A Survivor's Story
ABOVE: The spread of "A Survivor's Story," an article that was published in the Spring 2000 issue of Coastal Magazine
A Survivor's Story
When Ernest Lion was 25 years old, he was told he had approximately three months to live. It was a chillingly valid prognosis, coming as it did, not from a medical doctor, but from a source even more creditable, given the circumstances. He got the news from a tattooist as his arm was being marked with a six-digit identification number (104979) shortly after his arrival in Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp, on March 3, 1943.
Lion is now 84 and lives in Surfside Beach, S.C. How he refuted the tattooist's prediction and survived the greatest human catastrophe in modern history is something Lion never liked to talk about. Now, more than 50 years later, he has told his story in the form of an autobiography, The Fountain at the Crossroad, which he has donated to Coastal's Kimbel Library.
Kimbel Library is a fitting home for his manuscript, he says, because Coastal played a vital role in its existence. When he finally decided to write about his life, his first attempts to put the story down on paper were unsuccessful. He knew he needed guidance. In 1998, he enrolled in a creative writing class led by Suzanne Thompson, coordinator of Coastal's Foreign Language Instructional Center and an instructor of English. The course was offered through Coastal's Division of Extended learning and Public Services. "In my early drafts I tended to write too much about historical events, and Suzanne kept urging me to focus on my personal story," says Lion. She taught him how to apply structure to his compositions and helped him to develop as a writer, Lion says.
Thompson and Coastal English professor Randall Wells served as editors and advisers on the project. Wells and Lion had known each other through their past involvement in the Lions Club and had gotten reacquainted when Lion participated in a French conversational roundtable that Wells led at Barnes and Noble. (Lion, a native of Brambauer, Germany, spoke German, English, and French from childhood but he said his French had gotten "rusty" through the years.)
Lion began writing his book in November 1998, and it was "an overpowering experience," he said. "All the minute details came back to me, causing me both fright and great anger. It took me a year to complete. My original goal was to write two hours each day, but I found that I had to back away from it at intervals." At the time he was also working two days a week as a volunteer German tutor in Coastal's Foreign Language Lab. Although he found helping students an "extremely rewarding experience," the stress of the combined tasks compelled the busy octogenarian, on doctor's orders, to slow down. After five months in the foreign language lab, he decided to give it up in order to devote more time to finishing his manuscript.
Lion also credits Abdullah Haddad, director of Coastal's Academic Center, with teaching him the proper use of the computer and the Internet. He attended Haddad's class in 1997, his first encounter with Coastal's Division of Extended Learning.
"My intention at the beginning was to write an account of my life as a record for my relatives and my closest friends," Lion says. "But I thought that the book might also be a useful resource for others, particularly students and young people, so Kimbel Library was the obvious choice." The Fountain at the Crossroad may eventually reach a wider audience; Wells is working to interest several publishers in the work.
One thematic thread that runs through Lion's life and his book is the responsibility we bear as human beings to help each other. Lion's life was spared during his captivity through a series of good turns form his fellow prisoners, and he managed to give aid to others in the camp when opportunities arose. When he was a child his mother said: "We shall help those in distress, else we don’t deserve what we have."
Two years after the end of the Holocaust, which claimed the lives of nearly all of his family and loved ones, Lion was able to immigrate to the United States and begin a new life. Since retiring to the Myrtle Beach area in the early 1980s, he has devoted much of his time to service organizations, such as the Lions Club, and to volunteer activities. He is taking his fourth continuing education course in creative writing. "It's important to keep learning, keep active," he says. "Writing helps you learn about yourself. For me, it's a great emotional and creative outlet."
Excerpt from The Fountain at the Crossroad by Ernest Lion
When I was so very hungry, I could not sleep because my body and mind were constantly craving for food; often I thought if I would ever get to experience real life again, I would immensely enjoy a loaf of fresh rye bread. I would eat it dry. The thought of butter never occurred to me. I imagined the fresh smell as I picked it up at the bakery. These thoughts needed to be curbed, however, as luxuries that no one could afford to dwell upon. They increased the yearning and would eventually have led to insanity. To continue life as it existed, I had to accept the reality of the moment, for there was no past and no future. These minutes, this hour, this day... only this day. Many who died from starvation probably were unable to cope with reality, to accept it... I saw these bodies and found that they were no better off than I who was alive. They were not even as skinny as I was, yet they died. I learned early that the mind influences the well-being of the body.
NOTE: Mr. Ernest Lion passed away in 2004. In 2016, Lion's manuscript was published. This original Coastal Magazine article was written by CCU staff memeber Doug Bell.