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Obituaries

Jack Eisner, 77; Spent Millions Spreading Story of Holocaust

September 02, 2003|Myrna Oliver | Times Staff Writer

Jack P. Eisner, who used the black-market skills he acquired in the Warsaw ghetto to make a fortune as a legitimate American importer-exporter and then used the fortune to tell how he had survived the Holocaust, has died. He was 77.

Eisner died Aug. 24 at New York's Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center of colon cancer. He had homes in Manhattan, Israel and the south of France.

After immigrating to New York City in 1949, the Warsaw-born Jacek Zlatka spent nearly three decades building his Stafford Industries into a $50-million business. As a businessman, he relied on the acumen gleaned from providing food to starving Jews to profit from transactions such as buying raw material in Romania to manufacture T-shirts in Malta to sell in Canada.

In 1978, Eisner sold his Manhattan-based company and started a new life's work -- telling about his traumatic youth. He founded and served as president of the Holocaust Survivors Memorial Foundation, which, among other educational projects, endows chairs at various universities to spread the story of the Holocaust.

Two years later, he published his autobiography, "The Survivor." The book was turned into a Broadway play by Susan Nanus, and has been performed in Los Angeles at the Hudson Theater and at Wilshire Boulevard Temple as part of the American Jewish Repertory Theater.

Eisner also spent several million dollars to fund a motion picture based on his book, with himself as executive producer and Moshe Mizrahi as director. Originally titled "The Children's War," the film was released in 1985 as "War and Love."

Although reviews were generally negative for book, play and movie, the story of Eisner's incredible struggle for survival shone through.

He was 13 and had a scholarship to the Warsaw Music Conservatory when the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, soon herding Jews into a restricted ghetto. The boy abandoned music and grew up instantly, organizing a group of youths to smuggle food and supplies between the Warsaw ghetto and the world outside, and occasionally seeing his girlfriend. Becoming more militant, he smuggled arms for the ghetto's revolt, which started April 19, 1943, and estimated that he personally heaved 200 Molotov cocktails.

Eventually captured by Nazis, young Eisner survived a succession of concentration camps -- Majdanek, Budzyn and Flossenburg -- while more than 100 of his family members, including all 30 of his first cousins, perished. Twice he was sentenced to hang, only to have the makeshift gallows collapse both times, and once he was nearly beaten to death.

Freed by American troops, Eisner stayed on in Europe for a few years after the war, testifying at the Nazi war crimes trials in Nuremberg and helping Americans track down war criminals. At a time when it was illegal, he also helped Jews emigrate from eastern Europe to Palestine before it became Israel.

When Eisner's book was published in 1980, a New York Times reviewer wrote bluntly: "Mr. Eisner's fond narrative of his life as a kid gangster is self-serving, vulgar, amusing at times and about as disturbing as a James Bond thriller. It reduces the Warsaw ghetto and the entire Second World War to a backdrop for Mr. Eisner's exploits as a smuggler, fighter and lover."

The Los Angeles Times reviewer was kinder, praising the book as "a blood-chilling account of what it was like to be a 13-year-old Jew when the Holocaust erupted in Europe.... This is a harsh and uncompromising horror tale of a boy possessed by an incredible will to live. If, in the telling, Eisner appears with bravado -- an occasional bit of personal breast-beating -- the lesson is clear: That is what it took to have lived it."

In 1962, Eisner established the Warsaw Ghetto Resistance Organization, one of the oldest Holocaust survivors' groups. In 1993, he installed a monument in Warsaw honoring 1.5 million Jewish children killed by Nazis.

A longtime leader in promoting understanding between Christians and Jews, Eisner met with the pope several times. In 1994, he headed a group of Holocaust survivors in a visit with Pope John Paul II.

"As a young boy growing up in prewar Warsaw, I feared crossing the sidewalk next to a church," Eisner told the pope, according to a report in Newsday. "Now, some 50 years later, the unthinkable is happening. The most influential and powerful church in the world and its majestic spiritual leader of a billion souls is extending its hand of friendship to me, the Jewish boy from the Warsaw ghetto."

Eisner is survived by his wife, Sara; two sons, Philip and Arnold; a daughter, Lee; and two granddaughters.

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