This time last year, I was gleefully up to my ears in preparation for a trip to Ebensee, Austria, in May.
I don’t have to tell you, the pandemic — in all its cancellation glory — halted this preparation, and, indeed, anyone would feel disappointment at the termination of a European adventure. But, I felt this disappointment even more keenly because of the nature of my vacation to Austria.
At my grandfather’s funeral in November 2018, Holocaust survivor, Andy Sternberg, invited my family and me to the 75th anniversary of the concentration camp’s liberation in Ebensee, Austria. My grandfather, Robert Persinger, was a sergeant in the first tank to approach the camp.
My grandfather’s part in liberating Ebensee is woven into my family’s history and mythology, as well as my identity. Now that my grandfather is gone, I see it as my responsibility to continue telling his story. The one thing Grandpa always told audiences who listened to his story of the liberation was to never forget that they heard a first-hand account about the brutality of the Holocaust. He knew very well that Holocaust deniers spread their conspiracy theories like viruses. Grandpa knew the antidote was telling his story. He instilled that in his children and grandchildren. My family and I do not take the responsibility lightly. We are honored to continue telling his story.
Part of my preparation in telling his story and traveling to Austria was to research Ebensee, its liberation, and the experience of prisoners who suffered there.
We are lucky that published accounts of this experience exist.
The most memorable part of my grandfather’s story is how he met Max Garcia. In fact, Max tells the story in his books As Long as I Remain Alive and Auschwitz, Auschwitz . . . I cannot Forget You As Long as I Remain Alive (the latter is an updated version of the first). In fact, Max opens As Long as I Remain Alive with the liberation and meeting an unnamed soldier who, as it turned out, was my grandfather — Robert.
I share the story here in Max’s words because he was actually there:
Crowding the fence and listening intently, we heard them on the road below. An unfamiliar rumbling that we had not heard before. We saw their dust rising from the valley. The rumbling, squeaking sound of their climb up our road grew louder with their approach; then two enormous tanks lumbered into view around the bend of our road, followed by a curious, small, open vehicle. On our side of the fence, we prisoners surged toward the locked main gate as the tanks and auxiliary vehicle slowly pulled to a halt just outside. Soldiers in unfamiliar uniforms peered in frank amazement from the tops of the tanks at a mass of shrunken, ghastly scarecrows in filthy, striped rags, a reeking mass with heads shaved except for a center stripe. The soldiers stared at us and we stared at them. Two old Volkswehr [i.e. militia or vigilante under the power of the German people] stood trembling and silent but still at their posts outside the gate. Too old to serve in the German Army, these men did service as homeguardsmen in their village of Ebensee. Suddenly a soldier [Robert Persinger] leaned down from the nearest tank, yanked the rifle out of the hands of the Volkswehr at the right side of the gate, broke it over the gun turret, and hung it over the gate to our camp. That thrilling crack still resounds in my memory. The day, I was to learn later, was the 6th of May, 1945, a Sunday. It was midday.The silence of the first shock of our encounter now broken, the gates somehow were opened, and we drew back to allow the roaring tanks and their small escort to roll slowly into the middle of our barren Appellplatz. Prisoners swarmed around as the engines switched off. The soldiers in and on the tanks seemed afraid. They looked as if they did not care to come down among us. They may have been fresh from the latest battles, but we appeared to be too much for them. These hungry eyes. These sunken faces and skeletal bodies. These stinking subhumans. Us! Some of us tried to climb onto the tanks but were politely rebuffed with hand gestures. Standing among the crowd of prisoners around the tanks, I watched a soldier [Persinger] take out a pack of Lucky Strikes and light a cigarette. Now these were American cigarettes, I knew, for I had seen just such cigarettes back in Holland and even advertised in English-language papers and magazines my father had brought me, insisting that I learn some English. So these were American forces! “It’s been a long time since I had a Lucky Strike,” I yelled up over the din to the soldier. He looked down in surprise, singling me out. “You speak English?” In my daring I answered, “Yes.” “Well, come on up here.” He reached down to give me a hand up onto the tank. Once there I was given that Lucky and the soldier lit it for me. I took a long pull, inhaling deeply. The sea of faces smoking what I thought was strong stuff, such as tree bark and brown wrapping paper, but the American cigarette made me dizzy. I braced myself, then switched my smoking method to an occasional cautious puff. Meanwhile the soldier was pelting me with questions. Singling him to slow down, I struggled to understand and to answer with single words or gestures. What was my name? Where was I from? What was I doing here? How many prisoners were in this camp? What were they doing here? Where did they come from? I had very few knowledgeable answers, but we worked hard at exchanging information with my few words of English and many hand signs. The American spoke no other language. For my part, I asked if the war was over, and, more or less, what was going on. The Nazis, I learned, had not yet officially surrendered but surrender was expected at any moment. A report of Hitler’s death had been confirmed. The soldier [Persinger] radioed to his headquarters that our camp had been opened and that a prisoner who spoke a little English had been found. My soldier friend, I noted, was a sergeant, and apparently in command of the small tank force liberating our camp. I set about trying to persuade him to come down and take a look around. He was hesitant but he and a soldier companion were eventually coaxed down from the tank to take a walking tour of the camp with me as their guide. I talked in my English and they in theirs, and as we walked we were accompanied by a mass of prisoners. The prisoners applauded and crowded around to touch and pat the soldiers: a sacred moment for them, probably a frightening one for the soldiers. Even I was slapped on the back by my fellow prisoners. A moment of high honor for me.Garcia 3-5
“The Lucky Strike” story, as it became known in my family, is one I’ve known since I was a young girl. To read it in Max’s book in such terms was a new experience, the scene more vivid than ever before.
Max explains his youth, his capture, his entrance to concentration camps, the aftermath of liberation and immigration to the United States, how he worked to become an architect and build a life with his wife, Priscilla, and their children.
Max’s description of life fascinated me, and I couldn’t help but wonder if he ever passed Anne Frank and her family.
Another poignant chapter in Max’s story is his life after the war, once he makes his way as a United States citizen. I’m not sure enough attention lands on survivors’ lives after the Holocaust. Max details the struggles of not only a survivor but an immigrant trying to achieve the American Dream, all the while coping with the lasting effects of trauma.
Max first dedicated his story to his wife Priscilla “Pat” Alden Garcia in the 1970s. Before he reunited with my grandfather, Max was already telling the story of the unnamed soldier who gave him a Lucky Strike and who he toured around the camp.
In 2008, Max published Auschwitz, Auschwitz . . . I Cannot Forget You As Long as I Remain Alive. This edition retells the story in his first book. Still, he revises parts he learned more about through his continuing exploration of his experiences at Buna, Auschwitz, Mauthausen, and Ebensee.
This edition is special because Max’s children and grandchildren share their accounts of learning about their patriarch’s story and its effect on them. I cannot help but feel a kinship with these people I never met. Their patriarch and mine are forever bound by what they experienced at Ebensee, so I can’t help but wonder if that Lucky Strike bound us together as well.
Auschwitz, Auschwitz chronicles Max’s search to reunite with the liberators of Ebensee, including my grandfather. I always wondered how they reunited, so this edition details it in the same way Max and Priscilla rendered how Max and my grandfather first met. The book has a picture that I cherish: Max stands with Sergeant Dick Pomante, Captain Timothy Brannan, and my grandfather at the 50th Anniversary of Liberation of Ebensee Camp in 1995. They are holding hands with dignified smiles on their faces. I can’t get enough of this picture, and I can’t help but imagine everything they felt when reunited with one another.
What must it be to reunite with a group of people you know only through trauma? I think we all know the answer as we all have our own traumas. I love the example set by Max and my grandfather — throughout their lives after reuniting, they remained friends.
Max alludes that the wives of the liberators listened with rapt attention when they got together; the soldiers didn’t talk about what they witnessed to their families. But, together, they could let go of the breath they held in, find some sort of catharsis.
Now that my grandparents are gone, I am even more fascinated by these aspects of their lives. Max’s books gifted me with a glimpse into their lives and a reunion of my own with my beloved grandparents.
Max ends As Long as I Remain Alive with a call to “forgive, but not forget.” Like my grandfather, Max sees value in remembering the Holocaust and acting on the lessons it left for us to learn. Nevertheless, he warns us that we still have much work to do through human compassion.
I, too, would like to hope that the lessons of the Holocaust have helped prevent the igniting of similar infernos, but our news sources tell us otherwise. (Even today in many countries of the world bloodbaths are underway; round-ups and imprisonments of ‘undesirable’ citizens are taking place.) As for my survival, I refuse to bear guilt for it or for anything I had to do in the camps to survive. According to the will and the conscience of the boy I was then, I did the best that was in me. I have forgiven much, and in so doing I have gained a great deal. It is also true that I do not forget. I am at one with myself as a Jew, content to be husband, father, and family member. I enjoy the practice of my profession and all the benefits of life in America, including the beauty of the city in which I live and to which I contribute my efforts. Still, I have not forgotten even for a day my uprooting in early life and my experiences in Nazi concentration camps. A remark, an incident, a dream — any of these things — can bring the camps sharply back into focus at any time.Garcia 224-25
The balance of this passage! Learn from the past; don’t turn a blind eye to what’s happening around you. Forgive not only others but yourself, too. You’re doing your best. Yes, forgive, but don’t forget.
I continue to internalize this. I hoped that my trip to the 75th anniversary of the liberation would help me do this. That standing where the camp at Ebensee would ground this approach in me, being in the physical place where Grandpa met Max would solidify the gravity of their story. But really, my grandfather’s storytelling and Max’s books do this. Undoubtedly, traveling to Austria would enable me to pay my respects to my grandfather, his comrades, and the men he helped liberate; but the story is the thing.
Now it’s my turn and my family’s turn to tell it. Max’s books are part of that story’s landscape, so now I share them with you.
Trigger Warnings: blood, gore, graphic injuries; death; depression; hospitalization; loss of a loved one (parent, sibling); medical stuff; racism (genocide – the Holocaust -, antisemitism); slavery; starvation; terminal illness (cancer); torture; trauma; PTSD; violence; war