When he was starving in Nazi concentration camps, after his parents and siblings had been murdered in the gas chambers of Auschwitz, Max Fontak did not expect to live a long life, let alone to the age of 100.
But that is what he has done.
“I would never have believed it,” said Fontak, a resident of an assisted living facility in Westbury, who turns 100 Sunday.
A native of Poland who endured the Holocaust and carved out a life as a grocer in Brooklyn, Fontak is celebrating his birthday in Woodbury Sunday in the company of 50 family members and friends.
“It was a hard life,” he said, reflecting on the milestone and what he withstood to reach it. “That I survived is a miracle.”
Fontak and his seven siblings were raised in Bedzin, an industrial city in southern Poland, where his parents made a living selling sausage casings. Around 1941, after the Nazis invaded the country, his family was forced into the city’s Jewish ghetto, where they shared a cramped apartment with two other families and subsisted on meager rations, he said.
In 1943, many of Fontak’s siblings, both parents and other family members were shipped to Auschwitz, where they were murdered, Fontak said.
But Nazi officials had other plans for Fontak, then around 25, and his brother Bernard, putting them to work stripping factories of machines that were sent back to Germany to aid the war effort.
His indentured labor continued two more years, during which the pair of brothers were sent to five different concentration camps. They worked for 12-hour stretches digging ditches for building foundations and army trenches in the freezing cold, he said. The prisoners lived on bread and watery soup, and wrapped themselves in empty cement bags to keep warm. A punch to the face by a kapo, a prisoner who supervised other inmates, broke Fontak’s jaw. He did not expect to live out the war.
That made the sudden appearance of Russian soldiers at Fontak’s last camp in May 1945 all the more surreal, he said.
“They opened up the door and said ‘go,’” Fontak recalled.
It was not long after that Fontak met Fania Fraind, another Polish Holocaust survivor.
“She was very young and beautiful,” Fontak said. They married in 1946.
Three years later, the young couple immigrated to Brooklyn. They had $500, Fontak said.
“It’s not an easy life in America,” Fontak said.
Fontak, along with Bernard and their brother-in-law, who also immigrated to America, pooled their resources to open a grocery store in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Fania worked as a Hebrew teacher.
“We were very poor,” said Gloria Jacobson, 63, of Jericho, one of Fontak’s two daughters. Jacobson’s sister, Janet Sasson, lives in Los Angeles.
“They worked very hard,” Jacobson said of their parents.
The family found support in a community of other Holocaust survivors who had also immigrated to New York.
“I thought everybody had a number,” Jacobson said. Many of her parents’ friends bore the identification numbers that Nazis tattooed on the arms of some concentration camp prisoners, she said.
Around 1980, Fontak sold the shop and began working for a grocery wholesaler. He and his wife retired to Florida around 1993. Fania died in 2014, and Fontak moved to the Westbury facility last year.
Fontak is not certain what to credit for his unexpectedly long life. He exercises every morning, he noted, and he seldom eats dessert.
But those facts do not fully explain how a life lived for years on the edge of death could stretch longer than most could hope. Only the sheer human impulse to survive, encapsulated in one of Fontak’s favorite sayings, seems to get close.
“Where the head has to lie, the legs take you,” he said.