He has come to America’s college capital this weekend to watch two of his grandsons walk across finely appointed stages to collect their degrees: a pair of life’s milestone moments that Andrew Burian will treasure like none other.
Commencement season is a time of hugs and handshakes and high-fives. Everywhere you look there is a story. Under every cap and gown, through the sometimes glistening eyes of every mom and dad, there are personal tales ranging from utter relief to absolute triumph.
Andrew Burian, now 86, has a story like that. Except his is stunning, horrific, and life-changing.
And even though his body and his memory are not what they used to be, as he cheers his beloved grandkids’ academic accomplishments on Sunday, his mind will doubtlessly carry him back to those darkest of days when a future of sunshine and splendor — any future at all, really — seemed beyond imagination.
“It’s extremely powerful,’’ said Jordan Anhalt, 23, who will receive his bachelor’s degree in philosophy at Brandeis on Sunday. “I grew up with the duality in which other people recognized him as a survivor. He is a hero. But to me, he’s always been my grandfather. I’m so grateful he’s here.’’
It’s such a simple thought. But it belies an unspeakable, awful history that makes Burian’s presence all the more powerful. The blue-ink tattoo on his arm — B 14611 — helps tell his story.
He grew up in the shadow of the Carpathian Mountains in a small town in Czechoslovakia, where his father ran a lumber company and young Andrew lived an idyllic childhood surrounded by cousins, aunts, and uncles, and a loving extended family that circumscribed his little world.
And then a madman named Hitler, whose maniacal voice blared from loudspeakers, tightened his grip. Burian’s family home was confiscated and converted into a police station. Curfews were enforced. Jews were forced to wear yellow stars that made them targets.
What followed, recorded on the pages of history books, is forever seared into Burian’s memory.
At the tip of a bayonet, his family was deported to a ghetto in Hungary. Ahead lay cattle cars with barbed-wire windows, the brutal searches of women, the screams of small children — and Auschwitz-Birkenau.
His mother, grandfather, and great-uncle were murdered immediately upon arrival. Young Andrew’s survival would depend on wit and courage in the face of German soldiers who shot into the ranks of concentration camp crowds just for the sport of it.
In his memoir, “A Boy from Bustina. A son. A survivor. A witness,’’ Burian recalls the moment when he was separated from his father and brother.
“My blood drained to my feet as I realized that I was left alone in Birkenau without parents and without a sibling,’’ he wrote. “All I could do was attempt to stifle my sobs and hold my hand across my mouth as I called for my mama, papa, and Tibi” — his brother.
Before he was forced to leave his son, Ernest Burian gave instructions to him that the boy remembered for the rest of his life:
“My child, I have three things to say to you: Keep yourself clean so you don’t get sick; be a mensch and don’t let them make an animal out of you; and remember, whoever lives through this inferno goes home and waits for the others. God willing, we will all meet at home.’’
Andrew Burian, who was reunited with his brother and their father, after the camps’ liberation, arrived at Ellis Island in New York Harbor in the spring of 1948. He was 17 and had $10 in his pocket.
He settled in the Bronx, moved to Brooklyn after his marriage to Ruth Allerhand, and worked his way up in a commercial lighting business, raising three children: a girl and two boys.
“I was not at all aware of the details of his story,’’ said Matilda Anhalt, his daughter, a psychologist in New Jersey. “I always knew my dad was different. He was European. And he had numbers on his arm.’’
But over time, the mind-bending details of that story emerged.
Burian’s 13 grandchildren know about those numbers on his arm. And what they mean.
“They adore him,’’ Anhalt said. “They respect him. They think he’s invincible. He’s like a superhero to them.’’
On Sunday morning, Brandeis president Ron Liebowitz will recognize that superhero at the commencement ceremonies of a college founded in 1948 by the American Jewish community, and named for a Supreme Court justice, Louis D. Brandeis.
“It is profound,’’ Liebowitz told me on Friday. “It’s the profundity of this man, who as a 13-year-old displayed such determination and resilience. That has to be a lesson.’’
What is that lesson? “His ability to somehow see the good in humanity when he saw the very worst of humanity. It’s remarkable that he can still have love.’’
After Brandeis has conferred its degrees on Saturday morning, Burian and his family will drive to Boston University, where another grandson, Michael Burian, will receive his business degree.
Again, there will be the traditional pomp and circumstance. There will be music and speeches that reach for an overarching theme, a grand message.
Andrew Burian’s grandchildren may fully appreciate all of that. But mostly they’ll remember a story their grandfather has told over time: a story of a freezing death march in the winter of 1945 to Mauthausen.
It’s the story of the steeples.
After his separation from his father, the teenaged Burian was alone, in deep despair, and on the brink of exhaustion and collapse.
Always on the horizon, there seemed to be a church steeple in the near distance. Another prisoner tried to console and encourage the younger boy.
“We’re just going to make it to that next steeple,’’ the prisoner told him. And the next. And then the next after that.
“It showed he could continue with a perceived goal in sight,’’ Matilda Anhalt said.
Her son, Jordan, has never forgotten that story.
“Steeple by steeple,’’ he said. “That applies to many areas of life.’’
And, of course, he can never forget that tattoo on his grandfather’s arm.
“I see it as a branding of what somebody was trying to make him into,’’ the Brandeis graduating senior said. “And then I see the successful man that he’s made himself into.’’
It’s a lesson that no textbook has the power to convey.