You can know a person for many years, speak to him, see him walking through the neighborhood, even know a crucial fact about him — that he is a Holocaust survivor — and yet you can discover, in a matter of moments, that you know nothing about him at all. Such has been the case with my relationship with Seymour Mayer, who has lived around the corner from me for as long as I can remember. Over the years, he's commented on things I've written, which has always pleased me. But until a mutual friend told me he'd written a book about his experiences in the Shoah, and I sat down and read it, I don't think I comprehended how we can go about our lives and be so uninformed, at the most basic level, about our fellow human beings. Mayer's book is called And Then the Nazis Came, and I found it riveting.
Perhaps the major reason why I was so caught up in his story is because I had a different sense of what Mayer's life had been like. Meaning and interpretation, of course, all depend upon when you come into the overall picture, where you enter into history, in both the grand sense and the personal one. I've known Seymour Mayer only as an adult and assumed as well that he had withstood the ravages of the Holocaust as the powerful-looking man he still is. But he was a mere teenager when the Nazis marched in, and when it was all over, he was the only member of his immediate family to survive. I cannot rid my mind of these facts.
(It's not that others, many of them living right here in Philadelphia, didn't suffer similar fates. It's simply that I know this man, even if only remotely, which makes the difference. The fact that he has included family photos in his text drives the horror home with greater force. In his youthful face, I see the man I know, but now I've been informed about what came in between. Readers should be forewarned, however — Mayer is not a professional writer, and he has not been well served by his publisher in terms of simple editing; still, the book is gripping.)
Life Turned on a Dime
Like Elie Wiesel, Mayer grew up in Romania, but in the town of Bistrita, where it took till 1944 for the Nazis to arrive. But when they came it was, as elsewhere, hellish. The idyllic nature of Mayer's childhood, ruled by the closeness of family life and the beauty of the Romanian countryside, turned on a dime.
On May 3, 1944, the author and his relatives, along with neighboring families, were taken in the back of a truck to an open field, what the author describes as as "a slowly rising hill outside the city," a place he knew well, a place where he had skied in the past.
The field was surrounded by a high wire fence and guarded by Hungarian fascists (in 1940, half of Transylvania, which was then in Romania, including Mayer's hometown of Bistrita, was ceded to Hungary, which felt it was the rightful owner of the land). By the end of that fateful day, this so-called "ghetto" was clogged with people.
Mayer and other teens formed work brigades and tried their best to alleviate the suffering of the elders and the young. They struggled to make some kind of shelter. They organized communal kitchens and, with whatever food they could get their hands on, they attempted to feed the people. Everyone had to stand in line for everything — water, bread, soup, to use the outhouses. To make things simply bearable, says Mayer, the teenagers worked to the point of exhaustion.
His family's makeshift shelter, like most others, had no walls, and the norm was that more than one family shared the space. Everyone wondered how they came to this. "At night," Mayer writes, "the screams of young children, cries of babies, filled the air throughout the ghetto."
But this was only the beginning of the family's trials. Next came the cattle car ride and Auschwitz. With the first selection, Meyer never again saw his mother, beloved grandmother and siblings. He and his father set about struggling to stay alive. (At just about the midpoint of the memoir, Mayer pauses to meditate on the meaning of what survival meant in the world of the Nazis, and these pages have a crushing sadness.)
Auschwitz was terrifying enough, but it was only one stop on the journey. Next came Mauthausen, then the little-known Melk concentration camp, formerly an Austrian military or police garrison not far from the Danube. Mayer and his father managed to meet each new challenge, always able to work side by side.
But then, somehow, the two became separated, working on different shifts. One day, before the author and his fellow workers had time to assemble for their detail (his father's unit had already gone out, though his son didn't know this), the air-raid siren sounded and bombs began falling. Not one building or barrack was hit, but many inmates died and hundreds were terribly wounded. No one knew who bombed the camp; rumor had it that British planes had mistaken the area for a German military post.
Mayer and his father weren't injured but, from that moment on, the author writes, the plight of the inmates worsened. Starvation and exhaustion were swiftly killing them, along with an infestation of lice. "Melk," writes Mayer, "was not Auschwitz or Mauthausen, it was the end of the line of possibilities."
Eventually, Mayer's father was sent back to Mauthausen, and his son never saw him again. As the war began to wind down, the author was sent to a sub-camp called Ebensee. It "was situated in the upper Austrian Salzkamergut Mountains," explains Mayer, "a few kilometers uphill from the town of Ebensee. Just like the other camps, this one also was surrounded by an electrified chain-link fence, and with guard towers … ."
It was here, the author states, that starvation became more real than in the other camps. Mayer became desperate to find food and avoid sitting around waiting to die, like so many others. He rose early to ensure being chosen for a work detail because he reasoned that, once outside the camp, he could find something — anything — to chew on and digest. Writes the survivor: "Many chewed on pieces of coal found along rail tracks, and even green grass some plucked off the field like cattle in a pasture."
This strategy worked for a short while, then Mayer found himself "among the many thousands of starving people, some without clothes, aimlessly staggering among the pine trees." One day, he spotted a childhood friend, Eddy Goldstein, a skeletal figure, totally naked. It was a shock seeing a schoolmate in this condition, and Mayer, though he had to look away, says he never forgot the sight of his friend in this demeaning state.
Mayer managed to hang on till the day of liberation. "While some of us rejoiced, enjoying the first moments of freedom, others sat around lethargically, picking lice from their torn filthy shirts, not knowing what to make of the feeling — this feeling of fear that haunted us."
Mayer returned to his hometown of Bistrita, found his house still standing, but without his family, it felt like a hollow victory. Eventually, he wrote to his aunt, Mrs. Rose Hirsch, in Brooklyn, who was overwhelmed with happiness to discover that he had survived. He corresponded with her regularly, and she and her husband encouraged him repeatedly to leave. Mayer wanted nothing more than to start a new life in America, but, because of the tangled web of bureaucracy, it took him four long years to make that happen. But make it he did, with his aunt and uncle waiting to greet and support him.
"I was so lucky," writes the author. "I had so much more waiting for me than many others …
"On Sept. 28, 1949, I began my new life in America. My luggage was a shiny aluminum valise, empty of possessions, but full of dreams. After all these years, I still have the aluminum valise — I can't part with it."