Holocaust survivor speaks
Nazi Germany’s effort to exterminate Jews during World War II is among the gravest acts of depravity in all of human history.
Max Rodrigues Garcia spent two years in the largest death camp the Nazis operated: Auschwitz, in Poland. More than a million people were killed there, the vast majority sent to the camp because they were Jews. Garcia was one of only a few thousand prisoners to survive the camp.
This week, Garcia has been sharing his harrowing ordeal at events around Fairfield, first at the high school and middle school on Wednesday, and at the Fairfield Arts & Convention Center Thursday. His talk Thursday was titled “Auschwitz, Auschwitz I can not forget you … as long as I remain alive,” based on the book he published by the same name in 2009.
Garcia is 93 years old, but he is able to remember Auschwitz like it was yesterday. With each passing year, fewer and fewer Holocaust survivors remain who can provide a firsthand account of life in the camps. Garcia said he is the only one he knows of still giving public talks.
Garcia was born in Amsterdam in 1924. When he was a young boy, his family moved to Belgium because his father could get a better job there. However, as Germany began to re-arm in the 1930s and eventually annex Czechoslovakia and Austria, Garcia’s family could see that war was on the horizon. The family moved back to the Netherlands because they thought they would be safer in their home country.
Unfortunately, they were not. Nazi Germany invaded the Netherlands in May 1940, and within two years began making all Jews wear a yellow Star of David on their clothing indicating they were Jewish. Years later, Garcia acquired a replica star with the Dutch word for Jew “Jood” sewn into it, just like the one he and his family had to wear during the occupation.
Garcia said that, by 1942, he and his family were well aware of the persecution of Jews in Germany and German-occupied countries. The Nazis had begun to put more restrictions on Jews in the Netherlands, too, preventing them from going to restaurants, theaters and forcing them to respect a curfew at night. But Garcia said nobody could believe Jews would be sent en masse to death camps.
Garcia told the Urban School of San Francisco’s Oral History Archives Project in 2002, “Nothing becomes important until the day you get picked up, and then it becomes important. And then you wonder, ‘Why didn't we resist?’”
In November 1942, Garcia’s sister Zipporah was apprehended and sent away, never to be heard from again. After the war, Garcia learned she had been sent to Auschwitz, where she was gassed.
After his sister’s arrest and deportation, Garcia’s parents were fearful for his safety, too, and told him to go into hiding. He did, but he also wanted very much to continue corresponding with a young lady with whom he was “infatuated.” He wrote her a letter, and asked a family acquaintance to deliver it for him.
Sadly, the letter never arrived because the Nazis stopped the man that evening and made him empty his pockets. Garcia had put his return address on the envelope, and that meant the Nazis knew where to find him. Garcia was able to avoid detection a little while longer by moving to an apartment once occupied by his aunt.
That’s where Garcia’s luck ran out. Despite his best efforts to make the apartment appear vacant, a neighbor spotted him and ratted him out. Garcia told The Ledger in an interview that the Nazis rewarded people who turned in Jews.
After receiving a beating at the police station, Garcia was put on a train to Auschwitz. Once in Auschwitz, all prisoners had a number tattooed onto their arm.
Garcia said some Holocaust survivors have had their numbers removed because it reminds them of the camp, but Garcia has left his on. In fact, his grandson got a number tattooed onto his own arm to match his granddad’s.
When Garcia asked his grandson why he did that, his grandson replied “If you had not survived, I wouldn’t be here.”
“I couldn’t argue with that,” Garcia said.
Prisoners who were not killed immediately were assigned to slave labor. At the time of registration, they were asked to list their prior occupation, so they could be assigned to the appropriate task. Garcia was only 19 and his work experience consisted of polishing diamonds, but he did not write that down because he doubted there was a need for diamond polishers in the camp. He ultimately wrote down “carpenter,” and that was the work he was given.
In the camp, Garcia developed an acute appendicitis that was ready to burst after four days of agony. A Jewish doctor in the camp, who was also a prisoner, operated on Garcia and saved his life. Garcia said it was unheard of for a Jew in a death camp to receive such medical treatment, since those too sick to work were sent to the gas chambers. Garcia learned from the Jewish doctor that his supervisor, a Nazi doctor, wanted to know what an acute appendicitis looked like in color, since he had only ever seen them in his black-and-white textbooks.
As the allies advanced through the German lines, the prisoners at Auschwitz were marched out of the camp. Camp guards received an order from Berlin to kill all the prisoners, but in the chaos of Germany’s crumbling government, the order was not carried out.
Garcia recalled the day an American tank pulled up to the compound where the prisoners had been held, vacant of German officers who had all fled that morning. Garcia went up to the tank driver holding a pack of cigarettes and remarked, in English, “It’s been a long time since I had a Lucky Strike.”
“At that moment, I knew I had made it,” he said.