I am the son of Elias and Rozetta Rodrigues Garcia, a Sephardic Jewish family, born in Amsterdam, Holland in 1924. My younger sister, Sippora (Sienie) and my parents were deported in 1942 and 1943, and subsequently murdered in the Nazi camps; my mother, on her birthday. After months of hiding, I was arrested and deported to KZ Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1943. I survived five concentration camps—Transit Camp Westerbork, MKZ Auschwitz, KZ Mauthausen, KZ Melk, and was ultimately liberated by the US Army on 6 May 1945 from KZ Ebensee in Austria and two death marches. Because I could speak German and English and I knew a few European language, was scrappy and clever, I convinced the US Army to recruit me to work in their post-war counterintelligence as a translator in Europe, and, in 1946 was helped to emigrate to the United States, sponsored by a US Army officer. After having a nervous breakdown and needing to reconcile my past life as a prisoner, I was asked to leave the Army with honors and I eventually moved to San Francisco, California in 1954 and began to fulfill a lifelong dream of becoming an architect. In 1956, I married my wife, Pat, who helped me launch my successful architectural practice in San Francisco. We raised three children, David, Tania, and Michelle, and I am grandfather to five grandchildren. My beloved wife, Pat, wrote my biography, which was published in 1979 under the title As Long as I Remain Alive. She died in 2002. In 2008, with the help of my children, my in-laws serving as editors, my grandchildren, and my daughter’s publishing company, I revised and published the second edition of my biography, Auschwitz, Auschwitz…I Cannot Forget You. I continue to travel to Europe and my homeland every year I am able. And at 95, I continue to be an invited speaker to numerous groups want to hear my story and why we must never forget KZ Auschwitz and all the other concentration camps and the horrors of the Holocaust and how they continue to live fully in my memory today and how the Holocaust has lasting impact on my children and their children.
Prior to meeting my wife, she was a writer, she then became the person who helped to raise my out of the concentration camps. She also became a historian of the camp system and spent countless hours interviewing me to ultimately write my biography, was first published in the late 1970’s and the updated in the 1990s with the help of my children. The following is an excerpt from the book:
Excerpt from Auschwitz, Auschwitz…I Cannot Forget You by Max Rodrigues Garcia as told to Priscilla Alden Thwaits Garcia (1979).
[August 1943, Amsterdam, Holland]. “You are under arrest, Max Garcia. Come with us.” They marched me off without ceremony, taking me by car to a police station where I underwent my first interrogation and received my first beating at the hands of these Dutch Gestapo agents. I was then taken to the Jewish Theater on the Plantage Middenlaan. The theater had been transformed into a collection place for Jews who were, I was told, to be sent to Westerbork, a transit camp in northeastern Holland, near Groningen. There I was interrogated again but this time by Dutch Nazis. At first, I maintained that my false identity was my correct one. They insisted that they had proof that I was Max Rodrigues Garcia, Sephardic Jew, and the son of Elias and Rozetta Rodrigues Garcia. I capitulated. Yes, I was Max Rodrigues Garcia. Where had I been keeping myself all this time, they wanted to know. I told them I had moved from place to place. They wanted more specifics and I made up a few places where I might have hidden. Where had I obtained my false identity papers, they wanted to know. I told them that I got papers through the underground, made up a rendezvous place, but maintained I knew no names. They worked at trapping me into changing answers but I stuck to my story even though I got my second beating from them there. They released me then and threw me into the theater-auditorium-turned-prison, which was filled with Jews. The seats had been removed. I tried to stake out a small place for myself on the crowded floor. I spent a number of weeks there. We could hardly clean ourselves, and we reeked, being unwashed. Water was in short supply. We were fed regularly, but the meals were unappetizing. Little did I know that there would soon come a day when I would remember those meals as generous and good. We who were held prisoner in the auditorium remained in that place for maybe a couple of weeks after which we were carted off in trucks and taken to Transit Camp Westerbork. Upon arrival there some hours later I was placed in a Punishment Barrack which was another “holding barrack” for people, like myself, who had gone into hiding and been caught. To think that it had been a little more than a month ago that I had turned 19; now here it was well into August 1943 and it would be soon, I imagined, that I would go on a transport to – where? To think that my parents had been here not too long ago and before them it had been Sienie. Where were they now, I wondered. It was either the 22nd or 23rd of August 1943 when I was removed from the Punishment Barrack and taken to the loading place where I and many others were pushed into boxcars that were then sealed. The boxcar I was in was loaded with men, women and children. A single can for relieving ourselves stood in a corner of the boxcar, the only amenity conceded, and that a mockery, it turned out, as the days went by. We carried with us rations of food and water that each of us had been given for the trip. We were also allowed to bring whatever other supplies and valuables we had with us when we were arrested. I had only the clothes I was wearing. Daylight through slats in the siding of the boxcar was our only light. The train rolled along, then pulled to a halt from time to time, and would stand for hours. Sometimes bombs would fall nearby. Behavior broke down among our wretched numbers. Some panicked and became hysterical. Some cried. Some behaved like animals one to another. Some went into shock and withdrew completely while others copulated. We had our own specially provided hell in those boxcars, which moved, then stopped, then moved again, but the doors were never opened. After an unremembered number of days and nights the train must have come to its destination because now we had been standing still for a number of hours. Through the slats we could see it was still dark outside. Suddenly there was a great deal of noise and movement outside and the door of our boxcar was yanked open. Blinking at the piercing bright lights and barely able to move our joints, we were hustled out of the cars by SS bullies who introduced us to the persuasive power of truncheons. “Raus! Raus! Raus! Raus!” they shouted as they laid into our backs with their clubs. Without my knowing it, I had arrived in KZ Auschwitz-Birkenau, my second of what was to become five concentration camps where I was held as a prisoner; I spent about a year of my two years imprisoned, in Auschwitz.
What does Auschwitz mean to you?
What does Auschwitz mean to me?
It is an end and a beginning.
Of course, it meant many different things when I arrived.
Death, loss, confusion, how do I make it to the next day?
My son asks me, “Dad, why do you keep wanting to go back?”
Now it brings me the feeling of strength, of having survived and gone on to create an incredible life that I am still enjoying.
No one who was not there can really understand, but like the soldiers that fought in the war, the experience is too big, too emotional, too physical to ever go away, and it can take years or a lifetime and perhaps for some, never, to come to terms with what we saw and lived through and had to do as human beings trying to survive.
My parents and sister, I learned later in life, were gassed when they arrived in the KZ camps, so returning allows me to mourn them and thank them for the life that happened before.
My only real friendship in the two years that I was in the camps happened in Auschwitz, and looking back, that friendship helped save my life. So, returning is very important to me as he is no longer still alive.
For many years I have told my story, first through the book that my wife Pat wrote, and then by giving lectures about my experiences to adults and children. Auschwitz is a symbol of the many things I endured during the Holocaust, my time in Westerberg, Auschwitz, Mauthausen, Melk and Ebensee was the defining period of my life, and as I get older it has become my primary identity.
By living I helped defeat the Nazis.
I have told many people that I learned everything I needed to know at the University of Auschwitz. I graduated.
I am a SURVIVOR and that is really what Auschwitz means to me.
My message for future generations is…
Who will be accompanying you on this journey?
My daughter, Michelle Garcia Winner, and my granddaughter, Heidi Winner.
My family has grown up with my story. My daughter now helps me when I speak to audiences to share my story; Heidi my granddaughter is also learning to help me as well as learn to tell my, our family’s story to a future generation.