Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Max Herzel: Helping the World See

In honor of last week's Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), 5771, I'd like to introduce you to Max Herzel of Birmingham. He is a Holocaust survivor who was liberated 66 years ago, and is one of 20 survivors featured in Darkness into Life: Alabama's Holocaust Survivors Through Photography and Art.

Max shared his story with me one evening at his inviting home on a shady street in Homewood. It's a story he's told hundreds of times, but his deep emotion drew me in and made me feel he was sharing his amazing story of survival only to me.

Born in Antwerp, Belgium, in 1930, his father, Oscar, was a diamond cutter, and his mother, Nachama, a seamstress. Ten-year-old Max’s journey through one of history’s darkest periods began when Belgium was invaded by the Germans on May 10, 1940.

"The city was awakened to the roar of airplanes flying across the sky," he recalled. "By Saturday evening, my parents decided to leave the city, and we nervously waited for sundown. We locked the house and proceeded to the main railroad station to travel to Brussels. Once there, we planned to join my father’s youngest sister and her husband. We took with us more fear than possessions."

After traveling seven days and nights in a crowded boxcar, Max, his parents, and older brother, Harry, found refuge in Southern France.

"This was just the beginning of the longest and saddest journey of my life," he said.

He recalls this as the period when Jews were forced to wear a yellow Star of David outlined in black. In France, “Juif”, the French word for “Jew”, was written inside the star.

Yellow Star by Becky Seitel
For centuries, the Star of David has been a symbol of Jewish pride. But during World War II, Nazis used the star to segregate and terrorize the Jewish people.

“The German government’s policy of forcing Jews to wear a badge was a tactic aimed at isolating us from the rest of the population,” he explained. “It enabled the German government to identify, deprive, starve, and ultimately murder Jewish people.”

Inside concentration camps, triangular patches were used to identify prisoners. The patches included:
  • Jew—yellow
  • Gypsy—brown
  • Homosexual—pink
  • Asocial—black
  • Political prisoner—red
The Asocial category was the most diverse, including prostitutes, vagrants, murderers, thieves, lesbians, and those who violated laws prohibiting sexual intercourse between Aryans and Jews. The word “Blod” on a black triangle marked mentally retarded inmates. For Jewish offenders, triangles of two different colors were combined to create a six-pointed star, one triangle yellow to denote a Jew, the second triangle another color to denote the added offense.

Within a few weeks of the family's arrival in Southern France, the men were forced into labor battalions. Determined to arrange his family’s escape, Oscar used bribery to flee to Marseilles. He and Harry were ultimately caught by the French police in late 1942 and were sent to a work camp. Upon their release, Harry joined the French Underground and Oscar went into hiding.

"My mother became desperate and went down to the river attempting suicide by jumping off the bridge," Max says as you can literally see his memory take him back to late 1942. "She was taken to a local hospital and then transferred to St. Marie, a Catholic psychiatric hospital. I offer thanks to Dr. Pierre Doussinet, a righteous gentile, who kept her in the hospital after treatment. Had she been released, she would surely have been arrested by the French police and sent to a concentration camp."

Even though the punishment would be death, many Gentiles saved Jews during the Holocaust. They were people who decided to make a difference because it was the right thing to do.

Young Max and his family were aided during and after the war by Mrs. Decoux, a wealthy Parisian Gentile. Her first name has long been forgotten. When Max’s father could no longer hide in her basement, Mrs. Decoux helped him hide in the forest and brought him food until he was captured while attempting to escape to the Italian zone.

“My father wrote this letter to Madame Decoux,” Max says of the letter translated below. “It was censored, as you can see by the censorship stamp, so we’ve never been able to determine exactly where he was."

Letter From My Father by Becky Seitel
February 19, 1944

Dear Mrs. Decoux,

I am writing you a few words from Italy. I’m able to tell you that I’m in good health. I’m also hoping the same by you and by Mrs. Churbard. I don’t know exactly where my wife is at the present time, also Harry and Max. Be kind and transmit this letter. Do not worry about me. I have much hope we will see each other soon. I’m positive that with my friend Mazaloigne and the rest of my friends everything is well. Wishing everyone well. From a friend who is thinking often of you.


"We later learned that he was captured and taken to Auschwitz, and then Buchenwald, where he died on February 26, 1945, approximately three months short of liberation. He was only 44. Also lost were his family of seven siblings and their children, as well as thirteen of my mother’s family."

All alone during this time, young Max was sent to a series of four orphanages. When these became too dangerous, an underground Jewish agency, OSE (Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants) placed him on a remote farm in Sironne in the French Alps. Posing as a Catholic orphan, he worked for his food and lodging. After the Allies regained France in 1944, all the hidden children were gathered by the OSE in an effort to reunite them with their families.

"I was finally reunited with my mother and brother in Clermont-Ferrand where she had been living in the hospital. We learned that we were the only three survivors from the Salomon and Herzel families. We located my mother’s brother and sister in New York, and they sponsored my brother and me to come to America. We arrived on December 23, 1948. My mother joined us five years later."

The patriotic new American served four years in the U.S. Air Force, and in 1955, married Cecille Herman. The family was completed with the birth of two children, the ultimate gift to a young man who had lost so much family to the evil acts of Adolf Hitler.

Job opportunities brought Max to Birmingham where he was an executive with the Veterans Administration Medical Center. Today, he is an active member of the Alabama Holocaust Commission and the Birmingham Holocaust Education Center. He devotes countless hours each month sharing his story with junior and high school students throughout Alabama, keeping the history of the Holocaust alive, spreading the message of the death and destruction caused by hatred and bigotry.

Another passion is Lions Clubs International, the world’s largest service organization, recognized for its service to the blind and visually impaired. He is actively involved as a Lion and is District Governor of Alabama District 34-O. He was named a Melvin Jones Fellow, the Lions’ highest form of recognition for an individual’s dedication to humanitarian service in his community and in the world community.

Helping the World See by Becky Seitel
"I especially enjoy being a part of our project to recycle used eyeglasses,” says Max who helps collect glasses and delivers them to the recycling center to be sorted and sent on vision missions to Latin America.

The many pairs of glasses surrounding Max each day are a fraction of those that were stripped from Jews entering concentration camps and sent to “Aryan” Germans. Former First Lady Laura Bush, in a talk at the 10th Anniversary of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., recalled seeing a mountain of such glasses.

“What moved me the most were the thousands of eyeglasses, their lenses still smudged with tears and dirt," she said. "It struck me how vulnerable we are as humans, how many needed those glasses to see, and how many people living around the camps and around the world refused to see. We see today, we know what happened, and we will never forget.”

1 comment:

  1. Becky, you know this really touched my heart. Thanks for the write-up. As usual, it is great and makes one thankful for what we have. Love you ! Blessings !
    Rosalie Sacco