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By: Becky Seitel
Survivor: Steinmetz, Max

Seventeen-year-old Max Steinmetz arrived at Auschwitz with his family after a grueling three-day train ride in the blistering heat of the summer.

“We were roughly pulled out of the cattle car and sent to a long line. My mother, father, and five-year-old sister were sent to the left. My brother and I were ordered to the right. We were issued striped prison uniforms with identification numbers. Our head was shaved, and we were sent to the barracks. A few hours later, I stepped out of the barracks. There was a thick, heavy smoke and a nauseating odor that made me physically ill. I asked another prisoner what was happening, and he began to ask me about my arrival. I told him that I had just gotten off the train with my family and that my brother and I had been sent right. The rest of my family had been sent left.”

“That smoke and odor is your family burning,” he explained. “The line to the left goes to the crematorium.”

That was the tortured moment of truth for Max.

More than three million Jews were murdered in gas chambers. New arrivals to the camp were told to hang their clothing on numbered hooks in the undressing room and, as a ploy, were instructed to remember the numbers for later. They were taken into the adjacent gas chamber which was disguised as a large shower. Pellets of the commercial pesticide Zyklon-B were released into the chamber. When the pellets made contact with air, lethal cyanide fumes were released and rose toward the ceiling. Children died first, since they were closer to the floor. Pandemonium erupted as the bitter, almond-like odor spread upward, with adults climbing on top of each other until a tangled heap of dead bodies reached to the ceiling.

Special squads of Jewish slave laborers called Sonderkommandos bore the grim task of untangling victims and removing them from the gas chambers. Next they extracted any gold fillings from the victims’ teeth and searched body orifices for hidden valuables. Clothing, money, jewelry, eyeglasses, and other valuables were sorted and shipped back to Germany for re-use. Corpses were disposed of by various methods including mass burials and cremation, either in open fire pits or in specially designed crematoria such as those used at Auschwitz.

Today, Max is comforted by a happier memory of his family. By using a tattered, wallet-sized photo that was preserved by a relative and given to Max, a close friend painted a portrait of Max and his family. Young Max is seated on the right.

The losses of that day at Auschwitz affected Max profoundly, leaving him deeply attached to his wife, children, and grandchildren.

“To Max, family is everything,” says his wife, Betty.