By Madeleine Neal
The footsteps of two policemen rang through the ghetto’s floors. A Polish boy hid beneath a pile of straw beside his younger brother.
“My legs were trembling,” the boy said. “I begged, begged God to have mercy on me.”
That boy was Jacob Eisenbach, a survivor of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich. The 94-year-old celebrated his birthday on Thursday in the UI College of Dentistry, which he graduated from in 1955.
Eisenbach recalled first receiving his deportation notice while living in a ghetto in his hometown of Lodz, Poland, before his brother, Sam Eisenbach, got his.
“[The policemen] took me out of the room,” Eisenbach said. “Sam could have said to me, ‘I know where you are going, to the chambers.’ ”
But despite the Nazi regime’s efforts to tear his family apart, he and Sam were inseparable.
“Instead, [Sam] said, ‘Our entire family is now gone; I am not staying here by myself — wherever you go I go; whatever happens to you, happens to me,’ ” Eisenbach said.
Shortly after the start of the war, Jewish people were issued orders of relocation: they were sent to ghettos — any Jewish person seen outside of the ghettos, he said, would be shot on the spot.
For three days and three nights, Eisenbach lay in a cattle car, where people were stacked on top of each other until finally, the train stopped.
“[We were] ordered to get out of train,” he said. “[I thought] ‘I just know this is my end.’ ”
Eisenbach, however, did not go to Auschwitz. Instead, he was sent to a labor camp, where he worked alongside his future wife in a munitions factory.
“I met my wife in the most romantic place,” he joked. “In a Nazi concentration camp.”
After five years in the camp, Eisenbach, his soon-to-be wife, and Sam walked out alive when they were liberated by Soviet forces.
Shortly after the war, his brother joined Poland’s military forces, but anti-Semitism ultimately led to his murder just two years after his prison camp’s liberation.
He recently visited the last surviving member of his extended family, his cousin, 96, who lives in Melbourne, Australia.
His grandson, Ben Eisenbach, joined him on Thursday.
“We all have our daily stresses in life, and we’re all accustomed to a lifestyle that as Americans we’re privileged to have,” Ben Eisenbach said. “[But] it’s a reminder that no matter how tough I think things may get for me, they don’t ever come close to the struggles he’s encountered.”
David Johnsen, the dean of the UI College of Dentistry, said he sees Eisenbach as a symbol of resilience.
“Given what he’s been through, somebody who had a reason I think to be angry with the world, [he] isn’t,” he said. “I think he’s truly an inspiration — he never lost hope, that’s clear.”
For Eisenbach, however, not telling his story was never an option. He said forgetting these atrocities will only lead to their repetition.
“I have a moral obligation to spread the history of the Holocaust and its consequences,” he said.
Even today, he said it is important to always have hope.
“No matter how dark the clouds may be, there will always be a day when the sunlight breaks through,” he said. “Someday, the world will be able to say with confidence, never again.”