Eisen’s Holocaust memoir wins prestigious book contest

Ziya Tong (right), former host of Discovery Channel's Daily Planet, attended a 90th birthday celebration for Max Eisen (left). Tong is championing By Chance Alone, Eisen's Holocaust memoir, for CBC Radio's Canada Reads 2019. The live radio debate airs March 25 to March 28.

** Editor’s note: This story ran online last week. Today we learned that this book won CBC Radio’s annual battle of the books, Canada Reads.


They say lightning only strikes once, but Max Eisen, a survivor of Auschwitz, jokes that lightning has struck his memoir twice. His book, By Chance Alone, is in the national spotlight for a second time.

Published by HarperCollins in 2016, the book garnered national attention the following year as a finalist for the prestigious RBC Taylor Prize for literary non-fiction.

By Chance Alone is now shortlisted for Canada Reads 2019, CBC Radio’s high-profile, annual battle of the books. This year’s theme is: One Book to Move You.

Five celebrities have each selected a book to champion in a live radio debate that airs over four days – March 25 to 28. A different book will be eliminated each day, with the remaining book being crowned the winner.

Ziya Tong, former host of Discovery Channel’s Daily Planet, is representing By Chance Alone.

In the run-up to Canada Reads, Eisen has been interviewed on radio stations across the country.

“There’s a lot of promotion through CBC,” he said in an interview a week before the Canada Reads debate kicked off. “The nomination was a big honour. It brings the book back into the forefront.”

Sales are also way up, with By Chance Alone taking a spot on the Globe and Mail’s bestsellers list. “The power of Canada Reads is very strong,” said Cory Beatty, senior director of marketing and publicity at HarperCollins Canada.

The second edition is actually outperforming the first, according to Lauren Morocco, HarperCollins’ publicity director.

When asked if he’s making money from book sales, Eisen laughed. “I give away more books than I sell.”

The accolades are less important than disseminating his story and educating people about the Holocaust, he said. “In the last two months, I’ve done four and five presentations a week. I speak at high schools and universities.”

In April, he’s booked for lectures in Saskatoon and a March of the Living trip to Poland.

In fact, Eisen was speaking in Winnipeg on March 15, his 90th birthday. The big birthday bash, organized by  Eli Rubenstein, national director of the March of the Living Canada – an organization Eisen has been affiliated with since 1998 – was held at Beth Sholom Synagogue in Toronto two days later.

“Max is among a handful of Holocaust survivors living in Canada who have crisscrossed the country bearing their tragic memories and messages of tolerance and peace,” Rubenstein said.

“Max teaches that we must never take our democratic freedoms for granted because they can disappear in a moment,” he said. “His message has been amplified 1,000 times over with the publication of his book.”

Eisen said Prof. Amanda Grzyb of the faculty of information and media studies at the University of Western Ontario assisted him with his memoir, a two-year endeavour. Ivy, his wife of 66 years, his twin sons and his two granddaughters helped transcribe his story, which he wrote by hand.

When Eisen completed the book, he asked for feedback from Jim Gifford, editorial director of non-fiction at HarperCollins. The two men met in 2012 on a mission to Poland organized by Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center.

After reading the memoir, Gifford offered to publish it, Eisen recalled. “I was shocked. I couldn’t believe it.”


Gifford attributes the appeal of By Chance Alone to Eisen’s “direct and honest approach…. Readers have responded favourably to the authenticity of the story and the sincerity of his prose.”

Margie Wolfe, president of Second Story Press, a publishing house known for its books on human rights, feminism and the Holocaust, said the national prominence of a Holocaust memoir like Eisen’s is important because its message is socially relevant.

“With all the issues confronting the world at this time, what Max has to say is not just a book about history.” She added that the hatred and racism so intrinsic to the Holocaust, still persists today.

Indeed, the rise in anti-Semitism is why Tong is defending By Chance Alone for Canada Reads. “Before 2016, I don’t remember seeing swastikas,” she said in an online interview for CBC. “But these days. I see them often – in the news and on social media. Here’s something even more shocking: one in five Canadian young people have not even heard of the Holocaust.”

And those are the people Eisen aims to reach through his presentations in the schools. He’s been waging a Holocaust education campaign for 32 years, he said.

“We don’t take holidays. We don’t go south. My family knows the work I’m doing is 24-7.”