It was May, 1940. The German army had invaded Belgium, and Herzel’s Jewish family — mother, father and brother — fled from their home in Antwerp.
They traveled seven days and night in a crowded boxcar before arriving in Southern France — only to be captured and sent to a pair of French internment camps — first Agde and then later Rivesaltes, which served as a pipeline to the concentration camps in Poland, where millions of Jews were murdered in the gas chambers and ovens of Auschwitz.
“My father saw the writing on the wall,” Hertz remembered. “When we got to the camp, there was no barbed wire around it. The men and women were separated, but you could go from place to place.
“But when they started putting up the barbed wire, my father said, ‘We’re going to escape.’
“They didn’t have enough guards to watch us all, so they used prisoners to guard some of us, and he got to know some of them, and bribed our escape from there.
“If it weren’t for those bribes, we would’ve died.”
That is just one part of Herzel’s emotionally stirring story of survival, which he will share on Thursday as part of Jacksonville State University’s 30th annual Holocaust Remembrance.
Max Herzel, his mother and older brother were among the lucky ones. They survived.
The family scattered after their escape from the internment camp. His mother spent the war in a psychiatric hospital. His brother joined the French underground and later the French army.
Herzel’s father, Oscar, a diamond cutter by trade, was forced into hiding. He was eventually captured and taken first to Auschwitz, then to Buchewald, where he died at the age of 44, six weeks before Liberation.
Separated from his family, young Max Herzel was placed in several Jewish orphanages before changing his name and “pretending to be a good Christian boy” who hid out in the French Alps and worked on a farm.
“I was always worried,” Herzel said. “I worried all the time that someone would find out that I was a Jew and that my life would be in danger.”
Herzel spoke at length recently about his memories of the Holocaust:
What were some of your early memories of growing up in Antwerp?
I grew up in a normal family in Belgium, surrounded by uncles, aunts and cousins. When the holidays came, we visited each other. We all lived within walking distance. We were a very religious family. I went to a Jewish day school for four years, and was there when the war broke out. My early years were very normal years … the same as any other child. I felt very loved.
Before the war, what was life like for Jews in Antwerp?
We lived in a mixed neighborhood, meaning we had all kinds of religions and nationalities. ... I didn’t feel any anti-Semitism, and I don’t remember my parents talking about it. We were just so involved with our family and our faith, if there was any it didn’t really affect us. Ours was a peaceful place. Life was good.
You were 10 years old when the war broke out.
I remember it vividly. … I don’t remember what I ate for breakfast, but I remember that. The entire family was broken up, traveling, the war itself — so many causalities. It became a part of life at that time. But I thought, in the beginning, it was just a military operation, as most of the people at that time felt — that it was just an invasion by a foreign country. Nobody could have imagined what would take place … among the Jews.
But then the Germans invaded Belgium and your family was forced to flee.
This mass of humanity was terrible. The pushing and the shoving and the crying. Our lives were completely disrupted.
Ultimately you were separated from the rest of your family. Your mother collapsed and was placed in a psychiatric hospital. How did you end up in a Jewish orphanage?
The rabbi called a social worker, who placed me in a Jewish orphanage, which was, amazingly, allowed to operate openly — at least for a short time. But the vise on the Jews kept getting tighter and tighter, and they knew it wouldn’t be long before they came for the children. When it got to be so bad, they started putting us in Christian homes. So when these orphanages were no longer allowed to operate openly, the organizations taught us how to pretend to be little Christian boys and girls. Most of the girls were placed in convents. They gave us new names and taught us all about the Catholic religion. We’d go to mass and everything, but we always worried we’d be caught.
What was it like to have to hide your own faith?
It was like living under a mask. You had to be very quiet, to blend in and not be noticed. You didn’t want anybody to pay any attention to you.
How did you end up working on a farm in the French Alps?
They told this farmer that I was on public assistance. They were happy to take us in, because they needed workers. I’d guess that most of the men around there were either fighting or in prison camps. In the summer months of 1944-45, the agricultural work was taking place, and they were glad to get another pair of young hands and a healthy back to bring in the harvest.
Many Jews were helped by non-Jews — including your father, who survived for a while by hiding in a woman’s basement before he was captured. How has that shaped your view of humanity?
I’m much more tolerant and respectful of other people and other faiths, because I’ve seen it. I’ve seen what other people can do for one another for no reason other than kindness.
How did you learn that your father had died in the Buchenwald death camp?
Right after the war … you just can’t imagine. Everyone was trying to find out about their loved ones, and there were offices set up on just about every block. We went to the International Red Cross and they researched it. It took them about six or seven years to find out all the details. …Those Germans were so meticulous. We have his tattoo number, and what we learned from the Red Cross was that on Feb. 26, 1945, which was about 90 days before the end of the war, he perished from malnutrition and heart failure in Buchenwald.
What happened to all the family members from Antwerp that you grew up with?
The rest of my family — aunts, uncles, cousins — 13 of them, completely disappeared off the face of the earth. They were sent from Belgium and France to Auschwitz, where they were all killed.
What kind of lasting impact has your survival had on you?
I am trying, in my small way, to bring peace to this Earth. I would love to leave this world in better shape than it is now, and if by telling my story I can do that … even in a small way. It breaks my heart and brings back too many memories to see all these terrible things still happening in places like Rwanda. It’s all so useless, that cancerous hatred.
How do you prepare for your lectures?
The night before, you don’t get much sleep, and the day and night afterward, your system is in an uproar. My wife says I’m unbearable to live with those days, and she’s right.
It took me a very long time to get comfortable in reliving these things — and that’s really what you do, you re-live them — and I feel like I’ve been dissected from head to toe, with everything exposed.
We (survivors) are mostly private people, who don’t want the world to know every detail of our lives. But that’s what it’s like to go and speak to the public; you open yourself wide.
It’s not that anybody’s mean, but it’s painful. But there is something in me that says — “You’ve got to tell the story, because there are so many who are no longer around to tell it.”
We tell it for those … those who disappeared, those who died. For them, we’ll go through the pain of telling these stories.
What: 30th annual Jacksonville State University Holocaust Remembrance with survivor Max Herzel
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday
Where: Stone Center Theater, Jacksonville State University
For more info: www.jsu.edu/holocaust