached a black-shirted SS. He asked the question any youngster would ask when a father goes missing. He got his response in a cruel and arrogant manner: “Bist du Jude? Macht das tu verschwindet! (Are you a Jew? Make sure you disappear!). With these words, Max realized that he no longer was part “of the same people, I always thought to be a part of.”
The resourcefulness of Devorah Hanfling kept food on the family table during the months leading to Hitler’s invasion of Poland on Sept 1, 1939. The family of three decided though, it was time to move on, to abandon Berlin and work the farm owned by Max’s grandmother, near Ciechanów, Poland. It was a dairy farm, surrounded by forests and green pastures, removed it seemed, from the front.
Once they were led to the German-Polish border on a train so slow “you could pick the flowers,” recalls Max, the family felt more secure, in familiar surroundings, and began to work the farm producing cheese.
But they remained Jews. The antisemitism so visible in Berlin was deeply-entrenching itself in Poland, as well. When Hitler blitzed Poland, the Gestapo turned up at the farm. The local administrator had betrayed them, showing the paperwork to force them off their land. They took up residence with another Jewish family in town. They were forced to wear the Star of David. In another act of almost naïve defiance, Max recalls how he walked into a local bakery to buy five loaves of bread, and after removing his jacket where the yellow emblem of hatred had been stitched, raised his arm and shouted: “Heil Hitler!”
The village baker handed him a loaf.
In 1942, Max and his mother and sister were ordered to the ghetto in Plonsk. They spent seven months in near-destitute conditions surviving off ration cards. The Plonsk ghetto was slow murder through starvation. When the ghetto was liquidated that same year, the unthinkable was about to happen: Max, his mother and his sister, were escorted to the local train station, and transported to a destination unknown: KZ Auschwitz-Birkenau.
“We got on the train in the morning,” recalls Max of the last day they would spend together as a family. In a cattle car they crossed 350 km of the Polish countryside, huddled together, and with their only possession a suitcase authorized for the journey to a “Work Camp” disguised as the largest extermination complex the world has ever known.
Auschwitz. The mere mention of its name conjures up an unimaginable sorrow and cruelty. A place where industrial genocide was calculated and perfected. When Max arrived at Auschwitz he was 17. “I saw the sign in Polish and in German. We didn’t know enough about Auschwitz.”
“Nobody escaped Auschwitz.”
The family was ordered to leave the train, stepping out on a platform surrounded by the SS with their “big German Shepherds.” According to the able bodied passenger, the wagons stopped “not far from where the gas chambers were.” Men were separated from women and the last time this young German would ever see his mother and his sister again. “I don’t think I grasped that moment,” says Max as his words become convoluted and tears fill his eyes. “I heard a lot of shooting.”
He was shaved, disinfected and put in stripes. The next day he got his number tattooed with a needle on the pale skin of his left forearm: 77362.
Block 10 was a two-level red brick building where Max would spend his mornings and nights as part the Jewish slave labor assigned to work for the German war industries operating within the grounds of Auschwitz. Adjacent Birkenau was a transit camp for the elderly, the infirm, women and children, as well as other “undesirables,” before being murdered in gas chambers.
Max worked with synthetic rubber, chopped down trees, and kept himself busy so as to survive everyday amongst his captors. Every now and then “when the wind was blowing in from over there and towards us, we could smell the burned flesh,” he remarks timidly. He did manage to befriend a Jewish doctor at Auschwitz, who warned him never to get sick; for illness meant certain death. “If you want to live, don’t think about tomorrow,” said the doctor. “There is no tomorrow.”
Max survived two years at Auschwitz. Maybe the word “survive” is far too gentle, way too accommodating, when having to recount the suffering and untimely death of so many. Of millions. Six million, to be precise. On January 27th, 1945, the Red Army crossed southern Poland and liberated Auschwitz. Max was not there. With the ensuing panic and retreat of the German forces, anyone in “good health” was quickly transferred to camps within Germany, such as Dachau, Mauthausen and Buchenwald. Auschwitz was in shambles and abandoned. Auschwitz was the shame, the world could not see.
On April 11, 1945, U.S forces stormed the concentration camp of Buchenwald and where they found more than 21,000 people, among them Max Kirschberg. An American in General Patton’s army, when seeing the emaciated POWs and last Auschwitz survivors, yelled: “Who the hell speaks English here?” Max raised his arms. He was immediately given the task of interpreting to U.S army officers.
He helped the Americans with German and the necessary translations needed for the Military Governments which were sprouting up across a defeated and disgraced Germany. But Max was a free man.
Trying to locate loved one, he took pen to paper and wrote the President of Colombia, Alberto Lleras Camargo a letter. He knew he had cousins in South America, in a place called Colombia. But he didn’t have an address. The Hanflengs, Juan and Guillermo, were members of the Jewish community in Bogotá. With the help of American GIs, his letter turned up on the President’s desk at Casa Nariño and was delivered to the Jewish community. Max had survived.
The French Government issued travel papers for Max to head to Colombia. He boarded a DC-4 from Paris to Lisbon and on to Dakar. Then a flight across the Atlantic to Brazil and to Port of Spain, Caracas and Barranquilla. Max Kirschberg stepped foot in Bogotá at the end of 1946 as a German Jew émigrée and survivor of Nazi terror.
He returned to Germany in 1952 to finish his formal studies and became a chemist. He married and started a family. Two decades later, and with a successful dry cleaning business in Germany, he took the decision to return to Colombia with his son Donald, and partnered-up with Murray Kaplan of the Lavatex company, to develop the soaps and detergents for their growing dry cleaning business. They worked together for 20 years.
The story of Max Kirschberg is one that has to be told. In the year that we commemorate the 76 years of the liberation of Auschwitz, we are obligated to remember the millions who lost their lives in the pogroms, the ghettos and the camps. We are fortunate to have Max among us, to hear his story of courage and survival; and an affirmation that hope always conquers fear.
Editor’s Note: This story appeared in The City Paper, edition 133, 2015. Max sadly passed away on January 26, 2021.