By RICK WATSON
On May 10, 1940, 10-year-old Max Herzel heard the rumbling sound of Nazi planes over his hometown of Antwerp, Belgium, and artillery shells exploding off in the distance.
Herzel’s family – his father, Oscar, a diamond cutter, his mother, Nachama, a seamstress, and his older brother, Harry – fled their home country but were scattered in their efforts to escape the Holocaust.
“The invasion by German troops of Belgium created a complete destruction of our peaceful family life,” said Herzel, a Homewood resident since 1972. “The war, besides destroying city blocks and killing a number of citizens, brought on many fears of the unknown.”
Ever since that experience, Herzel has tried to spread the word against bigotry and hatred. “I think that my wartime experiences have made me a more tolerant individual,” said Herzel. “I have greater respect for other religions, people of other races and ethnicity.” He now is dedicated to taking his message to schools, churches, social groups and other organizations.
The 1940 invasion of Belgium was only the beginning of the Herzel family ordeal. The attack caused an exodus of people seeking refuge in safer parts of Europe, and the Herzels headed toward southern France on a train. “The trip to France, which lasted seven days and nights, was the greatest nightmare I can remember,” Herzel said. “The sick and handicapped and small children suffered most.”
He said the rest of the refugees, besides living in constant fear, seemed to be able to cope with the situation. But all kinds of rumors began to spread about going to Great Britain or to France. The uncertainty caused even more stress for the refugees. Herzel noted that they were fortunate not to go to Great Britain because the ships with refugees were being bombed while at sea.
During those days on the train to France, Herzel saw a number of people dying, which left him with nightmares.
Later that month, Germany invaded France, and the French were unable to cope with all the refugees. Herzel’s family and other Jews, political prisoners, Gypsies and homosexuals were sent to an internment camp in Adge, France. “There were men with rifles and dogs,” he said. “The men and women were separated. The smaller children went with their mothers, while the older ones went with their fathers. There were no Germans there. These were the French.”
Later, the French moved the Herzels to Rivesaltes, which was considered to be a one-way ticket to German concentration camps. His father bribed some guards to allow the family and others to escape to Marseilles.
Herzel’s father and brother were arrested by French police but later released. Max’s brother joined the French Underground, and his father went into hiding.
The ordeal was too much for Herzel’s mother. She tried to commit suicide by jumping off a bridge. The attempt failed, and his mother spent the rest of the war working as a seamstress in a Catholic mental hospital under the protection of doctors there.
It was during this time that Herzel was sent to the first of a series of four orphanages. Eventually, he wound up on a farm in the French Alps where he posed as a Catholic orphan. He worked for the people who owned the farm and they helped to protect him until the war was over.
Jewish families maintained communication through a Catholic woman named Mrs. Decoux. She kept track of family members and used code to keep their whereabouts a secret from the authorities.
After the war, the Herzel family was reunited, except for his father, Oscar. He was one of thousands who perished from malnutrition, starvation and dysentery after having been forced in a death march from Auschwitz Concentration Camp to the interior of Germany. He died at Buchenwald just 23 days before the war ended.
Herzell’s father lost seven brothers and sisters and their children in the holocaust. Thirteen members of his mother’s family were lost as well.
The Herzel family immigrated to America in 1948. He became a citizen and later he served in the U.S. Air Force. In February 1972, Herzel moved to Homewood to take a job with Birmingham Veterans Administration Medical Center, and he retired as the Executive Assistant to the Chief of Staff at BVAMC in June of 1994.
Herzel said he tries to live a respectful life and that he is most appreciative of living in this country. He also said that Alabama has been good to him and his family. “We feel blessed by living in Homewood,” he said. “It is a warm and welcoming community.”
Herzel feels that with the socio-political landscape in the world today, it is still possible for atrocities to occur. He points to a Revisionist Movement that claims that the Holocaust and other historical events never occurred. Revisionists seem to discount personal accounts, photographs of holocaust victims, and film of allied troops liberating death camps, but this evidence is hard to ignore. “We must be aware and remain vigilant not to allow it to happen again,” Herzel said.